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.