People's Stories Human Rights Today

Around the world, the right to health of millions is increasingly coming under threat
by World Health Organization (WHO)
Apr. 2024
To mark World Health Day (7 April), the World Health Organization (WHO) is running the “My health, my right” campaign to champion the right to health of everyone, everywhere.
The campaign advocates for ensuring universal access to quality health services, education, and information, as well as safe drinking water, clean air, good nutrition, quality housing, decent working and environmental conditions, and freedom from discrimination.
All around the world, the core challenges consistently compromising the right to health are political inaction coupled with a lack of accountability and funding, compounded by intolerance, discrimination and stigma.
Populations facing marginalization or vulnerability suffer the most, such as people who live in poverty, are displaced, are older or live with disabilities.
While inaction and injustice are the major drivers of the global failure to deliver on the right to health, current crises are leading to especially egregious violations of this right. Conflicts are leaving trails of devastation, mental and physical distress, and death.
The burning of fossil fuels is simultaneously driving the climate crisis and violating our right to breathe clean air. The climate crisis is in turn causing extreme weather events that threaten health and well-being across the planet and strain access to services to meet basic needs.
Everyone deserves access to quality, timely and appropriate health services, without being subjected to discrimination or financial hardship.
Yet, in 2021, 4.5 billion people, more than half of the world’s population, were not covered by essential health services, leaving them vulnerable to diseases and disasters.
Even those who do access care often suffer economically for it, with about 2 billion people facing financial hardship due to health costs, a situation that has been worsening for two decades.
To expand coverage, an additional US$ 200–328 billion a year is needed globally to scale up primary health care in low- and middle-income countries (i.e. 3.3% of national forecast GDP). Progress has shown to be possible where there is political will.
“Realizing the right to health requires governments to pass and implement laws, invest, address discrimination and be held accountable by their populations,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Realizing the highest attainable standard of health, is a fundamental right for all people, everywhere.”
The right to health is enshrined within the WHO Constitution, and at least 140 countries recognize the right to health in their national constitutions. But recognition alone is not enough, which is why WHO supports countries to legislate the right to health across sectors and integrate human rights into health policies and programmes.
The aim of this support is to make health services available, accessible and responsive to the needs of the populations they serve and to increase community participation in health decision-making.
On this World Health Day and beyond, WHO is calling for governments to make meaningful investments to scale up primary health care; to ensure transparency and accountability; and to meaningfully involve individuals and communities in decision-making around health.
Recognizing the interdependence between the right to health and other fundamental rights, the campaign includes calls to action on finance, agriculture, environment, justice, transport, labour and social affairs.
Individuals, communities and civil society have long defended their right to health, improving access to health care services by breaking down barriers and advocating for equity.
WHO urges the public to know, protect and promote their health rights, including those related to safe and quality care, zero discrimination, privacy and confidentiality, information, bodily autonomy, and decision-making.

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Protecting human rights protects us all
by Antonio Guterres
UN Secretary-General
UN Secretary-General António Guterres address to the UN Human Rights Council (Extract; 26 Feb. 2024):
Human rights are the bedrock of peace. Today, both are under attack. We meet at a time of turbulence for our world, for people, and for human rights. First and foremost, conflicts are taking a terrible toll as parties to war trample on human rights and humanitarian law.
At the local level and online, many communities are riven with violent rhetoric, discrimination and hate speech. Add to that an information war. A war on the poor. And a war on nature.
All these battles have one thing in common: they are a war on fundamental human rights. And in every case, the path to peace begins with full respect for all human rights – civil, cultural, economic, political and social, and without double standards. Because building a culture of human rights is building a world at peace.
Our world is becoming less safe by the day. After decades of stable power relations, we are transitioning into an era of multipolarity. This creates new opportunities for leadership and justice on the international stage. But multipolarity without strong multilateral institutions is a recipe for chaos. As powers compete, tensions rise.
The rule of law, and the rules of war, are being undermined. From Ukraine to Sudan to Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gaza, parties to conflict are turning a blind eye to international law, the Geneva Conventions and even the United Nations Charter.
The Security Council is often deadlocked, unable to act on the most significant peace and security issues of our time. The Council’s lack of unity on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and on Israel’s military operations in Gaza following the horrific terror attacks by Hamas on 7 October, has severely – perhaps fatally – undermined its authority. The Council needs serious reform to its composition and working methods.
Nothing can justify Hamas’s deliberate killing, injuring, torturing and kidnapping of civilians, the use of sexual violence – or the indiscriminate launching of rockets towards Israel. But nothing justifies the collective punishment of the Palestinian people. I invoked Article 99 for the first time in my mandate, to put the greatest possible pressure on the Council to do everything in its power to end the bloodshed in Gaza and prevent escalation. But it was not enough.
International Humanitarian Law remains under attack. Tens of thousands of civilians, including women and children, have been killed in Gaza. Humanitarian aid is still completely insufficient. Rafah is the core of the humanitarian aid operation, and UNRWA is the backbone of that effort. An all-out Israeli offensive on the city would not only be terrifying for more than a million Palestinian civilians sheltering there; it would put the final nail in the coffin of our aid programmes. I repeat my call for a humanitarian ceasefire and the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages.
Around the world, violence is increasing, and conflict-related human rights violations are spreading. International human rights and humanitarian law are clear: All parties must distinguish between civilians and combatants at all times. Attacks on civilians or protected infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited.
Attacks where the likelihood of civilian death is disproportionate to the probable military advantage are prohibited. Forced displacement is prohibited. The taking and holding of hostages is prohibited. The use of civilians as human shields is prohibited. Collective punishment is prohibited. The use of sexual violence as a weapon of war is prohibited. And violations by one party do not absolve the other from compliance.
We cannot – we must not – become numb to appalling and repeated violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. All allegations of serious violations and abuses demand urgent investigation and accountability.
The Geneva Conventions, which require the protection of civilians and the humane treatment of people in enemy hands, were not the result of an outbreak of global goodwill. These treaties were agreed because they protect everyone. Around the world, warring parties claim exemptions, asserting that certain people or situations are uniquely dangerous. But flouting international law only feeds insecurity and results in more bloodshed.
Human rights conventions and humanitarian law are based on cold, hard reality: They recognize that terrorizing civilians and depriving them of food, water, and healthcare is a recipe for endless anger, alienation, extremism and conflict.
Today’s warmongers cannot erase the clear lesson of the past. Protecting human rights protects us all. We urgently need a new commitment to all human rights – civil, cultural, economic, political and social – as they apply to peace and security, backed by serious efforts at implementation and accountability.
States have the primary responsibility to protect and promote human rights.. Around the world, governments must step up and commit to working for peace and security rooted in human rights.
Successful peace processes, from Colombia to Northern Ireland, demonstrate that the full spectrum of human rights is indispensable to building peace. Security policies that ignore human rights can divide communities, exacerbate inequalities, and drive people towards extremism.
All military engagement must respect human rights and humanitarian law, and to be backed by political and development strategies. Security policies need to be centred on people, with the full and equal participation of women, and the strong representation of young people.
Human rights need to be at the heart of the governance of new weapons technologies, including artificial intelligence, with a total prohibition of lethal autonomous weapons with the power to kill without human involvement. Human rights and humanitarian law apply in cyberspace.
From the epidemic of violence against women and girls, to the activities of criminal gangs, to rising antisemitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, the persecution of minority Christian communities, and discrimination against minorities of all kinds, many people do not feel safe in their own communities.
Media workers and human rights defenders are frequently targeted—sometimes as part of a strategy to reduce civic space and silence criticism. Decades of progress on women’s and girls’ rights are being challenged and rolled back – including their fundamental right to education and healthcare, and their sexual and reproductive rights.
Governments need to create space in national security policies for civil society, human rights defenders, and those representing vulnerable and marginalized people. Freedom of the media, freedom of expression and an open, inclusive civic space are essential to peaceful, democratic societies.
We need to dismantle and transform power structures that discriminate against women and girls; and take concrete steps to secure women’s full, equal and meaningful participation at all levels of decision-making on peace and security. Young people need to be included as participants in decision-making on peace and security events.
Peaceful communities require an open, secure, accessible digital public space that supports human rights and freedoms.
War is not only waged on the battlefield. Some of today’s economic policies, at both national and global levels, constitute a war on the poor – and on human rights.
Many developing economies are still struggling to recover from the double shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Sustainable Development Goals are very far off-track.
The world’s poorest countries are due to pay over $185 billion in debt services costs this year – more than their total public spending on health, education and infrastructure.
The absence of a debt lifeline jeopardises the ability of millions of people to realise their rights to clean drinking water, a nutritious diet, education, healthcare, and jobs.
The global financial architecture is at the heart of this human rights emergency. It is outdated, dysfunctional and unjust, and it must be reformed to provide long-term, low-cost financing and an effective safety net for all countries in need. We need affordable long-term finance for developing countries.
We need reforms to make global financial frameworks more inclusive, equitable and just, so they can support governments in prioritizing social spending, sustainable development and climate action, essential to human rights. We need to focus on ways in which economic policies, including budgets, taxes and subsidies, can reinforce investments in the Sustainable Development Goals and human rights for all.
Our war on nature is a war on the human rights of some of the most vulnerable people in the world: Indigenous People; rural communities; the marginalized and dispossessed.
The crises assaulting our planet – climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution – all have a massive injustice at their core: Those who did least to cause these crises are bearing the brunt of rising hunger and famine, land degradation, forced displacement, contaminated water sources and premature deaths.
The recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment by the Human Rights Council in 2021 and by the General Assembly in 2022 shows that times are changing. Environmental justice and climate justice are rallying cries for ethical, equitable treatment, accountability and human rights.
Climate justice demands that G20 countries lead the progressive phase-out of fossil fuels. It demands that all Nationally Determined Contributions, or national climate plans, align with the 1.5-degree upper limit on global heating. It demands an effective carbon price and an end to fossil fuel subsidies.
It demands the developed countries meet their finance commitments to developing economies. It demands that the Loss and Damage Fund is up and running as soon as possible, with significant contributions.
For many countries of the Global South, economic, environmental and climate justice are the defining human rights challenges of our time. The United Nations stands with them in calling on all countries to assume their responsibilities.
The multiplication of conflicts around the world is causing unprecedented suffering. But human rights are a constant. They are fundamental to our hopes for a world at peace.

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