Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Are countries that ratify human rights treatises more healthy than others?

One might think that a country which has ratified human rights treaties, and thus has made them to some extent law, will have better health outcomes than countries where this is not the case, all things being equal or at least controlled for. A study just published in The Lancet indicates otherwise. The researchers looked at some key and often-measured health and social indicators, and sought correlations between number of treatises ratified and changes in health/social indicators before and after ratification of health-related human rights treatises, as well as making comparisons between health/social indicators in a total of 170 countries that did or did not ratify certain treatises.
The results are sobering, or perhaps predictable, depending on one's pre-existing opinions about the power of human rights approaches to health. Ratification of human rights treatises does not seem to have any significant effect on maternal mortality, infant/child mortality and life expectancy. The researchers try to put a brave face on the data, by adding that ratification of human rights treatises can have some indirect (but hard to pin down) effect on health by strengthening legal arguments aiming to ensure access to health care. But in the end, money trumps law: there is much greater evidence of an association between economic conditions and health than there is between the ratification of human rights and health.

One might object by saying that ratification is the mere promise of action, just the signing of a paper, and we should only expect an effect in terms of health outcomes in countries that rigorously monitor, enforce and make its human rights commitments real. In other words, in finding no significant association, what the researchers have actually done is study the global absence of political will in regard to human rights relevant to health.

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