Health as a human right

Guest Post by Sarah Chasnovitz

I am a student at UNC School of Law participating in the Human Rights Policy Clinic. Along with my classmates and our faculty advisor, Deborah Weissman, I am working with the National Health Law Project on a project promoting health as a human right.

Although Orange County is a vocal supporter of human rights and has a history of supporting resolutions reminding our leaders of our obligations under the Geneva Convention and the Convention Against Torture, we have not been as vocal about social and economic rights, particularly here at home. There is a national movement of policymakers, activists, and civic leaders promoting the idea that we need to bring human rights home to our communities. One area in which Orange County can take the lead is by affirming its commitment to the internationally recognized right to health.

This resolution (posted below) calls for Orange County to recognize health as a human right. We will be asking our Board of County Commissioners to pass this resolution on April 10th and then forward it to our representatives in the House and the Senate, encouraging them to ratify the treaties that our President has already signed.

We are encouraged by the steps Orange County has already taken to address health—the Health Department's annual assessment of residents' health, including, in particular, statistics on health disparities, the department's periodic in-depth health report assessing pressing community needs, and our county's newly established Social Justice Committee. But as the statistics show, there is still much room for improvement, particularly around disparities in diabetes, breast cancer, and lead testing in children. This resolution asks Orange County to reaffirm its commitment to health, as recognized in international treaties and human rights law.

I would like to ask readers of this posting, either personally, or as a representative of your organization, to support this resolution. If you support this resolution, I will add your name and/or your organization's name to the documents that we are submitting to the Orange County Board of Commissioners tomorrow night. Please contact me at or 919-962-4107 if you have any questions. I will keep you updated on our progress.

Sarah Chasnovitz is a student at the UNC School of Law, and a participant in the Immigration & Human Rights Policy Clinic.

A Resolution Calling for the Recognition of Health as a Human Right

WHEREAS Orange County is committed to the health of its residents;

WHEREAS, although Orange County has made major gains in achieving high levels of health for the people of Orange County, there is much to be accomplished;

WHEREAS the critical health issues facing Orange County and the state of North Carolina include lack of access to health prevention, diagnosis and treatment; that specific lack of access occurs particularly in prenatal, mental health, and dental care; and that such lack of access is experienced more acutely in certain populations, manifesting itself in conditions such as infant mortality and low birthrate, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, lung disease, HIV diseases and death, cancers, and obesity.

WHEREAS, in Orange County, particularly disparate outcomes are found in diseases such as nephritis, diabetes, prostate cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, cerebrovascular and heart disease, and lung cancer. In particular, Orange County most notably includes comparatively low rates of early lead poisoning testing.

WHEREAS the Orange County Board of Commissioners is committed to promoting and protecting the human rights of its residents, including citizens, non-citizens, adults and children;

WHEREAS international law establishes that “health . . . is a fundamental human right,” as affirmed by the World Health Organization and UNICEF in the Declaration of Alma-Ata on Primary Health Care;

WHEREAS various international agreements provide a comprehensive framework for improving the health of people around the world, and that nations in support of these agreements have agreed to adhere to the following standards for health:

• The right of everyone, not only to the “preservation of health,” as set forth in the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, but also “to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” as set forth in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), affirmed by the Declaration of Alma-Ata, and reinforced for children in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC);

• The right of women, in particular, to equal “access to health care services, including those related to family planning [and to] appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation,” as set forth in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which the North Carolina General Assembly has resolved to urge the United States Senate to adopt in H.R.388 (1999);

• The “right of everyone, without distinction as to race, color, or national or ethnic origin, to . . . public health, medical care, social security and social services,” as emphasized in the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination;

• And to ensure these standards for health are met, the “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,” affirmed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights;

WHEREAS Orange County shares the goals of international agreements affirming faith in human rights and in the dignity and worth of the human person;

WHEREAS the mission of the Orange County Health Department is to “enhance the quality of life, promote the health, and preserve the environment for all people in the Orange County community” and the bylaws of the Orange County Human Relations Commission state that the commission shall “[s]eek to prevent and eliminate bias and discrimination because of race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, national origin, sex, affectional preference, disability, age, marital status, or status with regard to public assistance”;

WHEREAS, it is fitting and appropriate to support ratification of the most important international agreements affecting the health of people throughout the world, and yet few of these agreements have been ratified by the United States;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Orange County Board of Commissioners:

Section 1. Recognize health as a fundamental human right, and that it applies to every human being, regardless of race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, orientation, or any other divisive categorization, both globally and locally.

Section 2. Encourage our state and federal legislative and administrative health agencies to recognize health as a fundamental human right.

Section 3. Encourage Congress to go beyond signing by ratifying and fully implementing the ICESCR, the CRC, and CEDAW;

Section 4. Strive to provide Orange County residents with the “highest attainable standard of physical and mental health," as promoted by the ICESCR.

Section 5. To attain this higher standard of health, encourage such actions as increased lead poisoning testing and surveying to at least 85% of all Orange County children;

Section 6: Ask the Orange County Health Department, in its next State of the County Health Report, to include statistics on lead poisoning testing and surveying;

Section 7. Forward this resolution to our state and federal legislative delegations on behalf of the residents of Orange County.

Resolved this day of ______________________ (date) and forwarded to:

George W. Bush, President, United States of America
Richard Burr, Senator, United States Senate
Elizabeth Dole, Senator, United States Senate
David Price, Congressman, United States Congress


Thanks, Sarah. This is a well-written and well-conceived resolution.

It might also be pointed out that the right to "medical care and necessary social services" is established in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the US signed on to in 1948.

Thank you, Dan. I appreciate your support and comments on how best to raise the profile of this long-established human rights norm in Orange County.

Sarah, this is a great initiative. I support it personally, and would be happy to share it with my Chapel Hill-based organization.

Dan, would it be possible for the Board of Alderman to pass a supportive resolution?

I also think this a great idea and I hope the Commissioners will pass this resolution tonight or at least consider it favorably in the near future.

Thank you all for your support. We presented the resolution to the Board of County Commissioners last night and got favorable responses from the commissioners, especially Commissioner Mike Nelson, who has already given the resolution his support. They'll be referring it to their staff and (hopefully) voting on it in the next meeting. I'll keep you all updated.

In the meantime, if anyone else would like to support the resolution, please send me an email (

We'll be presenting it to the Women's Commission on Thursday night.

For those needing a bit of activism today, we sure could use your help on stirring up some noise on community mental health.


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