Research Case Study

Impact: Realising the right to health

Joint Winner: Celebrating Excellence in Research and Impact Awards 2021 - Best International Research Impact

  • Tagged under

    Human Rights

The right to health, or “the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” to give it its full name, is a fundamental human right which extends beyond a right to healthcare to include a range of pre-conditions for a healthy life.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), “Every State has ratified at least one international human rights treaty recognizing the right to health. Moreover, States have committed themselves to protecting this right through international declarations, domestic legislation and policies, and at international conferences.”

Yet evidence from around the world suggests States’ commitments to ‘progressively realise’ the right to health are yet to lead to practical progress.

What is required, then, to help States move from treaty signing to practical action?

The challenge

While most countries have signed up to treaties containing binding obligations in relation to the ‘progressive realisation’ of the right to health, a lack of clarity on the scope of the right to health and historical confusion regarding appropriate indicators and benchmarks has created ambiguity, which some have used to sidestep their commitments.

What we did

Drawing on the fields of international human rights law and public health governance, research led by Judith Bueno de Mesquita, from Essex Law School and Human Rights Centre, has sought to look at the expectations, or norms, in relation to the right to health, in the context of specific health issues, with a particular focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

In a field that has been dominated by discussions of constitutions and legislation, this research focuses on the framework of regulations and policies required at national level, for implementation.

Bueno de Mesquita was appointed as a consultant by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to work with two national human rights institutions, the Commissioner for Human Rights, Azerbaijan, and the Ombudsperson Institution of Kosovo. In this consultancy role, she led the research required for national assessments looking at sexual and reproductive health.

These consultancies allowed her to apply her research to country contexts, and assess the degree to which the legislative, regulatory and policy environments were compliant with international human rights standards in the area of SRHR.

What we achieved

In Azerbaijan, the resulting report contributed to the Government taking sexual and reproductive health and rights more seriously, and provided valuable advocacy tools. The report was used to lobby the Azerbaijan Parliament to incorporate sexual and reproductive health issues into the State Program on Demography and Population Development and to develop the National Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence to ensure effective implementation of the 2010 law on domestic violence prevention.

The report was also showcased as a case study in the United Nations Population Fund’s ground-breaking guidance (UNFPA: 2019, pp. 76-78).

In Kosovo, Bueno de Mesquita’s recommendations were contained in the Ombudsperson Institution’s 2016 report, resulting in life-changing impact for rights-holders, including:

  • the provision of free contraceptives to vulnerable groups
  • the supply of low-cost condoms via vending machines
  • a decision to retain contraceptives on the essential drugs list
  • an increase in health inspectorate staffing, with human rights integrated into this organisation’s work
  • steps taken to make maternal death audits consistent with World Health Organisation guidelines
  • and the adoption of a rights-based national HIV action plan
  • The impact in Kosovo is ongoing, with the report continuing to inform the next cycle of Azerbaijan’s Reproductive Health Strategy.

    In both countries, the research of Judith Bueno de Mesquita has successfully bridged the gap between theory and implementation, supporting significant progress and providing useful examples of how national legislative and policy frameworks can help realise States' commitments in relation to the progressive realisation of the right to health.