Seeing and Acting on Interdependent and Indivisible Human Rights

By: James P. O’Sullivan

February 2, 2015

Responding to Ebola: Solidarity and the Common Good

Looking at the overall vision expounded by Dr. Kim from the perspective of Catholic social thought (CST), there is much about which to be hopeful and grateful. Indeed, his vision clearly departs from the elegant but evidence-eschewing neoliberal economic models and structural adjustment policies that dominated the World Bank for several decades. These policies promised growth and automatic poverty reduction, but delivered disappointingly on the former and disastrously on the latter.

Poverty and poor people’s lives are back in the spotlight, and evidence on what actually works in reducing poverty and improving people’s lives is central to Kim’s vision. As he made clear, the evidence on the importance of robust health systems for the lives and prospects of poor people, as well the connection between health and economic growth, are becoming increasingly accepted. Investments in the health infrastructure of a region are investments in the long-term and overall economic and social health of that region, and indeed, of the global community. Thus, as the tragic Ebola episode demonstrated, investing in more resilient health systems in the poorest nations of the world is a vital step, based in evidence, toward improving lives and the future of humanity. “See, judge, act,” as the tradition extols.

However, a perspective informed by CST must highlight further connections, specifically in terms of the full-spectrum of human rights. Since the time of John XXIII, CST has put forward civil and political as well as social and economic rights as what can be termed the “fundamental requirements for respecting human dignity” in the modern world. These rights are interdependent and indivisible, and are both a principal end and essential means of achieving authentic and integral development.

Looking at health, poverty, and growth from the lens of interdependent human rights reveals a complex web that must be seen and dealt with as a whole. Of course, defining health as a human right means that it cannot be left solely to the market, and instead requires that systems be put in place to ensure the realization of this right for all people. But the right to health exists as part of a mutually reinforcing spectrum of prerequisites for a dignified life. This means that investment in adequate hospitals and healthcare providers will not ensure the right to health if adequate investment is lacking for the “social determinants” of health: nutrition, sanitation, housing, and education, which, of course, themselves represent crucial social-economic rights. Further, key civil-political rights—freedom of the press, adequate public information, free speech, and functioning democratic governance—are also crucial to realizing the right to health, which is, in turn, essential to realizing greater prosperity, which can, in turn, be put to use in greater realization of rights. And the connections go on.

Therefore, international development aid and internal government policies must be ever mindful of the intimate interdependence of the full-spectrum of rights and must be administered accordingly. Failing to see, judge, and act in this way is not only a moral failure, but also a practical one.

related | Explore more of the dialogue among some 20 bloggers based at Jesuit institutions worldwide.

comments powered by Disqus
Opens in a new window