Right to Health

Right to Health: An Inclusive Right for All

The World Medical Association (WMA) is committed to protecting and promoting the right to health in an inclusive manner. This includes essential aspects such as the availability of quality and affordable health services, safe environment and working conditions, adequate housing and nutritious food.

The Right to Health: A Human Right Enshrined in International Human Rights Law

The right to health was first articulated in the WHO Constitution (1946) which states that: “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being…”. The preamble of the Constitution defines health as: “.. a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights mentioned health as part of the right to an adequate standard of living (article 25). It was again recognised as a human right in 1966 in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 12:

“1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for:

(a) The provision for the reduction of the stillbirth-rate and of infant mortality and for the healthy development of the child;

(b) The improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene;

(c) The prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases;

(d) The creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.”

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a body composed of independent experts in charge of monitoring the implementation of the Covenant, provided a broad interpretation of article 12 of the Covenant (General Comments No.2014):

The right to health is an inclusive right, extending not only to timely and appropriate health care, but also to the underlying determinants of health, such as access to safe and potable water and adequate sanitation, healthy occupational and environmental conditions, and access to health-related education and information, including on sexual and reproductive health (Paragraph 11).

The right to health is relevant to all States: every State has ratified at least one international human rights treaty that recognises the right to health.

Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health

In 2002, the Human Rights Council created the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Special Rapporteurs are independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The Council appointed Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng as Special Rapporteur on the right to health in July 2020. Ms. Mofokeng is a medical doctor with expertise advocating for universal health access, HIV care, youth friendly services and family planning..

There are other UN Special Procedures that have a direct or indirect link to health. The rights covered include (without being exhaustive): the right to education, the right to water and sanitation, the right to food or the right to adequate housing.  Similarly, for populations particularly exposed to human rights abuses, a special rapporteur is appointed. This is the case for women, children, migrants, persons with disabilities and LGBT people.