“Great Things Are Possible”

Ask a scholar of human rights a seemingly innocuous question and suddenly you are transported into another world.  As Nicholas Cooper observes,  “People in United States are more familiar with civil rights language, than human rights language.”  That’s what you’ll find while exchanging ideas with Cooper.  For example, when asked to define a “rights-based approach to health,” Cooper has a ready answer:

Human rights-based approaches broaden “development” to include agency, empowerment, and duties. Human rights approaches identify duty holders (principally states) and duty bearers (all people).  They seek change by empowering rights holders to seek, advocate, and get their freedoms and entitlements…and empower duty bearers to respect, promote, and fulfill those rights. “

Okay, lost me.  Start out with the basics.  So Cooper backtracks.  “If I have a right to health, others have an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill that right…If I have a right to freedom of religion, others have a duty (or obligation) not to violate that right.”

That makes sense.  Viewing health from a human rights perspective changes the strategies used in health communication, health education, policy and program design.  Over the past 8 years, Nicholas M. Cooper has been actively involved in making the connection between human rights and health, and translating public health science into rights-based action.

This language barrier and the lack of knowledge of human rights law leads to many missed opportunities.  “We need people who can speak both languages, and who have a willingness to act,” Cooper explains.
Human rights are derived from international and national law, legislation and treaties.  “Health is definitely a human right established by the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social, and Political Rights Article 12, among others,” Cooper explains.  From this perspective, Cooper has acted as a Consultant for UNICEF in the Middle East, an International Program Development Participant in India and most recently as Child Protection Officer after the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010.

According to the World Health Organization, the right to health does not mean that everyone must be healthy, but it does compel governments to create conditions so that everyone can be as healthy as possible.  Cooper clarifies, “The right to health … includes the determinants of health.  Food, water, housing, etc.  As the preamble to the WHO Constitution says, ‘health is not merely the absence of disease.’”

So, if health is a human right, how do we assure that it is respected?  By “empowering people to claim the right, empowering others to respect, protect, and fulfill those rights,” Cooper explains.  “The human rights approach is about capacity building.” In other words, the human rights approach is about teaching everyone, those in and outside of government about their basic rights.  “So, a human rights approach would, say, give people the information, tools, and processes to recognize and act on human rights, “says Cooper.

At Harvard’s Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, his work has focused on the protection of children and youth using human rights and sustainable livelihoods approach.  This approach focuses not only on addressing risk and vulnerability, but also on providing developmental supports and opportunities that are protective and promote success and resilience.

 In the United States there has been a long discussion about affordable care.  But from a human rights perspective it is clear. “Affordable care is essential to have a fair society.  The US does have an obligation, especially given its capacity to do it. But, US judges also don’t know how to handle human rights law,” Cooper observes.    At the FXB Center there are courses available to teach judges and  lawyers about human rights law.

According to Cooper, the human rights approach is about giving people the information, tools, and processes to recognize and act on human rights.  “Talk about Human Rights  in education campaigns, talk about them to a hospital administrator, make budgets based on Human Rights.”

“Too often, public health science ends with a journal article, not action.  There needs to be follow up and implementation.  There is so much we know, but so little is implemented,” Cooper insists.  That’s why Cooper acts by conducting water and sanitation education, instructing on malaria and HIV/AIDS transmission, and exploring how new technologies can be used to identify need and deliver assistance in humanitarian and development settings.  And he wants others to act.   “Great things are possible; how do we get there with what we have? Human rights exist (in law). Global health issues exist. You are affected. See and act.”

A diagram on health and human rights can be found at http://www.who.int/hhr/HHR%20linkages.pdf

Based on twitter chat held on October 1, 2012.  Full transcript can be found at #hchlitss The Health Communication, Health Literacy and Social Sciences Tweetchat

More information on Nicholas Cooper can be found on LinkedIn.

For more information on the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights click this link.


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