Human rights

Fact sheet
10 March 2012

Key facts

  • The right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, or the right to health, is enshrined in the WHO Constitution (1946) and was reiterated in the 1978 Declaration of Alma Ata and in the World Health Declaration adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1998.
  • It is rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has been endorsed by numerous other human rights treaties. Every country in the world is now party to at least one human rights treaty that addresses health-related rights, i.e. the right to health as well as other rights that relate to conditions necessary for health.
  • Health and human rights are linked in at least three ways:
    • Human rights violations can have serious health consequences.
    • Depending on how they are designed or implemented, health policies and programmes can either promote or violate human rights.
    • Taking steps to respect, protect and fulfill human rights can reduce ill-health or vulnerability to ill-health.
  • The General Comment on the right to health, adopted in 2000 by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, sets out four criteria by which to evaluate the right to health. They are:
    • Availability;
    • Accessibility, with four overlapping dimensions – non-discrimination, physical accessibility, economic accessibility (affordability), and information accessibility;
    • Acceptability; and
    • Quality.

The following principles can guide countries' efforts towards the realization of the human right to health:

  • Non-discrimination: In relation to health and health care, this principle comprises non-discrimination in access to health care and the underlying determinants of health, on grounds such as sex, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, physical or mental disability, health status (including HIV/AIDS), sexual orientation, and civil, political, social or other status.
  • Participation: This principle implies the free, meaningful and effective involvement of people and communities in decisions about the health policies or programmes that affect them.
  • Progressive realization: This principle requires governments to move as quickly and effectively as possible towards the realization of the human right to health. The principle recognizes that resources may be limited in poorer countries, but requires all countries to show constant progress in moving towards the full realization of rights.
  • The Siracusa principles: These principles permit governments to limit or curtail human rights in the interest of public health, but only if a less restrictive means of reaching the same objective is not available. The restriction must be executed in accordance with the law, not arbitrarily.

WHO's response

WHO supports countries in building their capacity to design and implement health policies and programmes that enhance health equity and integrate pro-poor, gender-responsive, and human rights-based approaches.