Right to health

What is the right to health?

It may seem that the right to health is the right to be healthy. This is incorrect – a state cannot realistically guarantee that everyone will be healthy.

The constitution of the World Health Organisation defines it as:

[T]he enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health

It includes: 

  • the right to control one’s health and body
  • the right to be free from torture, non-consensual medical treatment or experimentation
  • access to the healthcare system
  • the right to the prevention, treatment and control of diseases
  • access to essential medicine
  • the right to participate in health-related decision-making

note The notion of ‘health’ includes both the physical and mental state of a person. 

Who protects this right?

As the State is the main guarantor of human rights, it must take steps towards the realisation of this right. 

More specifically, the State has three types of obligations:

1. The obligation to respect means that the State should not violate or interfere with this right. Thus, among others, the following conduct is prohibited:

  • discrimination in access to healthcare
  • marketing of unsafe medicines
  • applying forceful medical treatments
  • limiting access to contraceptives
  • censoring or not providing health-related information

2. The obligation to protect means that the State should prevent violations by other parties. It includes: 

  • adopting legislation that ensures access to healthcare for everyone
  • controlling marketing in the medical sphere
  • ensuring that medical professionals are properly educated and licenced
  • protecting vulnerable and marginalised groups
  • preventing harmful traditional and social practices

3. The obligation to fulfil requires the State to adopt a set of measures to ensure the realisation of this right. It includes:

  • adopting a detailed national health policy
  • providing a sufficient number of health facilities (e.g. hospitals)
  • establishing a health insurance system
  • promoting medical research and education
  • raising awareness on pressing issues (e.g., HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, abuse of alcohol, etc.)  

What if the State does not have sufficient resources? 

The obligation to ensure the right to health applies to States with varying economic backgrounds. The State should, however, comply with its core obligations:

  • To ensure access to healthcare without discrimination
  • To ensure access to a minimum of food with adequate nutritional value 
  • To ensure basic shelter, housing and sanitation
  • To provide essential drugs
  • To adopt a national public health strategy

How can it be determined whether the right is being observed properly?

The right to health has four key characteristics: 

1. Availability: public health services, facilities and goods must be available in sufficient quantity.    

2. Accessibility: public health services, facilities and goods must be accessible to everyone. 

An example of physical accessibility is a hospital at a reasonable distance from a person’s home. An example of economic accessibility is the affordable price of the medical service or a discount for people with low income. 

3. Acceptability: public health services, facilities and goods must be culturally and religiously appropriate, as well as observing medical ethics. 

4. Quality: public health services, facilities and goods must attain a sufficiently high standard. This includes properly trained personnel, medicine that has undergone scientific checks and has not expired, working hospital equipment, etc. 

International recognition of this right

Health is important for everyone: when an individual’s physical and mental state is protected and respected, it allows the enjoyment of other human rights. The idea that the concept of human dignity also includes an individual’s overall well-being during the ordinary course of life was already recognised in the late 1940s. 

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides in Article 25(1) that: 

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

This right - alone or in combination with other rights - is also found in all the most important international and regional human rights conventions.

In context

Sources

Last updated 21/03/2024