Read “Health as a Human Right” by Panayiotis Yatagantzidis, Attorney at Law, Court of Justice of the European Union, The European Court of Human Rights, Supreme Court of Greece.

Director: Neni Panourgiá

Curator: Barkha Kagliwal, Cornell University (Ph.D, ’22)

The importance of preservation of health under conditions of incarceration, spaces of exception, and extreme financial crisis

Perspectives on Health as a Human Right focuses  on the loss of health as a consequence of the cause and not of the condition of crisis, and brings together the existing discourses on civil, political, and human rights with the discourses on conditions of crisis. The program rests on the assumption that every modern sovereign state has accepted the responsibility to protect and safeguard the health of its citizens, as outlined by the International Labor Organization in its May 1944 Convention (Annex III, articles (f) and (g)), and in the Preamble of the Constitution of the World Health Organization in1946.

The project approaches thinking about the loss of health in conditions of exception as a loss of a fundamental human right. The recent debate that surrounds the interrogation of health, in general, as a human right focuses on the general population under normal circumstances. The focus on conditions of crisis, however, brings the question of social and political structures into the center of the debate. If torture, which has been established as a violation of a person’s human rights, is absent from the aforementioned conditions, are one’s human rights violated when one’s health status deteriorates as a consequence of the cause of the crisis?

Whereas we accept the definition of health as not simply the absence of disease or infirmity but as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, we define crisis through the following contexts:

1) The industrial prison complex. The industrialization and outsourcing of the penal system in the United States has produced a great paradox—people who are already ill see a steady amelioration of their health status after imprisonment, but healthy people who become wardens of the state invariably witness a decline in their health. This paradox is the product of the robust civil and prison rights movement that developed in the 1960s, which fought for better medical care within the prison system but could not have foreseen the danger of accelerated rate of decline in health, especially in relation to HIV+, TB, liver conditions from malnutrition, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, anxiety, and mental health.

2) Spaces of suspended legality The history of refugee, migrant, rehabilitation/re-education camps has mapped the strained relationship between health and the suspension of human rights. The example of the dissident camps of the Cold War in Greece, Yugoslavia, Malay, Kenya, the Soviet gulag, and the Apartheid prison island camps has shown us the specificity of health-related depravity commonly shared and which comprised suicides, dental health (which leads to long-term infections), TB, hepatitis, mental illness, depression, and anxiety disorder.

3) Conditions of extreme financial crisis How do loans from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Central Bank, or state finance departments filter through local economies? We have seen such financial support result in the underfunding of public health systems. Concurrent to this underfunding is the rise in privatization of health services, the abandonment of public health care infrastructure, scaling back of health personnel who prefer to migrate, and demoralizing working conditions for health care providers. Other structural problems appear in the form of malnutrition, lack of immunization programs, shortages in basic and specialized medicines, and drastic increases in suicide rates.

Perspectives on Health as a Human Right seeks to establish the loss of health under conditions of crisis as a human rights violation. It will enrich the knowledge and understanding of the academic community at Columbia University and beyond, regarding issues of health under crisis through establishing research projects and linking together the various neighboring fields. The program seeks to bring the issue of preservation of health under conditions of crisis into the public and academic discourse.

  1. Collaborations

The Program is in close collaboration with a number of initiatives that touch upon its problematics, such as the Justice Initiative, Save Our Streets Crown Heights/BedStuy, The Fund at the NYC Health and Hospital Corporation.

  1. Relevant and Useful links

World Health Organization

National Economic and Social Rights Initiative

Doctors4Hope Organization

The Center for Public Health and Human Rights, Johns Hopkins University

Human Rights Watch

CDC Museum

  1. Events:

The inaugural event for the Program was held October 28, 2014

Is Health a Human Right? The European Union Perspective

Panayiotis Yatagantzidis, Attorney at Law, Court of Justice of the European Union, The European Court of Human Rights, Supreme Court of Greece

Related Events

 The Heyman Center for the Humanities, Room B-101
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