Social protection systems can help States in complying with their obligations regarding the right to health included under several human rights treaties (such as Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights).
The right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health was first recognized in the preamble of the 1946 Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) and later in the UDHR (Article 25) and the ICESCR (Article 12). More than requiring merely the absence of disease or infirmity or healthcare access; the right to health instead it encompasses the right to physical, mental, and social well-being on all levels. More specifically, the full realization of this right should include the steps necessary for:
“(a) The provision for the reduction of the stillbirth rate and of infant mortality and for the healthy development of the child;
(b) The improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene;
(c) The prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases;
(d) The creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.” (Article 12 ICESCR)
According to the CESCR’s General Comment No. 14, the right to health is comprised of a set of interrelated and essential elements and principles, namely: availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality, whose precise application will depend on the conditions prevailing in a particular State party. (See adequacy of benefits)
As highlighted in ILO social security conventions and recommendations, access to essential health care is an integral part of social protection. As such has the great potential to contribute to the fulfilment of the human right to the highest attainable standard of health. In this respect, it should be noted that the CESCR has indicated that the right to social security articulated at Article 9 includes the obligation on States to:
“guarantee that health systems are established to provide adequate access to health services for all. In cases in which the health system foresees private or mixed plans, such plans should be affordable, in conformity with the essential elements enunciated in the present general comment. The Committee notes the particular importance of the right to social security in the context of endemic diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and the need to provide access to preventive and curative measures.” (General Comment No. 19, para 13).
Recommendation No. 202 includes, as one of the basic social security guarantees constituting the social protection floor, “access to a nationally defined sets of goods and services, constituting essential health care, including maternity care, that meets the criteria of availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality” (para 5a). It further sets out that this guarantee should be defined in a way that “persons in need of health care should not face hardship and an increased risk of poverty due to the financial consequences of accessing essential care”.
Photo credit: “Health officers at a health center in the SNNP Region of Ethiopia” by USAID U.S. Agency for International Development (CCBY 2.0 via Flickr).
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