Few people realise there is a ‘right to health’ enshrined in the declarations of the United Nations. In their determination to create more just and humane societies in the aftermath of World War 2, nation states adopted the concept of human rights to align their aspirations. The preamble to the 1946 constitution of the World Health Organization states that, ‘the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition’.
This is not simply a matter of making sure that everyone has access to adequate health services. This right hinges also on an expansive notion of health: ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.
It is tempting to think that the starting point for the health of the person rests with the conditions that the nation state can provide. Notwithstanding the major benefits of the concept of human rights, herein lies a conundrum. To what degree do I look to my government to create for me a healthy socio-economic and physical environment in which to live? To what degree do I seek health and wellbeing along with others in the community in which I exist? This is a question of orientation and responsibility.
The concept and action of human rights implies that there is an external force that is legally responsible for the world you live in. This is both true and misleading. We exercise a collective responsibility for the society of which we are a part. Human rights are part of that picture, but they cannot address the nature and action of the individual, her family and her community. The impetus to embrace and pursue the highest standards of health relies on personal and communal responses to the coaxing actions of the State.
I found Amartya Sen helpful on this: