Every Human Has Rights!

Over the past 8 years, Nicholas Marshall Cooper has been actively involved in making the connection between human rights and health, and translating public health science into rights-based action.  This post is a continuation of the conversation we started with Cooper in October,”Great Things Are Possible.”

As a consultant to UNICEF’s Middle East and North Africa Regional Office and as a child protection officer in Haiti, Cooper has seen, first hand, the importance of the central tenets of the human rights approach:  empowerment and accountability.

Presently Cooper is a humanitarian researcher at the FXB Center for Health and Human at Harvard University. He started our conversation with a basic definition of human rights, “Human rights are freedoms and entitlements afforded to people purely on the basis of being human,” he says.

According to Cooper, all countries have signed at least one human rights treaty.  After signing a treaty, the country has to pass a law that ratifies the treaty.  This is how human rights agreements become national obligations.

“Human rights have both rights-holders (every person) and duty-bearers (countries, as they are the ones that sign HR treaties)  Human rights approaches seek respect, protection, and promotion of human rights by empowering rights-holders and duty-bearers to claim and advocate for their rights (rights-holders) and respect, protect, and promote fulfill (duty-bearers).,”Cooper states.

Viewing heath from a human rights perspective changes the strategies used in health communication, health education, policy and program design.  “Human rights approaches change the focus from “do this” to “you have a right to this, here’s how to claim it, and we’ll help you do it,” Cooper explains.   Participation is the difference.  It’s not a top-down approach but it involves letting countries (the duty bearers) know what they should be doing. Because of this, “Human rights approaches would, therefore, change both the message itself and to whom the message is directed : …and the desired outcome.” With regard to health communication, these are important changes to the message and the audience.

With regard to policy, the human rights approach concentrates on those who are the most vulnerable. Policies created using this approach would focus on “promoting awareness, meeting needs and enforcing compliance,” says Cooper.

Confusion seems to occur when discussing rights and health.  “There is no right to healthcare, but there is a right to health,” Cooper says.  The United States has ratified a declaration of human rights, (Article 25 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), which means that the US has made a commitment to create legislation which fulfills this right.  For example, access to affordable care of a high quality is part of the right to health.  “The government DOES have a duty to respect, protect, and PROMOTE health,” explains Cooper.

Under the rights framework we have both freedoms and responsibilities.  Suppose you are a smoker.  “While you are free to smoke, you are not free to give somebody cancer.  Giving someone cancer would mean that you were violating their right to health (maybe life).”  What if your child got lung cancer from second-hand smoke? “Under the rights framework, your child would be able to seek restitution from you for giving them cancer.”

Human rights provides a framework for advocacy.  In this case, smoking bans PROTECT the right to health of the child, while PROMOTING health generally.  Cooper adds, “hough human rights themselves are conceptually apolitical, their articulation isn’t. Nor are the policies and programs to meet them.”

Programs built from a human rights perspective might simply inform people of their rights. Others might provide legal service.  “A program must never violate rights itself. This is non-negotiable, as rights cannot be “traded off” against each other The guiding principle for non-governmental. organizations is capacity building, of both the rights-holder and duty-bearer,” Cooper affirms.

The ultimate goal of human rights is that everyone “has the ability …to live with their rights fulfilled and protected… As RIGHTS, they are not things that can be disputed. You have them because you are human.”


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