Published on 13/09/2021

Health and Human Rights

Key facts

  • The WHO Constitution states that "the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being".
  • The right to health includes access to timely DeepL to acceptable, quality and affordable health care.
  • Yet, about 100 million people worldwide fall below the poverty line each year because of their health costs.
  • Vulnerable groups and those on the margins of society tend to bear a far too high share of health problems.
  • Universal health coverage is a means to promote the right to health.
  • Another feature of rights-based approaches is meaningful participation. Participation means that national stakeholders - including non-state actors such as non-governmental organisations - are meaningfully involved in all phases of programming: assessment, analysis, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.


The "right to the highest attainable standard of health" implies the fulfilment of a set of social conditions which are conducive to the health of all, including the availability of health services, safe working conditions, adequate housing and nutritious food. The realisation of the right to health is closely linked to the realisation of other human rights, including the rights to food, housing, work, education, non-discrimination, access to information and participation.

The right to health implies both freedoms and rights.

  • The freedoms include the right of the human being to control his or her own health and body (e.g. sexual and reproductive rights), as well as the right to integrity (e.g. the right not to be subjected to torture and the right not to be subjected without consent to medical treatment or experimentation).
  • The rights include the right of access to a system of health protection which guarantees everyone, on an equal footing, the possibility of enjoying the highest attainable standard of health

Health policies and programmes have the capacity to promote or violate human rights, including the right to health, depending on how they are designed or implemented. If they aim to respect and protect human rights, they help the health sector to fulfil its responsibility to care for the health of everyone.

Disadvantaged people and the right to health

Vulnerable and marginalized groups are often less likely to enjoy the right to health. Three of the world's deadliest communicable diseases - malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis - disproportionately affect the world's poorest populations, placing a heavy burden on the economies of developing countries.

Conversely, NCDs are often perceived as affecting high-income countries, yet the burden of NCDs is increasing disproportionately in low-income countries and among their populations.

Within countries, certain populations, such as indigenous communities, are exposed to higher rates of ill health and face formidable barriers to accessing quality and affordable health care.

Compared to the general population, these populations have much higher mortality and morbidity rates from non-communicable diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and chronic respiratory conditions. People who are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection - including young women, men who have sex with men and injecting drug users - often belong to socially and economically disadvantaged and discriminated groups.

These vulnerable populations may be targeted by laws and policies that further marginalise them and make it more difficult for them to access prevention and care services.

Human rights violations in the health sector

If human rights are violated or insufficiently addressed, this can have serious consequences for health. Overt or implicit discrimination in the provision of health services is a violation of fundamental rights.

Many people with mental disorders are placed in psychiatric facilities against their will, even though they have the capacity to make decisions about their future. Conversely, when beds run out, it is often members of this population who are discharged prematurely, which can lead to high readmission rates and even death, and which also violates their right to treatment.

Similarly, women are often denied access to sexual and reproductive health care and services in both developed and developing countries. This is a human rights violation deeply rooted in societies' values regarding women's sexuality. In addition to the denial of care, women in some societies are sometimes forced to undergo procedures such as sterilisation, abortion or virginity tests.

Human rights-based approaches

A human rights approach to health provides strategies and solutions to address and rectify inequalities, discriminatory practices and unjust power relations, which are often at the heart of unequal health outcomes.

A human rights-based approach aims to ensure that all health policies, strategies and programmes are designed to progressively improve the enjoyment of the right to health for all. Interventions aimed at achieving this goal adhere to the following strict principles and standards.

  • Non-discrimination: The principle of non-discrimination seeks to ensure that human rights will be exercised without discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status such as disability, age, marital and family status, sexual orientation and gender identity, health status, residence or economic and social status.1.
  • Availability: There is a sufficient supply of public health and health care facilities, goods, services and programmes.
  • Accessibility: Health facilities, goods and services are accessible to all. Accessibility is composed of four interrelated dimensions:
    • non-discrimination;
    • physical accessibility;
    • affordability;
    • accessibility of information.
  • Acceptability: All health facilities, goods and services must respect medical ethics and cultural differences, and take into account the needs of men and women across the life span.
  • Quality: The quality, scientific and medical standard of health facilities, goods and services must be appropriate.
  • Accountability: States and other responsible entities must be accountable for the extent to which they respect human rights.
  • Universality: Human rights are universal and inalienable. They must be respected for every person, everywhere in the world.

Policies and programmes are designed to meet the needs of the population through the accountability system established. A human rights-based approach shapes the relationships between different actors to empower people to claim their rights and to encourage policy-makers and service providers to meet their obligations to create more responsive health systems.

WHO action

WHO is committed to integrating human rights into health programmes and policies at country and regional levels, addressing the underlying determinants of health within a comprehensive approach to health and human rights.

In addition, WHO has actively strengthened its role as a technical, intellectual and political leader in the field of the right to health, among others:

  • strengthening the capacity of the Organisation and its Member States to integrate a human rights-based approach to health;
  • giving the right to health a more prominent place in international law and in international development processes;
  • defending health-related human rights, including the right to health.

1 Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 20, Non-discrimination in economic, social and cultural rights; 2009).

Source: WHO official website