I was recently in Nairobi on invitation from Interights for a Consultative Meeting of Experts on the Right to Health in Africa. I have done some work on the right to health, including examining Nigerian jurisprudence on the right to health and examining the linkage with the right to health in international law to access to medicines, including antiretroviral medicines for HIV treatment. I am also really interested in health law reform, much of which is premised on the achievement of the right to health. And so, I was really excited to meet and rub minds with practitioners and scholars in the right to health arena in Africa. As expected, it was stimulating, enlightening, and energising to talk with other people who are at the forefront of the fight to tackle human rights issues in different African countries, practitioners and scholars from South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, the United Kingdom and the United States. We spoke about thematic and pressing issues on the human right to health, in particular, litigation strategies and experiences. We spoke also of human right challenges such as detention of patients unable to pay medical bills, maternal health, child health, domestic violence, access to essential medicines, mental health, human resources for health, right to information (access to budgets, to personal health records, accompanying women when they give birth, access to HIV test results, to other test results, open access to scientific journals), health rights of prisoners and detainees. We spent time discussing interventions such as judicial capacity building, then strategic(instead of reactionary) use of litigation, international and regional mechanisms for seeking redress for human rights violations, and different ways to engage with various stakeholders on the right to health.
I will not dwell on the issue of justiciability of the right to health which always rears its head once one begins to talk about socio-economic rights in Nigeria and in other African countries with similar constitutions. I will write a blog focused on that serious issue soon. One of the main things that we talked about was the need to ensure that people began to understand that there is such a thing as the “right to health.” That was a really useful thing for me having been asked, as I was at the airport when I said I was going to a meeting on the right to health, if there was any such thing. Among other things, we talked about the need to educate people on the normative contents of the right to health and what this means for them – accessibility of health facilities, availability of essential medicines in health facilities, availability of skilled personnel (the doctor’s strikes in Lagos State) comes to mind, the quality of treatment, and preventive education, and ethical and cultural acceptability.
It is important for “regular” people (meaning people who are not human rights experts or advocates) to realise that there is such a thing as the international right to health. While there are problems of enforceability because the right to health is defined as a fundamental objective under our Constitution in Nigeria, it is important to recognise that as a people we are deserving of good and efficient health systems, health facilities, skilled health workers, health information. If we run non-governmental organisations, we may think of advocating on issues such as transparency in health budgeting and increase in budgetary allocations, and minimum basic health packages. We may think of training doctors and judges, ministry of health personnel and other people who have an impact on health care on the human rights implications of their work. We may think of encouraging, as I do and will continue to do on this forum, patients and their families to advocate for themselves when they find themselves in health care facilities. That includes getting ourselves educated. We may think of litigating, suing medical facilities, doctors, and governments, when our rights are violated in a healthcare setting, in order to ensure that no other person goes through what we have suffered. We may think of supporting organisations or persons involved in such work where we can.
There may be scepticism about what difference we can make as individuals, even as non-governmental organisations. But standing still will not take us to our destination. One day, the right to health will be a reality not merely a rhetorical question.