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The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights

Today is the 62nd commemoration day for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which constitutes one of the major achievements of the United Nations. This Declaration was born at the end of the Second World War and is considered the first attempt by an international organization to focus on the human individual and his rights.  It was the beginning of the Cold War between the East and the West and there was then a conflict between two divergent ideologies: the first maintained that the individual must work, and even be sacrificed for the sake of the state, and the second believed that the state must work for the sake of the individual.

How proud, we, the Lebanese, are when we remember that a man from our land was the primary mover behind this Declaration, and if it were not for him, this Declaration would not have seen the light.  This man was Charles Malik, one of the distinguished men who elevatedLebanon to the world. Also, he was one of the great philosophers who spoke on the uniqueness and the greatness of the individual person and the significance of freedom.  Although I think this historical document is extremely important for the protection of human rights and for their promotion all over the world, I believe it failed to address in a clear and unequivocal way what I consider the most important issue relating to the future of man and his right to life. This issue is the right to health.

Article 3 of the Declaration states:  “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.  But I would like to ask, what does the “right to life” in this article mean?  Evidently, it does not mean the right to health as Article 25 stipulates: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family including food, clothing, housing and medical care, necessary social services and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”.  It is clear from the above two articles that those who authored the Charter of Human Rights [John Peters Humphrey (Canada), René Cassin (France), P.C. Chang (China), and Charles Malik (Lebanon)], failed to define the basic and organic relationship between the right to life and the right to health.  Accordingly, the right to health was not a central issue in the Charter. This is where I differ.  I believe there is no human right more important than the right to health, as health is necessary for life.  Without health, there is no life and without life, there are no human rights.  For this reason I recommended to the United Nations in the past to revise Article 3 and now I look forward to working with those serving on its Human Rights Committee to change this Article to read as follows: “The most important and sacred human right is the right to life, but this right is not possible without the right to health, as life depends on health. Consequently, all governments and societies are urged to consider healthcare a priority and should strive to provide medical care to all citizens”.  What does this revision mean and what is its impact? This revision heralds a revolution in our commitment to Human Rights as the right to health becomes a priority in the policies and strategies of governments all over the world, contrary to the present situation, where healthcare is treated as a low priority.  Also, one of the important indices to assess the commitment of a country to human rights will be its commitment to healthcare.

What does the right to health mean?  It means three things:  first, the right to prevention of disease.  Second, the right to early detection.  Third, the right to medical care when needed.  To achieve these objectives, new health policies need to be established and civil society needs to be mobilized. Healthcare is not only the responsibility of governments as people may think, but is also the responsibility of society at large.  The tragedy today is that most health policies around the world remain in the hands of traditional politicians, but it is my conviction that such policies should be above politics in its’ traditional sense, as health relates to every person irrespective of his political, religious or societal affiliation.  Health should be apolitical. Take for example, the debate that lasted for many months this year in the United States Congress which revolved around one point, and one point only, and that is how to reduce healthcare costs. I cannot help but ask why not one single Congressman had the courage to speak on prevention of disease as the most effective way of reducing cost?  Reduction of cost at the expense of the quality of medical care is a very expensive mistake.  In my opinion the most efficient way of reducing cost without the risk of reducing quality of medical care is to establish comprehensive policies for the prevention and early detection of disease.  What politicians do not know is that prevention of disease not only reduces financial costs, but reduces what is by far more important, human suffering.  After the strategy of prevention comes the strategy of early detection.  The latter demands health policies that provide the right of every person to undergo an annual check up.  My motto in this regard is, “if consulting the doctor is necessary when you are sick, consulting him when you are healthy is even more important”.  The chances of cure from any disease are extremely high when the disease is discovered early and these chances decrease as the disease advances.  In regard to the right to good medical care when one falls ill, I do not know of a more threatening enemy to man than disease, or a more brutal power that could strip him of his dignity.  Isn’t it a shame that people do not realize the significance of health and the sacredness of the right to health until they become sick?  What about patients who need medical care for a prolonged period of time and who combat disease everyday?  These people painfully know the meaning of humiliation and disgrace.  Also, what about those patients who have no access to a doctor or medication?  What do human rights mean to those people if they do not have the right to health? And what does the right to freedom or the right to education mean to a person who is battling death?  This is why I am recommending that the right to health be the first and most sacred right of the human rights.  I would also like to emphasize that the real index for measuring the status of civilization in a country, should not be the military power it possesses, or the social and financial prosperity of its citizens. It should be the commitment of that country to the health of its people.  How shameful that there are great nations like the United States of America which claim to not have adequate financial resources to provide health care to their citizens, but at the same time have all the resources to launch the most expensive wars in history.  Indeed, how ironic it is that people, who are considered heroes in the world today and in the past, are heroes of wars and heroes of death and destruction.

Life is a gift from God.  It was given to man.  Man is not capable of conceiving it or earning it.  Only God is capable of creating it and giving it, but health is a necessary condition for the maintenance of life, as without health life may disintegrate.  To glorify God, we should also glorify His gift and consequently acknowledge the role of health in preserving it.

May the believers amongst you, please come, and let us all glorify Him.

This article was originally published in Arabic in the Annahar newspaper of Beirut Lebanon as a front page editorial on Friday December 10, 2010