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December 19, 2004

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Health and human rights: an inextricable linkage

A H M Kishowar Hossain

Human rights and public health are two complementary approaches. Human rights approach seeks to describe and then to promote and protect the societal-level prerequisites for human well being in which each individual can achieve his or her full potential.

Modern human rights are a historic effort to identify and agree upon what governments should not do to people and what they should assure to all. While there is a long history to human rights thinking, agreement was reached that all people are "born free and equal in dignity and rights" when the promotion of human rights was identified as a principal purpose of the United Nations in 1945. Then, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted as a universal or common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.

The preamble to the Universal Declaration proposes that human rights and dignity are self-evident, the "highest aspiration of the common people," and "the foundation of freedom, justice and peace." "Social progress and better standards of life in large freedom" including the prevention of "barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind" and broadly speaking, individual and groups are considered to depend upon the "promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights." These rights inhere in individuals because they are human. They apply to all people around the world.

The specific rights that form the corpus of human rights law are listed in several key documents. These are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), United Nations Charter (UN Charter), the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Although the UDHR is not a legally binding document, nations have endowed it with great legitimacy through their actions.

Since 1948, the promotion and protection of human rights have received increased attention from communities and nations around the world. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize for human rights work to Amnesty International and to Ms. Rigoberta Menchu symbolises this extraordinary level of contemporary interest and concern with human rights.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not the absence of disease or infirmity. It highlights the importance of health promotion as the process of enabling people to increase control over and to improve their health.

Around the world, health care is provided through many diverse public and private mechanisms. The responsibilities of public health are carried out in large measure through policies and programs promulgated, implemented and enforced by or with support from the state.

The first main function of public health is to assess health needs and problems. In response to first function, it is said that a state's failure to recognise or acknowledge health problems that preferentially affect a marginalised or stigmatised group may violate the right to non-discrimination by leading to neglect of necessary services and in so doing may adversely affect the realisation of other rights, including the right to "security in the event f sickness or disability" or to the special care and assistance to which mothers and children are entitled (UDHR, Article 25).

The second major task of public health is to develop policies to prevent and control priority health problems. If a government refuses to disclose the scientific basis of health policy or permit debate on its merits or in other ways refuses to inform and involve the public in policies development, the rights to seek, receive and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers (UDHR, Article 19) and to take part in the government directly or through freely chosen representatives (UDHR, Article 21) may be violated.

The third core function of public health, to assure services capable of realising policy goals, is also closely linked with the right to non-discrimination. When health social services do not take logistic, financial and socio-cultural barriers to their access and enjoyment into account, international or uninternational discrimination may readily occur. For example, in clinics for maternal and child health, details such as hours of service, accessibility via public transportation and availability of day care may strongly and adversely influence service utilisation.

In conclusion, it can be said that without human rights people and their communities cannot be fully healthy. Securing health rights are to promote the human rights. So securing human rights and meeting health related needs constitute the critical step in addressing global health problems.

The author is an Assistant Professor, Department of Population Sciences, University of Dhaka, Dhaka.
Photo: AFP

2004: International year to commemorate the struggle against slavery

The slave trade is probably the human tragedy that affected the greatest number of people for the longest period of time in history. However, it is only an episode of slavery, which is a larger phenomenon that dates back to the earliest antiquity.

Today, it persists under new forms of massive violations of the human rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations in 1948 (child labour, forced labour, prostitution...etc).

The proclamation by the United Nations General Assembly of the year 2004 as international year to commemorate the struggle against slavery and its abolition marks, on the one hand, the bicentenary of the proclamation of the first black state, Haiti, symbol of the struggle and resistance of slaves, and triumph of the principles of liberty, equality, dignity and the rights of the individual, and, on the other, the fraternal reunion of the peoples of Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe.

The aims of the commemoration are to:
Sensitize the member states of the organization to the consequences of slavery and its abolition throughout the African diaspora, and take cognizance of the struggle for the liberation of the peoples concerned;

Commemorate the bicentenary of the Haitian revolution which led to the establishment of the first black republic in the western hemisphere, and, by extension, to the liberation of the peoples of the Caribbean and Latin America from slavery;

Mobilize the international community, the academic world and civil society towards helping to promote a culture of peace in redressing the aftermath of this tragedy, in order to prevent new forms of slavery.

UNESCO's action in 2004 will hinge on a number of priority thrusts adopting an inter-sectoral, multidisciplinary and inter-institutional approach pinpointing in particular the "Slave Route" project with the following principal axes: historic truth, memory, intercultural dialogue, development and peace. It is in this regard that the commemoration is of universal interest, it will not simply refer to the past, but will give a clear view of the present, offering lasting prospects of intercultural dialogue in the future.

Source: UNESCO website.

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