What is the right to health?

June 2011

Everyone living in Ireland has a right to health. It is the responsibility of the Irish government to protect and to deliver that right.


Health as a Human Right in International Law


The idea of a right to health for everyone is not new. The right to health has been recognised in international human rights law as far back as 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights said: ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for…health and well-being.'


In 1966, Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) made the right to health legally binding, when it said that every country signing the Covenant should recognise ‘the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.’ Ireland ratified this Covenant in 1989.


The right to health contained in ICESCR extends beyond a simple recognition of the right to the highest attainable standard, to a non-exhaustive list of steps in order to achieve its full realisation, such as infant mortality, industrial and environmental hygiene, disease control and, most significantly, medical attention for everyone in the event of sickness.

In 2000, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in their General Comment No.14 set out in more detail what is meant by the right to health. The Committee said that health facilities should be available, accessible, acceptable and of adequate quality.


States’ Obligations

By signing the Covenant, Ireland is now bound under international law to observe the provisions of the ICESCR.  The most recent Programme for Government in Ireland includes a commitment to ‘require all public bodies to take due note of equality and human rights in carrying out their functions.’


An Inclusive Right

Rights are interdependent and indivisible and people do not experience one set of rights violations in isolation from other experiences.  The right to health is closely related to and dependent upon the realisation of other human rights. Access to other rights such as the right to accommodation, education and work are vital for good health.  

States cannot protect against every possible form of illness, but they are obliged to protect the right to the enjoyment of facilities, goods, services and conditions that are necessary to protect health.

As well as providing health services, the States must also provide a range of provisions that are underlying determinants of health such as safe water and sanitation, proper food supply, healthy working conditions and health education.



As many parts of the obligation to fulfil the right to health are dependent on resources, this does not mean that governments can avoid their obligations when resources are scarce.

States are instead required to take deliberate steps, using the maximum of available resources, to progressively bring about the right to health over time. 


Prohibiting discrimination

Fighting discrimination is at the core of the international human rights system.  Non-discrimination is a key principle in human rights and is crucial to the enjoyment of the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Health services, goods and facilities must be provided to everyone without any discrimination.


Everyone must be involved

Participation of communities in all aspects of health-related decision-making (at community and national level) is also an important aspect of the right to health.  The requirement of active participation is an obligation in itself, noted in General Comment 14, and is also linked closely with the requirement of non-discrimination and equality. Increasingly included in the evaluation of health rights is the extent of people’s participation in policy formulation, and care and in political decisions relating to the right to health taken at both the community and national levels.  The comment also says that the formulation and implementation of national health strategies and plans of action should abide by the principles of non-discrimination and participation.

Take action now and show your support for a right to health. 

For more information on the campaign, contact righttohealth@amnesty.ie

Read the overview of our briefing paper to find out more:

Overview of Healthcare Guaranteed - The Right to Health in Ireland.pdf37.97 KB