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Student Editorials

The importance of human rights to health

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/sbmj.0410351 (Published 01 October 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:0410351
  1. Peter Hall, chair1
  1. 1Physicians for Human Rights UK

Peter Hall considers the effect that human rights have on health and how denial of those rights has grave implications on wellbeing

Respect for human rights underpins ethical medical practice and is essential for a healthy population. The Hippocratic oath resembles contemporary health rights, as defined by international law.1

Human rights affect medical practice in several ways—they influence ethical codes; they justify each patient's claim to the best attainable physical and mental health through their emphasis on norms, obligations, and accountability; and health is jeopardised when generic human rights are violated. Moreover, the values enshrined in human rights are a reliable guide for contemporary practice because they are universal and focus on people as rights holders rather than patients.

The role of human rights in resolving ethical dilemmas was highlighted in 1999, when four medical specialists concluded that Senator Augusto Pinochet, Chile's former president, did not have the mental capacity to face extradition from the United Kingdom to Spain on charges of torture. The UK home secretary refused to release details of the assessment, claiming patient confidentiality as paramount. But the right to confidentiality is relative not absolute, and the right of 40 000 Chilean torture survivors to be informed—essential to the restorative process of justice—should have taken precedence.23 As the Lancet put it, “without complete transparency, even independent-minded physicians who assist the judicial process of democratic nations can find their opinions manipulated for political purposes.”4

On a different but equally important level, a paper in the BMJ that exposed the practice of requiring medical students to intimately examine unconscious patients without consent proposed ethical drift as a confounding factor.5 Had those responsible considered the values of the 55 year old Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), these assaults would not have been permitted.6 …

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