In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Health and Human Rights

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals and Reports
  • Assessing Progress
  • Progress through Litigation
  • Infectious Diseases, Including HIV/AIDS
  • Health Promotion
  • Business, Trade, and Health
  • Environment
  • Poverty and Development
  • Violence
  • Mental Health
  • Other Public Health Issues
  • Women
  • Children
  • Other Special Populations

Public Health Health and Human Rights
Jonathan Todres
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0084


The fields of health and human rights intersect in important ways. Both aim to advance human well-being. Health status has implications for an individual’s capacity to realize his or her rights across many issues. For example, poor health can impair a child’s capacity to realize her right to education. Similarly, health policies and programs can implicate a range of human rights in their design and implementation. The connections operate in the other direction as well. The realization or violation of other rights—such as the right to birth registration, the right to education, or the right to access information—can affect an individual’s ability to access the care and information necessary to maintain good health. Other human rights violations—such as torture; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; or violations of labor rights—have clear adverse consequences for the health status of targeted individuals. In short, health and human rights are deeply intertwined in ways that are fundamental to human well-being. In the early 21st century, health and human rights has emerged as a field of study encompassing a very broad range of issues, including access to care, health promotion, trade law and public health, HIV/AIDS, reproductive rights, the role of medical professionals in the treatment of prisoners during armed conflicts, medical experimentation involving human subjects, and many more. The result is a vast and fairly disparate literature. This article focuses on health and human rights literature in the public health context, while also providing some foundational scholarship on health and human rights theory and practice. Thus, for the most part, it does not include literature on human rights issues that arise in the context of the medical treatment of individuals, which historically has been seen primarily as the purview of medicine, not public health. The first part of the article includes general sources, followed by two sections on progress in the field. The remainder of the article is organized by substantive issue and specific population. Due to space considerations, this article cannot include every issue with health and human rights implications but instead highlights prominent health and human rights issues that have significant implications across the spectrum of public health. The final section of the article focuses on specific populations that confront special health and human rights challenges. The substantive issues highlighted in this article affect many, if not all, of the specific populations, so readers interested in the impact of a particular issue on one of the special populations, such as the impact of obesity on children, are encouraged to review the relevant issue-and population-specific sections as well as the anthologies in the early sections of the article.

General Overviews

Though a relatively young field, health and human rights now has a robust body of scholarly literature, research reports, and other valuable resources. Mann 1997, written by a pioneer in the field, provides an early argument for recognizing the linkages between health and human rights. Mann, et al. 1999 is the seminal volume on health and human rights, providing a broad introduction to various aspects of the field. Clapham and Robinson 2009 is a similarly structured volume. Both sources provide discussion of foundational concepts as well as a focused study of specific issues within the field, and they thus serve as excellent overviews of the field. François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights 2013 offers a similar foundational overview but is designed more with advocates and practitioners in mind. Hunt 2006 offers a concise summary of the right to the highest attainable standard of health, for readers looking for a short explanation of the right to health and its components. UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 2000 is one of the most influential articulations of the normative content of the right to health, and a must-read for anyone working on these issues. A much more detailed analysis of the right to health under law is found in Tobin 2012, which offers an excellent introduction for those individuals particularly interested in the legal aspects of health and human rights. Finally, Harrington and Stuttaford 2010 is a more recent foundational work that examines both theoretical and practical aspects of health and human rights.

  • Clapham, Andrew, and Mary Robinson, eds. 2009. Realizing the right to health. Swiss Human Rights Book 3. Zurich, Switzerland: Rüffer & Rub.

    In this volume, leading experts in health and human rights address a range of issues, including the social determinants of health, HIV/AIDS, trade and health, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and malaria, and health and human rights challenges in migration, prisons, and other settings. A chapter by Eibe Riedel on the conceptual foundations of health and human rights provides a valuable examination of relevant international law in health and human rights.

  • François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, ed. 2013. Health and human rights resource guide. 5th ed. Boston: Harvard Univ. School of Public Health.

    Designed as a tool for advocating for health and human rights, this guide provides a strong foundational background on relevant human rights law and enforcement mechanisms. It also contains detailed chapters on critical public health issues, including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), and harm reduction, and several population-specific chapters that focus on children, minority populations, LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) individuals, and persons with disabilities.

  • Harrington, John, and Maria Stuttaford, eds. 2010. Global health and human rights: Legal and philosophical perspectives. London: Routledge.

    This volume outlines the theoretical and practical underpinnings of rights-based approaches to health. It also includes discussion of emerging systems of governance, and it addresses relevant substantive issues, including health-sector corruption, children’s right to health in the courts, and the impact of patent rights and privatization of health care on health rights.

  • Hunt, Paul. 2006. The human right to the highest attainable standard of health: New opportunities and challenges. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene 100.7: 603–607.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.trstmh.2006.03.001

    This brief article defines the right to health, discusses its underlying components, provides an introduction to the role of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, and presents three examples of health rights in practice: Niger’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, Uganda’s “neglected” diseases, and US-Peru trade negotiations.

  • Mann, Jonathan M. 1997. Medicine and public health, ethics and human rights. Hastings Center Report 27.3: 6–13.

    DOI: 10.2307/3528660

    Early article discussing the connections between human rights and public health and medicine. Explores the ethical imperative for recognizing linkages between health and human rights.

  • Mann, Jonathan M., Sofia Gruskin, Michael A. Grodin, and George J. Annas, eds. 1999. Health and human rights: A reader. New York: Routledge.

    Seminal volume providing an introduction to health and human rights concepts and practice. It covers human rights in the context both of public health and medicine and includes important chapters on the impact of health policies (e.g., AIDS and TB control) on human rights. Chapter 1, “Health and Human Rights,” by Mann and colleagues, provides an excellent overview of the linkages between health and human rights.

  • Tobin, John. 2012. The right to health in international law. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A detailed examination of the right to health in international law that will be valuable to readers seeking an in-depth examination of relevant law. Tobin charts the history, conceptual foundations, and methodology of the right to health, and he analyzes both the general and specific obligations of nations and the global community.

  • UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. 2000. General comment 14: The right to the highest attainable standard of health. UN Doc. E/C.12/2000/4. Geneva, Switzerland: UN.

    This highly influential UN committee interpretation of the “right to the highest attainable standard of health” discusses normative content of the right—including the key elements of availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality—and details specific obligations of states under international law.

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