Rights Language in the Sustainable Development Agenda: Has Right to Health Discourse and Norms Shaped Health Goals?

Document Type: Hypothesis


1 Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

2 Department of Public Health, Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp, Belgium

3 School of Public Health, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, Australia


While the right to health is increasingly referenced in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) discussions, its contribution to global health and development remains subject to considerable debate. This hypothesis explores the potential influence of the right to health on the formulation of health goals in 4 major SDG reports. We analyse these reports through a social constructivist lens which views the use of rights rhetoric as an important indicator of the extent to which a norm is being adopted and/or internalized. Our analysis seeks to assess the influence of this language on goals chosen, and to consider accordingly the potential for rights discourse to promote more equitable global health policy in the future.


Commentaries Published on this Paper

  • Human Rights Discourse in the Sustainable Development Agenda Avoids Obligations and Entitlements; Comment on “Rights Language in the Sustainable Development Agenda: Has Right to Health Discourse and Norms Shaped Health Goals?”

          Abstract | PDF

  • Searching for the Right to Health in the Sustainable Development Agenda; Comment on “Rights Language in the Sustainable Development Agenda: Has Right to Health Discourse and Norms Shaped Health Goals?”

          Abstract | PDF

  • Health Rights and Realization; Comment on “Rights Language in the Sustainable Development Agenda: Has Right to Health Discourse and Norms Shaped Health Goals?”

          Abstract | PDF


Authors’ Response to the Commentaries

  • From Almost Empty to Half Full? A Response to Recent Commentaries

          Abstract | PDF


Main Subjects

  1. At high level event, UN officials call for human rights-backed development agenda. UN News Centre. June 9, 2014. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=47996#.U-p2jmO9YVA. Accessed May 12, 2015.
  2. UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda. Realizing the Future We Want for All: Report to the Secretary-General. Geneva: United Nations; 2012. http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/Post_2015_UNTTreport.pdf. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  3. World Health Organization (WHO). Global update on the health sector response to HIV, 2014. Geneva: WHO; 2014. http://www.who.int/hiv/pub/progressreports/update2014/en/. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  4. Mann J, Gruskin S, Grodin MA, Annas GJ, eds. Health and Human Rights: A Reader. New York: Routledge; 1999.
  5. Gruskin S, Mills EJ, Tarantola D. History, principles, and practice of health and human rights. Lancet. 2007;370(4):449-455. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61200-8
  6. Beyrer C, Pizer HF, eds. Public Health and Human Rights: Evidence-Based Approaches. Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2007.
  7. United Nations (UN). “Millennium Declaration,” Resolution 55/2, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Geveva: United Nations; 2000. http://www.un.org/millennium/declaration/ares552e.htm. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  8. Alston P. Ships passing in the night: The current state of the human rights and development debate seen through the lens of the Millennium Development Goals. Hum Rts Q. 2005;27:755-829. doi:10.1353/hrq.2005.0030
  9. Wisor S. After the MDGs: citizen deliberation and the post-2015 development framework. Ethics Int Aff. 2012;26(1):113-133. doi:10.1017/S0892679412000093
  10. Langford M, Sumner A, Yamin AE. Introduction: situating the debate. In: Langford M, Sumner A, Yamin AE, eds. The Millennium Development Goals and Human Rights: Past, Present and Future. New York: Cambridge University Press; 2013: 1-36.
  11. Yamin AE, Boulanger VM. Why global goals and indicators matter: the experience of sexual and reproductive health and rights in the Millennium Development Goals. J Hum Dev Capab. 2014;15(2-3):218-231. doi:10.1080/19452829.2014.896322
  12. Brolan CE, Hill PS. Sexual and reproductive health and rights in the evolving post-2015 agenda: perspectives from key players from multilateral and related agencies in 2013. Reprod Health Matters. 2014;22(43):65-74. doi:10.1016/S0968-8080(14)43760-1
  13. United Nations (UN). Constitution of the World Health Organization. Geneva: United Nations; 1946. http://www.who.int/governance/eb/who_constitution_en.pdf. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  14. United Nations (UN). Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc A/810 at 71 (1948). Geneva: United Nations; 1948. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  15. United Nations (UN). International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 49, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 993 U.N.T.S. 3. Geneva: United Nations; 1966. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CESCR.aspx. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  16. United Nations (UN). International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 21 December 1965, 660 U.N.T.S. 195, 5 I.L.M. 352 1966. Geneva: United Nations; 1965. https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=treaty&mtdsg_no=iv-2&chapter=4&lang=en. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  17. 17.   United Nations (UN). Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, G.A. Res. 34/180, 34 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 46) at 193, U.N. Doc. A/34/46 (1979). Geneva: United Nations; 1979. http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/cedaw.htm. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  18. 18.   United Nations (UN). Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A. Res. 44/25, Annex, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989). Geneva: United Nations; 1990. http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  19. United Nations (UN). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, G.A. Res. 61/106, Annex I, U.N. GAOR, 61st Sess., Supp. No. 49, at 65, U.N. Doc. A/61/49 (2006). Geneva: United Nations; 2008. http://www.un.org/disabilities/documents/convention/convoptprot-e.pdf. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  20. The Right to Health: Fact Sheet No. 31. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and World Health Organization. http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/Factsheet31.pdf. Updated 2008. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  21. Kinney ED, Clark BA. Provisions for Health and Health-Care in the Constitutions of the Countries of the World. Cornell International Law Journal. 2004;37:285-355.
  22. United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. General Comment No. 14: The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health, E/C.12/2000/4. Geneva: United Nations; 2000. http://www.refworld.org/docid/4538838d0.html. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  23. Yamin AE, Gloppen S. Litigating Health Rights: Can Courts Bring More Justice to Health? Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press; 2011.
  24. Hogerzeil HV, Samson M, Casanovas JV, Rahmani-Ocora L. Is access to essential medicines as part of the fulfillment of the right to health enforceable through the courts. Lancet. 2006;368(9532):305-311. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(06)69076-4
  25. Shiffman J. A social explanation for the rise and fall of global health issues. Bull World Health Organ. 2009;87(8):565-644.
  26. Rushton S, Williams OD. Frames, paradigms and power: global health policy-making under neoliberalism. Global Soc. 2012;26(2):147-167. doi:10.1080/13600826.2012.656266
  27. Pan Z, Kosicki GM. Framing analysis: an approach to news discourse. Polit Commun. 1993;10(1):55-75. doi:10.1080/10584609.1993.9962963
  28. Baumgartner FR, Jones BD. Agendas and Instability in American Politics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 1993.
  29. Schon DA, Rein M. Frame Reflection: Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies. New York: Basic Books; 1994.
  30. Goffman E. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of the Experience. New York: Harper Colophon; 1974.
  31. Benford RD, Snow DA. Framing processes and social movements: an overview and assessment. Ann Rev Sociol. 2000;26:611-639. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.26.1.611
  32. Rushton S, Williams OD. Frames, paradigms and power: global health policy-making under neoliberalism. Global Soc. 2012;26(2):147-167. doi:10.1080/13600826.2012.656266
  33. Kleinlein T. Between myths and norms: constructivist constitutionalism and the potential of constitutional principles in international law. Nordic Journal of International Law. 2012;81(2):79-132.
  34. Finnemore M, Sikkink K. Taking stock: the constructivist research program in international relations and comparative politics. Annu Rev Polit Sci. 2001;4:391-416. doi:10.1146/annurev.polisci.4.1.391
  35. United Nations. Health in the Post-2015 Agenda: Report of the Global Thematic Consultation on Health. Geneva: United Nations; 2013. http://www.worldwewant2015.org/node/337378. Accessed August 12, 2014.
  36. United Nations. A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development: Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. New York: United Nations; 2013. http://www.post2015hlp.org/featured/high-level-panel-releases-recommendations-for-worlds-next-development-agenda/. Accessed May 12, 2015.
  37. Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development: Report for the UN Secretary-General. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions; 2013. http://unsdsn.org/resources/publications/an-action-agenda-for-sustainable-development/. Accessed May 12, 2015.
  38. United Nations General Assembly. Report of the Open Working Group of the General Assembly on Sustainable Development Goals, UN Doc. A/68/970. Geneva: United Nations; 2014. http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/68/970&Lang=E. Accessed May 12, 2015.
  39. Ooms G, Latif LA, Waris A, et al. Is ‘universal health coverage’ the practical expression of the right to health? BMC Int Health Hum Rights. 2014;14(3):1-7. doi:10.1186/1472-698X-14-3
  40. Stuckler D, Faigl AB, Basu S, McKee M. The political economy of universal health coverage. Paper presented at: Background paper for the Global Symposium on Health Systems Research; November 16-19, 2010; Montreux, Switzerland.
  41. Schmidt H, Gostin LO, Emanuel EJ. Public health, universal health coverage, and Sustainable Development Goals: can they coexist? Lancet. 2015;386(9996):928-930. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60244-6
  42. United Nations General Assembly. Global health and foreign policy. http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/67/L.36&referer=http://www.un.org/en/ga/info/draft/index.shtml&Lang=E. Accessed August 3, 2015. Published December 6, 2012.
  43. World Health Organization (WHO). Positioning Health in the Post-2015 Development  Agenda, WHO Discussion Paper. Geneva: United Nations; 2012. http://www.who.int/topics/millennium_development_goals/post2015/WHOdiscussionpaper_October2012.pdf. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  44. Sachs J. Achieving universal health coverage in low-income settings. Lancet. 2012; 380(9845):944-947. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61149-0
  45. Di Ruggiero E, Cohen JE, Cole DC, Forman L. Competing conceptualizations of decent work at the intersection of health, social and economic discourses. Soc Sci Med. 2015;133:120-127. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.03.026
  46. United Nations (UN). Health in the post-2015 development agenda: outline of proposed process for global thematic consultation on health. Geneva: United Nations; 2012. http://www.worldwewant2015.org/health. Accessed August 2, 2015.
  47. Sustainable Development Solutions Network Thematic Group on Health. Health in the framework of sustainable development: Technical report for the post-2015 development agenda. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network; 2014. http://unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Health-For-All-Report.pdf. Accessed May 15, 2015.
  48. United Nations Open Working Group Technical Support Team. TST Issues Brief: Health and Sustainable Development. Geneva: United Nations. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/18300406tstissueshealth.pdf. Accessed May 12, 2015.
  49. Mkwandawire T. Targeting and universalism in poverty reduction. In: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Social Policy and Development Programme Paper Number 23. Geneva: United Nations; 2005.
  50. Orme B. The Sustainable Development Goals may be in place, but dissent was apparent. Pass Blue: Covering the UN. June 15, 2015.http://passblue.com/2015/06/14/the-sustainable-development-goals-may-be-in-place-but-dissent-was-apparent/. Accessed August 2, 2015.