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The Right to Health, the Right to a World Free of War

December 7, 2009

December 10th marks Human Rights Day, but it is also another agonizing day in the health care debate going on in Congress. Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which the U.S helped draft) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights state that all people have the right to a life that promotes their mental and physical well being. And yet how many people worldwide can really claim this right? In honor of Human Rights Day, FCNL’s staff has attempted to address some of the ways that our issues are linked to the fundamental question of health both in the United States and worldwide.

What does health have to do with preventing war?  Recently I learned about a position paper written by the American Public Health Association (APHA) recognizing violent conflict as one of the most significant threats to public health worldwide. Deadly conflict affects people of all demographics and from all countries and it is naïve to think that wars fought elsewhere do not also affect public health here at home. The paper argues that public health practitioners, educators and professionals could and should play an important role in preventing war. They see the prevention of violent conflict as one of the most effective things they can do to affect global health generally and would like to see the public health workforce equipped with the necessary conflict mitigation and peacebuilding skills. The authors of this paper are visionaries in their field, people who dare to imagine a bigger role for themselves than the one that seems most obvious.

I get excited about the idea of public health professionals working around the world in war prevention as part of their regular health care work.  It reminds me how interconnected these important issues are and how much we learn from one another. When talking about peacefully preventing deadly conflict with legislators or other groups in Washington, I have often used the concept of preventative medicine as a good analogy for our work. Just as it is more cost efficient to invest in preventative care as opposed to intervening once a patient is experiencing a medical emergency, the U.S government would save money and lives by preventing deadly conflict around the world instead of intervening militarily after conflicts have already erupted into violence.

Health care reform has made a lot of people uncomfortable with the idea that the system they know will change. So I appreciate the APHA position paper for its ability to step back from these intimate fears of change in order to see the broader issues that affect this debate. The cost of reform has been one of the biggest sticking points for advancing health care reform bills in Congress, even as President Obama gets ready to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan at a similar cost of $1 trillion over 10 years. We can no longer look at the things we’d like fixed in our country and say that we don’t have enough money to pay for them. We do—but first we have to stop pouring all our money into a bloated military budget and fighting wars overseas. We need to start preparing for peace rather than war.

I hope that more people in the US will follow the example of the APHA and begin to see how war affects their work and lives and join FCNL in working to peacefully prevent deadly conflict. As the APHA example demonstrates, these ideas are gaining traction.  National Human Rights Day is a good time to think about how far we have come, but also to recognize what still needs to be done to ensure that all people in the world can live free from war and the threat of war.  That, like health, is a human right.

Check out a post on Native American health by Inez Steigerwald on the intern blog and a post on immigrant health by Becca Sheff on the immigration blog.

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