This edition of A Global Village explores various social, economic and political issues associated with the right to health, its definition and realisation. Its content underlines that, even though many health-related gains have been achieved in the last fifty years, the right to health remains unobtainable for millions of women, children and men in our global village. Through its wide range of subjects, this edition also illustrates that, though health is an essential human right, health is only a part of human dignity and security. Dignity and security, like health, are in turn critically determined by many interrelated forces. To address these forces in a way that leads to optimal health, dignity and security, the full panoply of human rights must be realised.
But in 2011 it could be argued that human rights have become even more inaccessible in a globalised world where individuals are increasingly affected by financial, political and technological regimes that they have little capacity to influence or even understand. A number of these are discussed in this issue: the costs of healthcare driven in part by technological advances, the unhelpful extremes in the debate on agricultural development, the patent system of the intellectual property law, the relationship between luxury goods and intractable ethnic conflict and civil war, and the human impact on our global climate.
On the one hand, the world is increasingly driven by complex forces that transcend the boundaries of the nation state, the fundament on which human rights have been built – as human rights govern the relationship between a State and its citizens. These complex forces place knowledge and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people and institutions which appear less and less accountable to anyone, certainly not the woman on the street.
Yet we have also recently seen the dramatic power of people when they take to the streets to demand their human rights – witness, the Arab Spring where thousands have risen together to overthrow corrupt and oppressive dictatorships. Certainly, human rights are very much alive in 2011, and those who man the barricades, often risking their lives, know their rights and demand their realisation.
On the global health front, for the first time in the history of vast health inequities across the globe, something like a pact of solidarity has occurred in the response to the HIV epidemic, whereby high-income countries are transferring large amounts of resources to meet the health needs of those in low-income countries. Though this pact and its system of accountability are insufficient and fragile, they bear testimony to the power of people living with HIV who have pulled down their human rights into the form of concrete demands and seen them realized – at least in part.
The formal recognition of human rights in international instruments occurred after World War II, and it sometimes seems that each generation must have their importance reconfirmed in their own lifetime by dramatic events. And yet it appears that human rights have become a fundamental backdrop to human experience providing the foundation and the impetus for individuals to demand change, even in the complexity of our times. More global villages with virtual banyan trees are what we need to increase awareness of these global challenges and their incredible connectedness, more willingness to speak truth to power through the framework of human rights that obliges those who have power to share it.
Susan Timberlake is the Senior Advisor on Human Rights and Law at the UNAIDS Secretariat in Geneva where she and her team promote a rights-based response to HIV.