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Celebrating 70 Years of International Human Rights and Looking Forward: Why Better Urban Health Can Promote Human Rights

Better health, particularly better urban health, can in fact support the fulfillment of many fundamental human rights.

Posted on December 10, 2018
Picture of United Nations flag

By: Adriana Lein, MSc-GH 
Drexel Urban Health Collaborative and SALURBAL Project

On December 10, 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, one of the most significant milestones in the then emerging field of international human rights. Among its most famous articles are its guiding proclamation that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and subsequent declarations of innate rights to “life, liberty and security of person,” “freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state,” “just and favourable conditions of work and protection against unemployment,” and “education.” The changing global consciousness that followed is credited with ushering in reforms and improvements in areas such as civil rights, worker protections, and public education, and has since been invoked in social movements worldwide.

Among the UDHR’s 30 articles, the world “health” appears once, stating

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 and 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.”

Despite the clear links to living standards, health, and basic services, many have argued that the UNDR fell short in establishing a universal right to health and well-being. Later covenants, namely the so-called “second-generation” economic, social and cultural rights have been more explicit in recognizing both the right to health and the responsibility of state governments to improve health, echoed in the charters of leading international organizations and even the national constitutions of 73 countries. Yet, health is worthy of attention in human rights discussions beyond questions of its own status as a human right. Better health, particularly better urban health, can in fact support the fulfillment of many universal human rights.

Seventy years after the arrival of the UDHR, human rights remain unfilled in many parts of the world, with glaring disparities based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and other social patterning. At the same time, there have been significant global-scale changes that have transformed everything from macroeconomic trends in governance and political economy to more basic considerations of where and how we live. Of these trends, rapid urbanization stands out for its enormous relevance to human rights.  Despite a growing share of the global population residing in cities, the UDHR and successor documents were written to compel responses from national governments. Indeed, much of contemporary international law rests on both the primacy and sovereignty of nation states.

However, at a time when new estimates suggest that as much as 84% of the world’s population lives in urban settings, the unique and evolving position of city, municipal, and other local governments to promote and enforce human rights can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. There are concrete steps that these actors can take to advance human rights. Among these are investments and interventions to improve health and shape healthier environments, which include policy and legal interventions targeting diverse issues such as affordable and quality housing, sustainable transportation and mobility, safer neighborhoods, income generation and financial empowerment, and civic and community participation.

Across the board, rising living standards, cleaner air, increased inclusivity in city life, strengthened livelihoods, and access to services are inextricably tied to better health and well-being. But, these actions are also deeply intertwined with progress in human rights that guarantees fundamental dignity, liberties, and protections for all. Moreover, progress in these sectors is interconnected with improvements in other areas of human rights- such as employment or education- and also ensures one can fully benefit from these opportunities. Equity has also been a key focus of urban health and many upstream determinants of health are the same macroeconomic structures and social disadvantage that hamper progress in human rights.

The growing importance of cities to address pressing global challenges has already been recognized with respect to key issues such as climate change and implementing sustainable development agendas. When it comes to human rights agreements, monitoring, and enforcements, cities can play an equally crucial role and an urban health framework can help point the way forward.

This post was written as a contribution to Cities, Sectors, and Health, run by SALURBAL. To contact the blog or learn more about the SALURBAL project email


Posted in Public Policies, localnews, Urban Development, Sustainable Development, Health Equity