The Right to Health in International Law by John Tobin

Melbourne Journal of International Law, June 2013 | Go to article overview

The Right to Health in International Law by John Tobin


THE RIGHT TO HEALTH IN INTERNATIONAL LAW BY JOHN TOBIN (OXFORD, UK: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2012) 440 PAGES. PRICE 74.00 [pounds sterling] (HARDBACK) ISBN 9780199603299.

Over the past several decades, the right to health has gained greater visibility as a potential tool for improving health outcomes. A number of factors, including political developments and global threats to public health, have played an important role in fostering a strong interest within various sectors in understanding and utilising the right to health to promote the well-being of individuals and populations. (1) While the amount of scholarship on the right to health has grown over the years, John Tobin's book The Right to Health in International Law stands as a valuable addition as it constitutes an ambitious, careful, critical and objective assessment of our current understanding of the international right to health and its implementation.

In September 2000, the international community formed a new global partnership committed to reducing extreme poverty by 2015, establishing a platform for what have come to be known as the eight Millennium Development Goals ('MDGs'). (2) Six of the eight have direct implications for health. (3) The United Nations Millennium Declaration ('Millennium Declaration') therefore signifies global recognition of the importance of health in the lives of the more than seven billion people currently living in the world. There is an express recognition of 'a collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level' and states' duties to 'all the world's people, especially the most vulnerable'. (4) This focus on health underscores the need for a tool that effectively addresses the health needs of individuals and populations across the world.

While human rights prominently appear in the Millennium Declaration, (5) only light references are made to them in the MDGs themselves. (6) Indeed, the MDGs were drafted as a global development agenda rather than a human rights agenda. (7) Nevertheless, 'human rights and the MDGs are clearly linked and constitute shared global commitments' (8) and there has been widespread recognition of the obvious overlap in interest between human rights and the MDGs. (9) Moreover, in light of the fast-approaching deadline for meeting the MDGs and the ongoing international campaign for a Framework Convention on Global Health ('FCGH'), (10) Tobin's interpretation and analysis of the right to health becomes particularly valuable. For one, the establishment of a post-2015 development agenda and the international community's preoccupation with the post-MDG era provides an opportunity to better define state obligations under the international right to health with respect to achieving the successors to the MDGs.

Similarly, the aims of a FCGH will be to 'dramatically reduce health inequities and establish a post-[MDGs] global health agenda rooted in the right to health'. (11) Moreover, the proposed FCGH is envisioned as going hand-in-hand with 'a social movement that supports the treaty and the right to health more broadly', (12) with the right to health and its principles (such as equality, accountability and empowerment) placed 'at the center of [a FCGH] agenda in ways that the MDGs did not'. (13) A FCGH is intended to 'further elaborate on the right to health, from clarifying and codifying the interpretation of this right ... to setting clearer standards for the progressive realization and maximum of available resource obligations'. (14) Therefore, as it will be shown below, Tobin's analysis is clearly relevant to the aims of a FCGH.

Taking these developments into consideration, this review focuses on those specific aspects of Tobin's analysis that should be highlighted above others for their greater significance to the field. First, this review highlights his discussion of the historical origins of the right to health. …

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