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Asian Health Ministers and the World Health Organisation Explore the Right to Health

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The right to basic health service stirs little controversy for governments, yet realisation of this right for all is elusive. Asian health ministers and the World Health Organisation came together in Bangkok to learn about the right to health.
FORUM-ASIA’s Ethnic Minorities in South East Asia Programme, accompanied by the Advocacy Programme, attended the Regional Seminar on the Human Rights-Based Approaches to Health and Environment, hosted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Bangkok, 20-21 August 2007. The seminar brought together government officials, WHO representatives and non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) from all over South and Southeast Asia.

The objective of the seminar was to educate participants about human rights-based approaches to health and the environment. Through various presentations, links were made between human rights, health and the environment; examples were used to demonstrate how human rights have been used to promote public health and environmental issues. Each government representative shared their own country’s experience and knowledge about health, the environment and human rights.

Access to primary health services is a fundamental human right as outlined in article 12 of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Article 12 states that signatories must “recognise the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Signatories must comply by improving maternal and child health, increasing environmental hygiene, controlling and preventing epidemics and diseases and creating accessible medical services to those in need.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that all people have the right to adequate medical care. More generally, all human rights are connected to the right to basic health services, as the right to health is intertwined with the right to life.

Many of the government representatives who attended the seminar commented that the concept of human rights is new in their countries, but nonetheless they were eager to learn and discuss human rights and health. This was particularly encouraging coming from the government representatives of Burma and Maldives.

Representatives expressed the various ways in which health and human rights are characterised in their countries and the changes that they would like to see made. Concerns that were raised included: poverty and environmental degradation in Bangladesh, minimal access to doctors in Nepal, servicing the hundreds of inhabited islands in Maldives, and lack of health legislation in Timor Leste. All countries agreed that they would like to see improvements in their health systems and there was a collective understanding that the right to basic health for all would be a progressive realisation. Having basic health services such as immunisations and clean water for all is, in the end, beneficial to the entire population.

A special presentation on Indigenous Peoples was organised by the United Nations Development Programme. The presentation brought attention to Indigenous Peoples and their frequent marginalisation within health care systems. In general, minorities often find themselves unable to receive primary health services due to discrimination within health care systems, geographic isolation, culturally insensitive health practices and lack of resources. 

It is the responsibility of all countries to find solutions to provide basic health to all people. Developed countries with more advanced health systems must provide accessible information and resources to developing countries. Developing countries must study this information to improve their health services.

There are a number of things that governments can do to spur the progressive realisation of basic health for all. Gathering gender and ethnically disaggregated data is key to identifying the health needs of the population. Nowhere is health available at the same level for everyone, women and minorities are usually left behind. Health policies and legislation need to be examined for discriminatory practices, if health legislation exists at all. Effective health legislation will include regulation of harmful substances (i.e. drugs, alcohol and tobacco), non-state actors including pharmaceutical companies, and will include protection mechanisms for workers, consumers and the environment. 

Realisation of basic health for all will take time, resources and co-ordinated efforts from governments, NGO’s, non-state actors and individuals. The right to health carries much less controversy then many human rights, yet, in so many countries the right to basic health remains elusive. In today’s world where drug resistant viruses are becoming more common, international epidemics such as AIDS are spreading rapidly, and there is such a degree of global mobility, it remains in the best interest of all countries to work collectively in the search for sustainable solutions to realise the right to health for all people everywhere.