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NEW YORK, Dec 5 2005 (IPS) - The 10th of December is the International Human Rights Day. Anniversaries should be about celebration. But this Human Rights Day is, tragically, yet another reminder of how far we are from living up to the commitments made by the world\’s governments to ensure a life of dignity for all people, writes Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland (1990-1997) and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002) and current chair of Realising Rights: the Ethical Globalisation Initiative. In this analysis, Robinson writes that despite the increased attention paid this year to combating extreme poverty around the world, the fundamental right to health remains unfulfilled for millions of people today — not only those suffering from diseases like HIV/AIDS but also those without access to clean water, adequate food, or a reliable health system. Health is not a side issue: it is key to the most basic of the rights the world now agrees should be guaranteed. Health underpins the right to life, the right to security, and the right to a sustainable livelihood.
The year 2005 continued a worrying trend, evident since 2001, of a retreat on human rights standards around the world. As threats of terrorism continued, governments justified restrictions on such fundamental rights as freedom from torture and freedom of expression. The assessment made by the global governance initiative of the World Economic Forum, just published, notes the decline in human rights in 2005 and gives a depressing score of two out of ten. Meanwhile future generations will surely condemn today’s political leaders for their abject failure to halt the terrible violations of human rights in Darfur — an event which is no longer even a story of interest to the media.
Despite the increased attention paid this year to combating extreme poverty around the world, the fundamental right to health remains unfulfilled for millions of people today — not only those suffering from diseases like HIV/AIDS but also those without access to clean water, adequate food, or a reliable health system.
Health is not a side issue: it is key to the most basic of the rights the world now agrees should be guaranteed. Health underpins the right to life, the right to security, and the right to a sustainable livelihood.
How can we say to an African mother that she has the right to live and the right to freedom when the boundaries of her life are rigidly set by the fact that her children have a one-in-ten chance of dying before reaching five, that she herself has a life expectancy of less than forty years? Similarly, what use is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stating that every child should be protected and enabled to ”develop physically, morally, spiritually, and socially in a healthy and normal manner”? Explain that to the 37 million children who go without the basic vaccines that could so easily prevent their premature deaths. Why are we so unashamed by the silent tsunami that takes the lives of 10 million children under five each year with sheer hunger or diseases that are preventable?
It is time to bridge the gulf between promises and those realities. My organisation, Realising Rights: the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, has just launched an appeal on the Right to Health. It has been backed already by two former American presidents, a host of ex-Prime Ministers, Nobel Peace Prize winners, and other notables, like Bono of U2. Now we hope to get other important voices signed up — those of ordinary people across the world who care about human rights and about the importance of health. Quite simply, our call says that health is not just a blessing but a right that should be fought for — a right which governments the world over have guaranteed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights: ”to the highest attainable standard of health”. It is not a ”right to be healthy”, nor does it mean governments must put in place expensive health services beyond available public resources. But it does mean governments must take action. It means better targeting money that is spent on health issues in the developing world, where health delivery systems are broken.
Supporting the right to health comes down to a matter of priorities. We must work to promote access to clean water, health care, adequate nutrition and sanitation with a particular emphasis on reaching women and girls. We must invest in strong health delivery systems and make sure that health care decisions are made accountably. We must support low-income countries in their efforts to bring decent health care to their peoples. This is the primary responsibility of governments to their own people. But the role of rich nations, to increase and better coordinate policies and aid spending, is also vital.
And we must call on all governments to sign and implement the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights which makes the right to health an international legal obligation to be progressively realised at the national level. The Covenant has been ratified by 151 countries. It will be 30 years old next year: it is time its pledges became action. Let’s learn from the approach of courageous health ministers like Charity Kaluki Ngilu of Kenya, who committed to abolishing health service user fees for all Kenyans. Making a commitment to universal health insurance in a country where 56 percent of the population lives below the poverty line may seem unrealistic. But Charity was doing what human rights defenders have done for ages: establishing the fact that a right exists, then demanding that societies take action.
That means governments accepting their responsibilities and following through with legislation, good policies, and adequate resources. It means people demanding equal treatment in access to public services and more transparency in how public funds are spent. It means each of us standing up for our rights and the rights of others.
On this Human Rights Day, let us commit to making the right to health a reality for all people. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)
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