Interpreting the International Right to Health in a Human Rights-Based Approach to Health

Health Hum Rights. 2016 Dec;18(2):109-130.


This article tracks the shifting place of the international right to health, and human rights-based approaches to health, in the scholarly literature and United Nations (UN). From 1993 to 1994, the focus began to move from the right to health toward human rights-based approaches to health, including human rights guidance adopted by UN agencies in relation to specific health issues. There is a compelling case for a human rights-based approach to health, but it runs the risk of playing down the right to health, as evidenced by an examination of some UN human rights guidance. The right to health has important and distinctive qualities that are not provided by other rights-consequently, playing down the right to health can diminish rights-based approaches to health, as well as the right to health itself. Because general comments, the reports of UN Special Rapporteurs, and UN agencies' guidance are exercises in interpretation, I discuss methods of legal interpretation. I suggest that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights permits distinctive interpretative methods within the boundaries established by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. I call for the right to health to be placed explicitly at the center of a rights-based approach and interpreted in accordance with public international law and international human rights law.

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care / ethics
  • Delivery of Health Care / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Human Rights*
  • Humans
  • International Agencies
  • International Cooperation*
  • Patient Rights / ethics
  • Patient Rights / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • United Nations