Health and Human Rights

Human rights

WHO Constitution: "the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being..."

Every country in the world is now party to at least one human rights treaty that addresses health-related rights. This includes the right to health as well as other rights that relate to conditions necessary for health.
The role of the Health and Human Rights Team is to:
  • Strengthen the capacity of WHO and its Member States to integrate a human rights-based approach to health.

  • Advance the right to health in international law and international development processes.

  • Advocate for health-related human rights.
For an overview of WHO's work in health and human rights, click here [pdf 234kb]


      Human rights are universal legal guarantees protecting individuals and groups against actions that interfere with fundamental freedoms and human dignity. Some of the most important characteristics of human rights are that they:
  • guaranteed by international standards;
  • are legally protected;
  • focus on the dignity of the human being;
  • oblige states and state actors;
  • cannot be waived or taken away;
  • are interdependent and interrelated; and
  • are universal.
Source: The United Nations system and human rights: guidelines and information for the Resident Coordinator System, March 2000

Health is a fundamental human right. The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being was enshrined in WHO’s constitution over 60 years ago. The right to health is also recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and a number of other international instruments. All countries in South-East Asia have ratified at least two international human rights treaties which recognize the right to health, and many also recognize this right in their constitutions.
Human rights are an overarching and cross-cutting principle that is relevant to all public health work. As a specialized agency of the United Nations, WHO has an obligation to address human rights across all areas of its work to ensure that its public health guidance is not only consistent with, but also promotes and reinforces, the human rights obligations of its member countries.
Why are human rights important in the context public health?
*      Human rights violations or lack of attention to human rights can have serious health consequences. For example harmful traditional practices and torture and violence against women and children can have direct negative health impact.  Discrimination of certain population groups, for instance by denying their access to health care or to information or education, is also likely to have wide-ranging negative health implications.
*      Realization of human rights reduces vulnerability to ill-health. For instance by improving gender equality, ensuring rights to education, information, access to water, housing and other under-lying determinants of health people’s potential to live healthier lives can be enhanced.
*      Health policies and programmes can promote or violate human rights in the ways they are implemented and designed. For instance insurance schemes that do not cover mental health or offer lower coverage for mental health services violate the right to health as they are discriminatory and create economic barriers to accessing mental health services.  Including ethnic minorities in the planning of a health programme would have a positive influence on the realization of human rights by improving their right to participation and freedom from discrimination.
WHO’s human rights objectives and activities

*     WHO SEARO’s human rights advocacy aims to:
A rights-based approach to health assesses and addresses the human rights implications of health policies and programmes, and integrates human rights in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of health policies and programmes.
WHO supports countries to build their capacities to design and implement health policies and programmes that enhance health equity and integrate pro-poor, gender-responsive, and human rights-based approaches.
*     promote health-related human rights in South-East Asian countries;
*     facilitate understanding of the human rights-based approach among WHO’s national counterparts in South-East Asia;
*     promote understanding and relevance of human rights to national health policies and programs;

*     WHO’s human rights activities in South-East Asia include:
*     facilitating orientation and trainings on health and human rights to ministries of health, national human rights commissions and other stakeholders;
*     providing technical assistance on human rights to health programming;
*     developing human rights advocacy material;
*     commissioning research on health and human rights topics.

Examples of the links between health and human rights

Human  rights are an internationally agreed upon set of principles and norms adopted at international and regional levels. Many international instruments refer to the right to health or health-related rights. Promoting and protecting health and respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights are inextricably linked:
  • Violations or lack of attention to human rights (e.g. harmful traditional practices, slavery, inhuman and degrading treatment, and violence against women) can have serious health consequences;
  • Health policies and programs can promote or violate human rights in their design or implementation (e.g. freedom from discrimination, rights to participation, privacy and information);
  • Vulnerability to ill health can be reduced by taking steps to respect, protect and fulfil human rights (e.g. freedom from discrimination on account of ethnicity, sex and social status and the rights to food and nutrition, water, education and adequate housing).
In light of the linkages between health and human rights, it is more and more important to increase awareness and to have an added systematic application of human rights to a range of public health challenges. In this context, the right to health is an important tool that can be used to tackle health inequalities.


Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.

  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

  • Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

  • No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

  • No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

  • Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

  • All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

  • Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.


Article 10.

  • Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

  • (1) Everyone charged with a penal offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.
  • (2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offense on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offense, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offense was committed.

Article 12.

  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  • (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
  • (2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
  • (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.

  • (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  • (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  • (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
  • (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
  • (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
  • (2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
  • (3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.

  • Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  • (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  • (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  • (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

  • Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

  • (1) 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.
  • (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  • (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  • (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.


Article 27.

  • (2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
  • (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Article 28.

  • Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.

  • (1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
  • (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
  • (3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
Article 30.
  • Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.


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