‘Threats to human rights are threats to health’: BMA launches extensive report on the global human rights landscape

Press release from the BMA

Location: UK
Last reviewed: 7 April 2022
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The British Medical Association today publishes a landmark report on the emerging threats to human rights around the world – including those brought keenly into focus by the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing war in Ukraine - and the potentially devastating implications they pose for the health of the global population.

Building on the professional association’s decades-long commitment to human rights and healthcare, the report, titled ‘Health and human rights in the new world (dis)order’1, looks at the shifting landscape in which new technologies, environmental change, geopolitical shifts, global conflict and the mass movement of people are all placing increased pressure on human rights in medicine and healthcare.

The report, compiled by the BMA’s ethics and human rights department, with extensive input from the BMA’s medical ethics committee and external experts in human rights, focuses and makes a series of recommendations on:

  • Neoliberalism, inequality and health;
  • Migration, ethnicity and health;
  • Climate change and environmental degradation;
  • New media and the assault on health expertise;
  • Conflict, human rights and health.

More than two years in the making, the report’s preparation coincided with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which itself brought keenly into focus a number of issues highlighted in the report – not least in the chapter on misinformation and the threat that ‘fake news’ poses to public health. And in its final stages of drafting, ahead of its publication today on World Health Day, Russia invaded Ukraine, sparking new humanitarian concerns, not least around attacks on civilian targets including healthcare facilities and personnel, making the final chapter on conflict tragically relevant.

While the report spans continents and dozens of countries, illustrating a global snapshot of current threats to human rights and health, it also details challenges here in the UK, not least around the Government’s hostile environment policy and treatment of asylum-seekers and the impact that this has on health-seeking behaviour and on individual and public health.

In reaffirming its commitment to global human rights and helping to strengthen international co-operation among global players, the BMA makes a number of recommendations, including those around:

  • Ensuring healthcare systems are designed with the wellbeing of all groups in mind, including ethnic minorities and migrants, and removing barriers to migrant healthcare access;
  • Respecting the health-based human rights of people kept in detention;
  • Developing legislation that recognises the rights of future generations, for whom climate change and environmental degradation will hit the hardest;
  • The development of an international regulatory framework, and co-operation between national and international health bodies to promote transparency and accountability in the digital health landscape and counter dangerous health misinformation;
  • Support for the recording and condemnation of violations of humanitarian law and war crimes, and strengthening of international judicial process to address them.

Dr Zoë Greaves, BMA medical ethics committee chair, said:

“Human rights and health are inextricably linked, and often one and the same. In short, threats to human rights are threats to health.

“As doctors, who dedicate their lives to improving people’s quality of life, and easing pain and suffering, we have a vital role to play in protecting and strengthening human rights.

“The BMA has a long history of campaigning on human rights issues both here in the UK and around the world, and continues to call out abuses firmly and unequivocally when they occur.

“Given concerning global developments putting human rights under attack in recent years, this report, which both builds on previous work and discusses new, emerging threats, is both timely and urgent.

“Medicine is being perverted as a tool of genocide in China; climate change and pollution threaten our children’s futures; the Covid-19 pandemic has both exposed deep, unjust, health inequalities and provided a fertile ground for conspiracy theories and dangerous misinformation; and most recently, in Ukraine, Russia continues to commit atrocities and fails to respect medical neutrality as armed forces attack hospitals and healthcare staff in Ukraine to devastating ends.

“All of these examples, discussed within the report, underline the urgent and essential ongoing need to safeguard human rights as a means to improving and protecting the health of people around the world and emphasise why this topic is of such vital importance for doctors and all healthcare professionals.”

Report co-author Dr Julian Sheather, who is special advisor for ethics and human rights at the BMA, said:

“As we look out onto an increasingly uncertain world with multiplying threats to human health it is essential we re-commit to fundamental human rights norms. Covid-19, climate change and now the brutal conflict in Ukraine have again exposed our vulnerability. But as this report makes clear, we have the tools at hand to bring about necessary change. By acknowledging the critical importance of rights-respecting health care we have the possibility to collectively tackle our common threats. This report could not be more timely.”

Ends

Notes to editors

The BMA is a professional association and trade union representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.

  1. Read the full report ‘Health and human rights in the new world (dis)order’.
  2. Read a blog from Dr Zoë Greaves 'Reaffirming the importance of human rights in global medicine and healthcare'.