Making healthcare a human right a mistake

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The “right to health" is enshrined in several major international treaties, many national constitutions and forms the basis of policy for nearly every major aid agency and humanitarian NGO.

Unfortunately, treating health as an enforceable human right does not work.

Traditional human rights like free speech and the right to peacefully enjoy property have helped restrain the actions of authoritarian governments all over the world.

Since the Second World War, however, international human rights treaties have added positive rights such as health. These require government action, not just restraint.

Positive rights were intended as political aspirations. However, revisions by the UN’s International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights have made signatory governments legally obliged to “respect, protect and fulfil" the right to health for all individuals.

This new interpretation of the right to health is used as a political tool. The UN’s ideological commissars insist that human rights risk being infringed whenever healthcare is provided through the insurance market or other private means.

Canada’s 2005 Supreme Court decision to overturn Quebec’s ban on private health insurance was criticised by UN experts on the grounds that it interfered with the right to health. The health systems of Korea and Switzerland have similarly been criticised for having too much private involvement, despite delivering high quality services.

Meanwhile Brazil’s constitution recognises the right to health, but shortages are common in state pharmacies. Patients therefore sue the government, creating an intolerable burden on the judicial system. More than 1200 cases of judicial review are sought in the Rio Grande do Sul region alone each month.

The right to health is a blind alley. Traditional rights let people lift themselves out of poverty, giving them the resources to afford clean drinking water, good nutrition and the decent healthcare systems necessary to achieve good health.

Jacob Mchangama is head of legal affairs at the independent Danish thinktank CEPOS. He has written a paper that challenges the widespread acceptance of the existence of a human right to healthcare for IPN. It can be accessed through their website here.