Human Rights in the World Health Organization: A Q&A With Dr Tedros

By the Health and Human Rights Journal

At this year’s World Health Assembly (May 22–31, 2017), member states will vote for a new Director-General to lead the World Health Organization (WHO) over the next five years. At this critically important time in global health — as the world looks to WHO for leadership in the face of globalized pandemics, health insecurity, mass population displacement and protracted humanitarian crises, climate change, and the looming threat of anti-microbial resistance — we asked each of the three Director-General candidates how they view the role of human rights in global health governance.


WHO’s 1948 Constitution declared that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being,” and this mandate has framed the organization’s work to advance human rights in global health over the past 70 years.

WHO has long worked to address human rights as part of its organizational efforts to direct and coordinate global health, developing health-related human rights through the United Nations (UN) and implementing human rights in its own institutional practices. Affirmed in Resolution 23.41, the World Health Assembly identified “the right to health as a fundamental human right,” stating that “the health aspect of human rights … is within the competence of the [WHO].” States have repeatedly reaffirmed this commitment to health as a human right, with the World Health Assembly developing over 60 subsequent resolutions that address human rights on a variety of WHO programs, including health development, women’s health, reproductive health, child and adolescent health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS, tobacco, violence, mental health, essential medicines, indigenous peoples’ health, and emergencies.

With the UN seeking for the past 20 years to “mainstream” human rights across its programs, policies, and activities, the UN Secretary-General has confirmed that “human rights must be incorporated into decision-making and discussion throughout the work of the Organisation.” WHO has sought to realize this system-wide commitment to human rights through a “rights-based approach to health,” with the World Health Assembly and Executive Board both endorsing such an approach. Building from WHO’s evolving work to advance a rights-based approach to health, the 2012 creation of WHO’s gender, equity and rights team has helped the organization mainstream gender, equity, and human rights across all organizational activities.

HHRJ: How should WHO’s constitutional recognition of the right to health inform the organization’s response to global health challenges?

Dr. Tedros: I have always been inspired by WHO’s constitutional recognition of the right to health. It entails that every person, regardless of who they are or where they live, has access to quality health care that is timely, acceptable, and affordable. These principles and WHO’s mandate are just as relevant today as they were at its founding. However, the challenges in global health and development today are drastically different from what they were seven decades ago. To address these, WHO must evolve and adapt, put the right to health at the core of its functions, and be the global vanguard to champion them.

I believe that focusing on, driving toward, and ultimately achieving universal health coverage is our best path to live up to WHO’s constitutional commitment to the right to health. And if I am elected Director-General, my topmost priority will be universal health coverage. The growing momentum around universal health coverage — combined with the global commitment to sustainable development and its motto of “leaving no one behind” — offers unique opportunities to advance equity in health.

Dr. Tedros: Every year, hundreds of millions of people go without essential health care or fall into poverty trying to pay for it. That is a violation of the human right to health that demands our full attention and urgent action. All of us — national government leaders, members of civil society, health workers, patients and families, and religious and community leaders — have critical roles to drive progress on universal health coverage. Developing technical policies to ensure universal health coverage is an important start, but policies alone will not be sufficient. Implementation of those policies is much more difficult and requires collaboration and partnership across stakeholders.

That approach guided Ethiopia’s pursuit of equitable health access when I was minister of health. We maintained a firm commitment to the principle that health is a basic human right by dramatically expanding coverage of primary health care services. We achieved success by (1) directing new domestic investments in primary health care to people in areas where the need was greatest, including rural and pastoralist areas; (2) engaging communities as partners in local health governance; and (3) building political commitment and promoting accountability at all levels and across all stakeholder groups.

Reflecting these experiences, I believe WHO can and must play an enabling and catalytic role to help all governments achieve universal health coverage and, in turn, advance the human right to health, and I believe it must engage a diverse set of partners, including civil society, in these efforts to ensure success.

HHRJ: How can WHO organizational reform (of staff, resources, and partnerships) strengthen UN system-wide efforts to “mainstream” human rights in public health programming? How can a WHO human rights unit support these organizational efforts?

Dr. Tedros: I am committed to transforming the way that WHO operates. A more effective and efficient WHO will strengthen the entire UN system. As we reform WHO’s infrastructure and ways of operating, we will make sure that the core principles of health as a human right and universal health coverage for the most vulnerable are at the forefront of all our work. Too often, human rights and gender equity are secondary considerations when UN organizations develop programming. This is outdated and must change.

When it comes to rights issues in the reform, importantly, it’s not so much the design of the processes or structures that will make a difference. Far more important is ensuring that health as a human right is engrained into the mindset and attitudes of staff. We need to make sure WHO staff take this core value of the organization to heart and truly believe in it. That is how I believe we will most effectively mainstream human rights in WHO’s public health programming.

Given WHO’s mandate, it will be important to strengthen the existing human rights unit to ensure there are dedicated resources and focus on this issue. That said, as the ultimate guarantor of the right to health, WHO requires more than a single unit in its organizational structure devoted to human rights.

Human rights should be the responsibility of each and every unit. In order to reach this point, we have to effectively mainstream human rights throughout the organization and regularly evaluate to see what impact the mainstreaming is having. That is what I will do if elected Director-General.

This Q&A, which featured all three of the WHO Director General Candidates who are running, originally appeared on April 26, 2017 on the Health and Human Rights website, HERE:

You can read more about Dr. Tedros and his vision for a healthy world as #NextDG at #WHA70 on his website: — and follow along with his campaign on social media at and on Twitter at @DrTedros. Sign up for the campaign’s newsletter `From the Desk of Dr. Tedros’ at