Recently, as I sat waiting for a meeting, I picked up a coffee table book provocatively called Wisdom and started flicking through. I noted this quote from Madeline Albright:
“It is essential to care about human rights – that ultimately is the basis of our existence. The responsibility to protect does not trump sovereignty. If a sovereign does not take care of his or her people the international community has a responsibility to protect.”
There was so much in this quote for me, the day before Human Rights Day on the 10th of December, as I considered the current state of Australia.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a product of the atrocities of the Second World War. It was developed when the world stopped and considered what was fundamental in what we wanted for each other as fellow human beings.
As a population we currently have cause to pause for similar reflection.
I have written before on the absence of consideration of health as a human right in ongoing debates on health service provision.
It is somewhat ironic that in the week that the government found a way to shift the slow process of decreasing access to primary care to GPs, the first ever Universal Health Coverage Day was being celebrated by 500 organisations from 100 countries. On December 12th as countries around the world were celebrating the journey towards universal health coverage one can only wonder what they thought of Australia’s apparent lack of appreciation for it.
It seems, however, that the current attack on health service provision by the federal government (either by way of funding cuts or co-payments) is slowly working to remind us that health is not merely an economic issue but a social and legal one.
Health as a human right is not the only consideration for health professionals. Recent events have shown that health and human rights are inexorably linked in a number of ways.
The Washington Post recently published this great article by Ranit Mishori on why all doctors (and some would say all health professionals) should study human rights. In the article Mishori reminds us how in the current age of highly mobile populations medical practitioners see the results of human rights violations every day in practice.
The piece argues that understanding and advocating for human rights is part of caring for patients’ well-being:
“Our patients’ well being extends far beyond the exam room, so caring for them means being active outside the hospital. Doctors have a role as our patients’ advocates. I can think of no more fundamental way to fulfill that obligation than to stand up for our patients’ basic human rights.”
It is easy to see human rights as an abstract notion with little relationship to the day-to-day provision of care and setting of standards. Recent events show, however, that we ignore them at our peril.
This month the US provided a shocking reminder of why we have human rights and their connection with health professionals with the release of the Committee report of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation program detailing the clear involvement of ‘medical practitioners’. This was made all the more chilling by Dick Cheney proclaiming that certain procedures were carried out “for medical reasons.”
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), in their own analysis of the senate committee report call for prosecution of the medical practitioners involved:
“PHR finds that health professionals played not only a central, but an essential role in the CIA torture program – to an extent not previously understood. Psychologists designed, supervised, and implemented an extensive system of torture and ill-treatment, and were paid enormous sums for their efforts.
Psychologists and physicians monitored those being tortured and used their expertise to certify detainees’ fitness for torture and worked to enable and enhance the pain inflicted.
PHR finds that without the participation of health professionals, this illegal program might have been prevented.
PHR also concludes that the violations committed by health professionals represent not only a gross breach of medical and professional ethics, but also violations of domestic and international law.”
Torture is at the extreme end of human rights violations; however, it reminds us where we might find ourselves without them.
In Australia health professionals have a challenge ahead. The fundamental right of economic and physical access to appropriate health care is being challenged particularly for the Aboriginal population, asylum seekers and those in remote locations.
Take some time to consider human rights and the role health professionals have always played in defining and defending them. There is a lot of advocating to do.