Are we human enough to discuss human rights?

While working on some research for an International Relations (my discipline) course on access to essential medicines, I came across the infamous Alma-Ata Declaration of 1978 and was pleased to find exactly what I was looking for:

“Article I: The Conference strongly reaffirms that health, which is a state of physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, is a fundamental human right…”

I thought for a moment about what a group of IR students would say about the ‘right to health.’ You see, IR students like to debate this whole idea of “basic human rights” (BHR). When deciding whether or not something is a BHR, we like to put all our cards on the table: colonialism, culture, religion, historical context, socioeconomic conditions, etc.. We like to calmly indicate that we wish to speak; when given the opportunity we speak slowly, so that everyone can understand how damn insightful we’re being while demonstrating our deep, inclusive understanding of said right/region/issue. It usually goes something like this:

“I would challenge the idea that (INSERT BHR) is a universal human right. Look at (INSERT COUNTRY)- the majority of their population is/believes in/practices (INSERT RELIGION/CULTURE/SOCIOECONOMIC CONDITION) and their (RELIGION/CULTURE/HISTORICAL/SOCIOECONOMIC CONTEXT)) wouldn’t value or support (INSERT BHR,) and in fact, contradicts that right entirely.”

We then sit back and observe the effect of the incredible insight we have just provided to our peers/the points we have just scored with our professor.

What is that you say? There are human rights that are transferrable across all of these things? NUH-UH! Everything can be contested! Don’t believe me? Let me provide an example. Last term in a fourth-year level seminar we were discussing what constitutes basic human security by mining our way through dozens of definitions from various states, organizations and documents. The definitions covered everything: death, injury, reasonable access to sufficient sources of food and water, safety from political persecution, freedom from movement, the list goes on.

We contested everything: women’s rights in Middle Eastern countries (“how could we possibly say they should prosecute sexual violence, or stop public stoning? Their beliefs just don’t support that”, or my favourite, “I don’t think we can say that women’s rights are universal human rights”), Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision  (“a bigger infringement on rights”, one argued, “would be to oppose this culturally accepted practice”), and food/ political expression/ health/ happiness (these items were the subject of many eye rolls… “duh, these are solely WESTERN values”). At the end of it, we could all agree on one basic human right: the right to life, as in, you should be allowed to walk down the street without being shot down.

So what about this ‘right to health’? Over the last two years I’ve come to learn much about the access to essential medicines debate through volunteer, research, and course work.  After learning a lot about patent law, the pharmaceutical industry, government regulation, and public health policy, I can confidently say that the issue is thoroughly depressing. Want an issue where the West and the rest don’t care? It’s health in developing countries. The culprits aren’t obesity, diabetes, cancer or heart disease, but diseases like malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS, and regional diseases like African Sleeping Sickness, that could be treated or cured with modern medicine we have readily available and generally don’t use all that much. But there is no money, no purchasing power, no affordable drugs, no viable market, and sporadic prevention programs. So people die.

In Canada, we had the opportunity with a recent bill to potentially make an impact on the access to medicines issue and prevent people from dying. All of the experts who work on the ground in these developing countries, who see the illness and issues at first hand, said this bill was what we needed to do. The UN Development Programme, Medicines Sans Frontiers, Stephen Lewis, James Orbinski and Richard Elliot, all stepped up to the plate to explain to our legislators and citizens why this bill would work in providing life-saving medicines to those that need them. Our Senators (mostly of the Conservative variety), who might know a bit about whatever it is they do, but know little to nothing about public health, said it wouldn’t work. They came up with all the excuses they could muster, none of them making any sense in relation to the bill’s content.  All the while, pharmaceutical lobbyists concerned about any change to Canada’s monopolistic patent law, trickled in and out of parliament. And you know what most people did? Believed them.

Did you really believe that ignoring the experts, and siding with Senators was the right thing to do? Is your biggest concern REALLY whether or not pharmaceutical companies will be okay after this bill? Or was it the easiest to believe?

Because if everything the experts were saying was true – that this bill would successfully provide life-saving medications without costing pharmaceutical companies or Canadians anything – you would be really, really upset.

And isn’t apathy easier, than being really upset and disappointed? Doesn’t that sound like a lot of work?

Are rights, like access to medicine that could save the life of your mother/child/brother/sister, really all that subjective? Or are we just afraid of realizing how objective they are, because we would be too disgusted with how often we violate them?

I recently watched a very honest and inspiring TEDx Toronto talk given by Sol Guy. He said if we’re debating human rights issues, then we have to be human. Only when we become more human, do we create change.

I know, I instantly pictured a bunch of half-human, IR-student zombies too.


7 responses to “Are we human enough to discuss human rights?

  1. Pingback: Terry » Archive » Are we human enough to discuss human rights?

  2. A fascinating post – thanks, Elysa! Just wanted to make one small clarification re: health in developing countries. It was long thought that infectious diseases comprise the majority of the disease burden in low and middle income countries. Certainly, rates of many of these infections (e.g. HIV, TB, malaria) are enormously higher in developing than in industrialized countries.

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that developing countries are exempt from what are typically considered diseases of the “Western” world, like obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. 80% of deaths due to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like these happen in low and middle-income countries. Their impact is actually disproportionately higher on marginalized populations and in developing countries for many reasons: lack of access to nutritious food, lack of timely diagnostics and health care in general, and, you guessed it, inability to access treatments that could stop or slow disease progression. Ensuring affordable access to medicines used to treat NCDs should be prioritized along with advocating for access to antiretrovirals, antimalarials etc. Here’s a short primer on this very issue produced by a handful of NGOs including UAEM after a recent WHO meeting to form a global strategy for prevention and control of NCDs:

    Also, this might be an artistic liberty issue and I’m almost certain you didn’t mean it literally, but I wanted to clarify a small point for our readers re: lack of money, no purchasing power, and no affordable drugs for diseases like HIV, malaria and others. While there is still insufficient funding for prevention and treatment programs, we’ve come a long way in the past few decades. The Global Fund for HIV, TB and Malaria ( has invested $21 billion into preventing and treating these diseases around the world. Some 42% of people who need HIV treatment are currently able to access it – a far cry from the 0% in the mid-1990s. Many HIV drugs now cost less than $100 per patient per year, and we’re starting to see price reductions for newer, more effective and less toxic treatments, e.g.: . I certainly agree with you on the urgency of the need and with the general sentiment that progress can’t come fast enoguh; people need affordable drugs now, not in 10 years’ time or whenever the patents expire – but I also think it’s good to keep in mind the successes that have accumulated over the years, even if just to remind ourselves that change is possible.

  3. And on the note of success and change, an inspiring note by Stephen Lewis:

  4. Thanks for the comment Sonja! Absolutely right on the first part, I chose to focus more on the tropical and infectious diseases in this post, both because my research was related to them and because the post was getting a bit lengthy- really glad you commented on it though so there’s a good description for everyone to read.

    Definitely a stylistic choice on the second part, but glad you mentioned it. Discussing how far we’ve come proves that positive change is possible, and more can be done (like with Bill C393!)

  5. Sweet. I’m really glad these issues are being covered in IR courses, too. Discussions on access to medicines have been confined to the faculties of science and medicine for too long!

  6. “I know, I instantly pictured a bunch of half-human, IR-student zombies too.”

    Do you mean to say that you’re disappointed with the incredibly naive arguments about moral relativism that IR students, at least according to you, seem to find so compelling? It’s not that they aren’t human enough, they’re just expressing popular intuitions and fears about cultural hegemony. But in doing so they fail to acknowledge the subgroups they are bolstering and the subgroups they are dis-empowering.

    It’s pretty depressing that many students studying International Relations still find moral relativism so credible given that some of them will go on to do *international work* that often requires the advocacy of universal human rights. Are they unaware of how philosophically bankrupt it is? That it merely balks the is-ought gap and combines it with an appeal to population. That is, just because people *do* believe things, or even have a system of beliefs that purport to describe the rights of any particular group, doesn’t mean that they *ought* to – and just because many people believe things (i.e. women have “different” (less) rights) doesn’t mean they are correct in believing such things.

    It’s obvious one needs pay attention “colonialism, culture, religion, historical context, socioeconomic conditions, etc..” But the acknowledgment of these factors is due to the awareness that outside groups can mistakenly enforce beliefs on people should lead one to acknowledge that power structures *within cultures* can also mistakenly enforce beliefs on people (i.e. just because sexism is not only perpetrated by men, but also by women – that doesn’t make it any less sexist).

    When one delegates the “power” of deciding basic human rights to cultures themselves in fear of committing cultural hegemony, they must also be aware that cultures are not monolithic structures that democratically represent all people, and that people can be cultured into believing things *against their own benefit* (i.e. foot binding).

    The fact that a room full of UBC students could only agree on the ‘right to life’ as a universal human right is pathetic and embarrassing … but not unsurprising.

  7. Also, the fact that you can “contest everything” just goes to show that you’re doing moral philosophy wrong.

    It doesn’t matter *what* people believe, anywhere or anytime. What matters is *why* they believe it. What are their reasons? If everyone agrees, *why* do they all agree? Are there social disincentives (punishments) for not towing the party line? Who is better off? Who is in control? Who stands the most to gain? Who stands the most to lose if we change things? Are there punishments for dissent? Is there a process by which the moral system can adapt to new evidence? If there is no good reason for a practice, why are those who don’t follow ostracized? These are the relevant questions.

    Not whether you can find X number of people who believe Y is correct. A million people can believe in the most awful things and they can all be dead wrong (Which they have! Empirical evidence!). (This next comment isn’t about you, but a general observation) It’s weird how science students, the ones that are all “show me the evidence,” seem to lose all critical thinking abilities when it comes to philosophically (i.e. moral/ethical, cultural) sensitive topics. They revert to appeals to authority, tradition, population, nature (naturalistic fallacy) … oy. OK. I’m done. =D

    P.S. The comment about science students is an “internal” one (I’m a BSc).

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