In a rights-based approach to health, the provision of essential surgical services is not a luxury, but a critical component of the "highest attainable standard of health." Yet while access to select basic health care interventions has increasingly been discussed as part of the human right to health, essential surgical services have generally not been part of this discussion. This is despite the substantial global burden of surgical conditions in low- and middle-income countries, extreme global disparities in access to surgical care, and the fact that relatively simple, cost-effective, and curative surgical procedures can avert disability and premature death from many life-threatening emergencies and other conditions. Many barriers, both supply and demand-related, such as constraints in human resources, infrastructure, and access to care, have limited the ability of health systems to deliver surgical services. In this paper, the authors share their experience - as a group of surgeons, anesthesiologists, emergency physicians, and public health experts working with colleagues in varied resource-constrained settings to provide basic surgical care - in addressing the challenge of realizing the right to surgery in resource-poor settings. We argue that essential surgical care should be included in the basic human right to health, and that the current emphasis on "vertical" disease-specific models of health service delivery should be broadened to include systems needed to provide surgical services. We outline the global burden of surgical conditions, discuss the public health importance of surgery, identify the most significant global disparities in access to surgical care, and provide economic arguments for surgical delivery.