What is the Right to Health?

Health is a fundamental human right indispensable for the exercise of other human rights. Every human being is entitled to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health conducive to living a life in dignity. The realisation of the right to health may be pursued through numerous, complementary approaches, such as the formulation of health policies, the implementation of health programmes developed by the World Health Organization (WHO), or the adoption of specific legal instruments. Moreover, the right to health includes certain components which are legally enforceable.

The right to health is closely related to and dependent upon the realization of other human rights, as contained in the International Bill of Rights, including the rights to food, housing, work, education, human dignity, life, non-discrimination, equality, the prohibition of torture, privacy, access to information, and the freedoms of association, assembly and movement. These and other rights and freedoms address integral components of the right to health (see for example  Guerra et al. v. Italy , reproduced below).

The right to health, as defined in Article 12 ICESCR   is not confined to the right to health care but includes a wide range of other factors enabling individuals to live a healthy life. In General Comment 14, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) elaborates on the meaning of the right to health as found in Article 12 ICESCR:

[?] the reference in article 12, paragraph 1, of the Covenant to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” is not confined to the right to health care. On the contrary, the drafting history and the express wording of article 12, paragraph 2, acknowledge that the right to health embraces a wide range of socio-economic factors that promote conditions in which people can lead a healthy life, and extends to the underlying determinants of health, such as food and nutrition, housing, access to safe and potable water and adequate sanitation, safe and healthy working conditions, and a healthy environment.

In General Recommendation 24, the CEDAW  Committee also defines the right to health to include socio-economic factors:

The Committee notes that the full realization of women’s right to health can be achieved only when States parties fulfil their obligation to respect, protect and promote women’s fundamental human right to nutritional well-being throughout their life span by means of a food supply that is safe, nutritious and adapted to local conditions.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights shares this view. In Free Legal Assistance Group, Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, Union Interafricaine des Droits de l’Homme, Les Témoins de Jehovah v. Zaire (Communication Nos. 25/89, 47/90, 56/91, 100/93, Ninth Activity Report 1995-1996, Annex VIII), the Commission found that the failure of a state party to provide basic services necessary for a minimum standard of health such as safe drinking water and electricity as well as the shortage of medicine constituted a violation to the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health.

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