Operationalising a rights-based approach to health: Reorienting health and measuring impact, Norad, Oslo, 10 December 2015

Speech at a Seminar on Global Health and Human Rights

State Secretary Tone Skogen's opening speech at a seminar on human rights-based approach to health in Oslo 10 December 2015.

Welcome to Oslo. It is a pleasure to see you all. Some of you have travelled far to be here today. A special thanks to you for coming all this way to share your valuable experience and knowledge.

Today, as you may know, is Human Rights Day, an occasion to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. And an appropriate day to hold this seminar.

Health is often seen as a development issue. Health is just as much a human rights issue. Applying a human-rights-based approach to health makes it possible to bring two worlds together. This seminar will help us take stock of where we are, and provide guidance on how to advance. We can only move forward if we are willing to share experiences and learn from each other.

Looking back, we have made great progress in health at the global level. More than 15 million people have access to HIV treatment. Deaths from AIDS have been dramatically reduced. Child and maternal mortality has been halved since the 1990s. We have a better data and knowledge base, and we can see more clearly where and how to direct our efforts, and who to partner. Health systems in general have improved.

Norway remains committed to further enhancing global health. We have focused on improving the health of groups that have lagged behind, including women and children, and on improving access for people who are marginalised. We are also engaged in key reproductive health issues such as access to contraceptives and access to safe abortion services.

Norway is a strong supporter of human rights efforts at both operational and normative level. We have supported the Human Rights Council resolutions on maternal health as a human right. We were actively engaged in the drafting of the landmark 2011 Human Rights Council decision on recognition of the importance of human rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. This resolution is highly relevant in the context of health. These are some examples where we have seen that working in partnership with others has achieved good results.

Despite our collective efforts, too many people still suffer ill health and die too early. Rights related to reproductive and sexual health are still under pressure in several countries. Our work is not done.

One key challenge is that good health is not evenly distributed. Research shows clearly that health is determined by a range of factors, such as income, where a person lives, social status, sexual orientation, and gender. War and humanitarian crises put vulnerable societies under further pressure and exacerbate existing differences.

These inequalities must be addressed. The principles of equality and non-discrimination must be put into practice. The Sustainable Development Goals with their key principle of ‘leave no one behind’ puts human rights squarely at the centre of our development efforts.

What is the added value of bringing in a human rights perspective?

Firstly, all states parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have a legal obligation to fulfil the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. It is not a question of charity, but of realising the rights of the people.

Secondly, all citizens have this right, regardless of race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation or any other status. While the level of physical and mental health attainable will depend on factors like the availability of resources, the prohibition against discrimination is absolute.

Human rights are important in themselves. But human rights are also important for achieving equitable and sustainable development. This is one of the key messages of Norway’s white paper on human rights, which we launched exactly a year ago.

Another key message is that Norway will seek to integrate human rights into all aspects of its foreign and development policy. Human rights will therefore be a crosscutting issue for all Norwegian development policy from 2016.

The discussions that you will have today are not only timely as we move towards implementing the Sustainable Development Goals and the principle of ‘leave no one behind’. These discussions will also inform the way we ‘do development’.

As you are aware, a human-rights-based approach to development relates not only to the outcome of a programme. It also relates to the process of implementation. This entails mainstreaming the principles of equality and non-discrimination, participation, transparency and accountability into a range of different systems and sectors.

One of the challenges when applying a human-rights-based approach to planning in any sector is understanding the practical application of these principles.

At the same time, awareness of the importance of a rights-based and equitable approach to health has matured. Valuable experience has been gained by actors working through courts to hold duty bearers to account, as well as from involving rights holders in policy and programme development to enable them to claim their rights.

A key lesson is that the right to the highest attainable standard of health, and other human rights, can only be operationalised if health professionals, civil society, faith based organisations, activists, researchers, governments and multilateral agencies work closely together. Partnership is crucial.

Knowing as we do that the death and suffering of many women and children could have been avoided, and that members of marginalised groups are being denied access to services, it is clear that we need to step up our efforts to ensure rights-based, equitable health service delivery. Only by working in partnership, will we achieve universal access for all.

The invited speakers today, as well as the participants here in this room, represent a wealth of knowledge. This knowledge will help to advance the global conversation on how to develop a human-rights-based approach to health. The lessons from the health sector apply to other sectors and to development in general. I look forward to learning about the outcomes of your discussions, and to taking this important agenda forward.

Thank you.