Health, Human Rights Leaders Call Attention to Vulnerable Populations: Meeting Sessions Highlight Right to Health

By Johnson, Teddi Dineley | The Nation's Health, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Health, Human Rights Leaders Call Attention to Vulnerable Populations: Meeting Sessions Highlight Right to Health


Johnson, Teddi Dineley, The Nation's Health


Not far from the spot where "the shot heard 'round the world" launched the nation's first effort to protect fundamental human rights, 13,000 public health workers convened in Boston in November to tell the world that health is a fundamental right of every human being.

Health and human rights took center stage at APHA's 134th Annual Meeting, where presenters talked frankly about challenges and successes, violations and disparities, and called on public health professionals around the world to join in creating programs and partnerships that will accomplish the goal of bringing the highest attainable standard of health and well-being to every man, woman and child on the planet.

The human rights landscape, long punctuated by war and conflict, is changing to reflect a world where preventable diseases, health disparities and poverty claim more lives--and present perhaps greater threats to human dignity-than war and repression. To be sure, war and conflict continue to plague many communities, but the right to health is critical to strategies to end violence, said Alicia Ely Yamin, JD, MPH, director of research investigations for Physicians for Human Rights. The organization, a co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, mobilizes health professionals to advance health, dignity and justice and promotes the right to health for everybody.

The public health field has long recognized and documented the various health impacts of armed conflict, "but it is only recently that the human rights field has addressed the effects of conflict on the right to health," said Yamin.

"The overwhelming preponderance of documentation is related to atrocities --killings, rapes, torture and the like--classic violations of civil and political rights and international humanitarian law," Yamin said during a session titled "Human Rights Strategies to End Violence."

During her presentation, Yamin pointed to two recent events that suggest a shift in the human rights landscape. First, in his recent joint report on the Lebanon conflict to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Paul Hunt, special rapporteur on the right to health, discussed the impact of the damage to medical facilities and lack of access to care, coupled with the shortages of fuel, power, water and supplies on service delivery in the aftermath of the conflict. Also, a recent report issued by Physicians for Human Rights on conditions in Darfur, Sudan, highlighted the obliteration of the means of survival, including many components of the right to health, in three villages, Yamin said.

Focusing on the right to health underscores that human beings do not live --or enjoy rights--in isolation, Yamin told The Nation's Health, "but are deeply embedded in physical, psychological, cultural and social environments--habitats. The right to health is integral to preserving those habitats."

Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948, guarantees more than just basic civil liberties.

"It speaks about the right to security, the right to employment, the right to education, the right to be treated with dignity and respect, and in the broadest perspective, if those areas are not being met, there is no way an individual or a community can be healthy," said C. Alicia Georges, EdD, RN, FAAN, chair of the Department of Nursing at Lehman College, City University of New York, during a session titled "Human Rights Violations in Health."

Schools and programs that train health professionals must emphasize and teach cultural differences and diversity, Georges said, noting that U.S. policy must clearly go against anybody who violates the human rights of people in the health care system.

"We cannot be blase or do business as usual, because the people affected most are the most vulnerable in our population, the ones who are voiceless, and we need to speak for them," she said. …

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Health, Human Rights Leaders Call Attention to Vulnerable Populations: Meeting Sessions Highlight Right to Health
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