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Putting human rights at the centre of universal health coverage

23 January 2015

Leading thinkers in the health and human rights sectors gathered at the Commonwealth Secretariat today to discuss the right to health in the context of universal health coverage.

Deputy Secretary-General Gary Dunn opened the event and stressed the critical need for quality healthcare for all regardless of social or economic background and how a rights-based approach could help achieve this.

He said: “The right to health cannot be fully realised without the availability of health care for everyone, in particular marginalised groups. Likewise, the right to health can, and should, inform, shape and strengthen efforts to develop and deliver universal health coverage policies and programmes.”

Lessons learnt from the Millennium Development Goals show that there needs to be a more integrated approach towards health, requiring building adequate health systems and adherence to human rights standards.

Anand Grover, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, set the debate in the context of international standards and identified the key areas that need to be addressed to realise the right to health as accessibility, affordability, acceptability, autonomy and quality, arguing, “The right to health framework requires that there should be a national public health framework”.

It was the general consensus among panellists that public funding has to be at the forefront if good quality healthcare for all is to be achieved.

Robert Yates, Senior Health Economist at Chatham House, reinforced this argument and called for high-level engagement with governments at the earliest opportunity in order to drive processes towards universal healthcare.

“Universal health coverage, because of its requirement to progressive public financing, is more political than technical. We need to take it out of the health world and into the political world.

We in the health development world should engage politicians a lot more and if we do that maybe we can catalyse more of these reforms that help accelerate progress towards universal health coverage.”

Concluding the debate, Nikhil Roy, Programme Development Director at Penal Reform International outlined the challenges faced by marginalised groups, specifically prisoners, to access healthcare.

He described “societal attitudes” and “lack of political will” as some of the many barriers to improve health services for prisoners and cited factors such as greater exposure to communicable diseases, mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse and overcrowding as major risks.

Mr Roy stressed the need to work more closely with prison administrations to ensure international standards are implemented on the ground.

The meeting, which follows the first celebration of Universal Health Coverage Day on 12 December 2014, will inform the Commonwealth’s programmatic work with member governments in this area.