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New AAAS Manual Uses Science to Help Track Health Rights
International health advocatesincluding the United Nations' special rapporteur on health rightsare giving favorable reviews to a manual published by AAAS that offers medical professionals, nongovernmental organizations, and other groups new tools to monitor the status of health rights in their countries.
Based on years of research and collaboration by the AAAS Science and Human Rights (SHR) program and the U.K.-based Commonwealth Medical Trust, the 180-page book explores the legal underpinnings for the right to health and the obligations of states to protect and advance the right. It provides a detailed exploration into how health professionals and others can use indicators, benchmarks and statistical data to monitor a government's performance.
SHR Director Audrey Chapman said the first copies of the manual were distributed in August to about 80 human rights professionals attending an academy at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands and to a like number who attended the annual conference of the International Federation of Health and Human Rights Organizations, also in Utrecht.
"Although built on firm scholarly foundations, this manual is impeccably practical and accessible," said Paul Hunt, the United Nations' special rapporteur on physical and mental health rights. "In recent years, the scope of the right to health has become clearer. The great challenge now is to apply the right to healthto operationalize itto make it real. As we approach this challenge, the manual will serve as an indispensable and unique tool."
Ravi Duggal, coordinator of the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes, a health and human rights organization headquartered in Mumbai, India, said the manual would have immediate practical value. "For NGOs working on health issues, the manual is an excellent resource book that will orient them to a human rights approach," Duggal said. "For human rights groups, it is a useful manual which will help them contextualize health rights. And for students of courses or training programs on health and health rights, it is a valuable reference manual."
While documents such as the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution defined political and civil rights in the 18th century, health emerged as a right after the United Nations General Assembly approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
The manual was conceived as a way to establish measurable, quantifiable standards that could be applied to a government to assess whether it was meetingor failingthe right to health among its constituents. Because such standards have never before been developed, the book required five years of planning, research and writing, Chapman said.
"The SHR program is dedicated to developing resources that apply scientific methods to human rights," Chapman said. "Although people have talked about the importance of systematic approaches for monitoring human rights, particularly the use of indicators, for a long time, the work has been inadequate because of the complexity. To develop indicators, you have to know human rights, you have to know statistics….You need to be able to work with huge quantities of data."
Already, Chapman said, some of the approaches developed in the manual have been adopted by the United Nations' Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and by other organizations worldwide. At its meeting in Utrecht, the International Federation of Health and Human Rights Organizations adopted an action commending AAAS and the Commonwealth Medical Trust for development of the manual and recommending it to member organizations.
Joining AAAS and the Commonwealth Medical Trust as a co-publisher of the book is Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems, International (HURIDOCS), established in 1982 as a global network of organizations concerned with human rights information. The groups are seeking funding for a mass printing of the manual and translations into French and Spanish. Chapman said that the groups would also like to translate the volume into other languages, including Arabic.
By year's end, the Science and Human Rights program expects to publish a manual on indicators to monitor government's core obligations to the right to health; a manual on indicators for the environmental components of the right to health; a manual on monitoring labor rights; and a manual on the right to water.
Edward W. Lempinen
3 November 2004