Physicians for Human Rights - UK (PHR-UK)
DHR initiatives in the Right to the highest attainable standard of health

  • Summer 2003

    PHR-UK is making great strides in its work on the Right to Health. Bernie Hamilton discussed this with colleagues in Washington, DC, in April, and Geneva, in May, where he attended a workshop organised by the WHO on right to health indicators. Others attending included Audrey Chapman, Director of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program and Sofia Gruskin, Director of the International Program on Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, Prof. Eibe Riedel a member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [CESCR], Prof. Paul Hunt, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, and Miriam Maluwa from UNAIDS as well as a number of WHO staff. The workshop clarified a number of issues in the development of indicators.

    Sir Kenneth Stuart, a Patron of PHR-UK and former delegate to the World Health Assembly (WHA), has been advising us on how to promote the Right to Health at the WHA. There is a growing recognition within the developing world that human rights provide a way of ensuring various social and cultural rights. The use of human rights in the courts of South Africa, for example, has obtained improvements in housing and health care for poor people, including those born to HIV positive mothers. PHR-UK hopes to strengthen the WHA's appreciation of the value of the human rights approach to securing the best attainable physical and mental health. [See Newsletter 13.2 for more on HIV/AIDS and the South African Constitutional Court's decision. Ed.]

    PHR-UK has continued to concern itself with the implementation of its Right to Health commitments by the UK Government. In particular, it has been looking at the Government’s obligations to the UN human rights treaties on discrimination against women, the rights of the child and on social rights. These obligations are also a concern of the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, and we have been liaising with this Committee, particularly on the way in which the Government is responding to the dialogue it had with CESCR in May 2002. Copies of our written submission to the Joint Committee, or any of our other reports, are available from the Chair, whose address is at the end of this article.

    An important initiative that PHR-UK has taken is to set up a series of discussions with lawyers about possible litigation strategies to protect our patients’ right to health. Although the UN covenants are not currently justiciable in UK courts, they might carry some weight on the basis that the government would not wish to pursue policies that did not accord with their treaty obligations. In A & Ors R v East Sussex County Council & Another (18 February 2003), Justice Munby pointed out that Article 26 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which concerns State obligations towards disabled persons, "…can properly be consulted insofar as it proclaims, reaffirms or elucidates the content of human rights that are generally recognised throughout the European family of nations…" [See Newsletter 11.4 for an overview of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights Ed.]

    It is however the 1998 Human Rights Act that offers guarantees in a number of areas, and doctors can use these to ensure that their patients receive the best possible health care. There have been a number of health related cases in UK courts brought under the 1998 Act. Possible areas covered by the Act include public health powers in the context of communicable diseases, powers regarding persons with mental disorder, the treatment of prisoners, women's reproductive rights, and the allocation of healthcare resources. PHR-UK would like to hear from you if you have a concern about these or any other area now that we are developing litigation strategies. We only require a general picture of the problem and not any material that might identify the patient or authority concerned.