President calls for discourse between economics and human rights

Right to health the focus of President Higgin’s ethics initiative conference at NUIG

President Michael D Higgins has called for a "deepening of the discourse" between economics and human rights, particularly the human right to health.

It is "long past time" that we "moved the human rights discourse" out of the legal and academic area, Mr Higgins told a meeting hosted under the president's ethics initiative at NUI Galway (NUIG) on Friday.

On his recent visit to South Africa, Mr Higgins said he had observed how judicial protection of the right to health has been used to engage with complex issues such as healthcare, budgeting and the provision of retroviral care.

Formal legal protection of the right to health will not, in itself, resolve profound poverty and structural inequality, and the right to health remains essentially a “political matter”Mr Higgins said.


Mr Higgins noted the “gap between the revolution in economics and its disconnect from the human rights discourse”, and explained that his focus on ethics was influenced by the Bangladeshi-Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen.

He called for greater progress in taking the bold political decision to address these issues.

“This year in particular we cannot have more of the same,”he said, and 2015 had been regarded as perhaps the most important year for the future of humanity in a generation, with the Post-2015 Development Conference in September in New York and the Climate Change Conference in December in Paris.

“These blocking mechanisms of the powerful – and the countries that were representing the powerful and representing unaccountable multinationals – cannot destroy these important conferences,”he said.

Keynote speaker Prof Sofia Gruskin praised Ireland for being one of 163 signatories to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which serves as the main foundational document for the legal obligations stemming from the right to health, but noted that her own country, the US, had not signed up.

Health and rights are “mutually important” and “the best way to maximise health is to maximise rights,” Prof Gruskin, who is director of the global health and human rights programme at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Global Health, said.

The "interconnectedness between economics and human rights" is central to several key areas of inequality – as in the two-tier health system, the Government's failure to address childhood obesity, and access by stroke victims to rehabilitation, Irish Heart Foundation policy and research manager Cliona Loughnane said.

More than one third of stroke victims were paying for their rehabilitation, and yet access to that rehabilitation made the difference between returning home and having to resort to institutionalised care, she noted.

The reluctance of the government to tackle policies leading to childhood obesity was another example, she said. Health promotion policies focused on the individual, through media campaigns, rather than introducing policies to reduce exposure to harmful goods.

This reflected the power of corporate lobby groups in the alcohol, junk food and tobacco industries, she noted.

Spending more money on emergency departments was not necessarily going to produce a better service, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission chief commissioner Les Allamby.

Expenditure elsewhere could reduce pressure on emergency departments, he said, and practical examples of this had been highlighted at 11 public hearings which the commission had hosted in its recent human rights inquiry into emergency health care.

Police statistics had shown that one third of people who went missing had been in hospital, for example.

“If you leave someone with a history of mental health waiting for hours in an emergency department, there is a cost to police time,”he said.

Other speakers included Prof George Ulrich of the Riga Graduate School of Law, Latvia; Irish Equality and Human Rights Commission chief commissioner Emily Logan; Jane Ann McKenna of Médecins Sans Frontières; University Hospital Galway clinical research ethics committee chair Dr Shaun O'Keeffe; health policy analyst Dr Sara Burke; University of Nottingham professor of mental health law Prof Peter Bartlett; journalist Roisín Boyd; and Prof Diarmuid O'Donovan and Prof Michael O'Flaherty of NUIG.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times