Human rights and public health: towards a balanced relationship

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This contribution attempts to scope the multiple and complex relationships between measures to protect health and the protection of human rights. The article begins with a discussion of the meaning and current understandings of the notion of ‘public health’, after which it explores how ‘public health’ is framed in various branches of public international law, including international trade law, the law of armed conflict and international environmental law. Subsequently, in light of these developments, it discusses whether the ‘right to health’ can be used as a collective claim to advance the health of the public, possibly in support of the existing public health clauses under international law. In such cases the protection of public health, and potentially the ‘right to health’, may clash with the interests of international and domestic trade and commerce, intellectual property protection, and the conduct of warfare. Another tension exists where measures to protect the health of the public infringe on the civil and political rights of individuals, including their rights to privacy and freedom of movement, but also their individual right to healthcare. This may occur both within and beyond healthcare settings, for example when it comes to quarantine, (forced) testing, and border restrictions in the interests of public health, but also in the fields of biomedical research and the testing of medicines. The existing limitation clauses under civil and political human rights law provide some guidance as to how such measures should be taken, however there is a need for a better understanding on how to implement these tools.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)488-504
Number of pages17
JournalInternational Journal of Human Rights
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - May-2015


  • public health, human rights restrictions, right to health

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