Pathologies of power: rethinking health and human rights

Am J Public Health. 1999 Oct;89(10):1486-96. doi: 10.2105/ajph.89.10.1486.


The field of health and human rights has grown quickly, but its boundaries have yet to be traced. Fifty-one years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, consensus regarding the most promising directions for the future is lacking; however, outcome-oriented assessments lead us to question approaches that rely solely on recourse to formal legal and civil rights. Similarly unpromising are approaches that rely overmuch on appeals to governments: careful study reveals that state power has been responsible for most human rights violations and that most violations are embedded in "structural violence"--social and economic inequities that determine who will be at risk for assaults and who will be shielded. This article advances an agenda for research and action grounded in the struggle for social and economic rights, an agenda suited to public health and medicine, whose central contributions to future progress in human rights will be linked to the equitable distribution of the fruits of scientific advancement. Such an approach is in keeping with the Universal Declaration but runs counter to several of the reigning ideologies of public health, including those favoring efficacy over equity.

MeSH terms

  • Global Health*
  • Health Services Accessibility*
  • Human Rights*
  • Humans
  • Internationality*
  • Moral Obligations
  • Organizational Objectives
  • Power, Psychological
  • Professional Misconduct*
  • Public Health*
  • Research / organization & administration
  • Social Problems*