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Holy See Intervention at UN/Geneva, Human Rights Council

Intervention of H.E. Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, Apostolic Nuncio, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations at Geneva at the 7th Session of the Human Rights Council, Item 3: Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development
11 March 2008

Mr. President,

The Holy See delegation welcomes the opportunity to offer its observations on the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health[1]. First of all, we are pleased to note that the Report identifies this right as a “fundamental building block of sustainable development, poverty reduction, and economic prosperity.”[2] In a similar manner, Pope Benedict XVI recently affirmed that “[t]he building of a more secure future for the human family means first and foremost working for the integral development of peoples, especially through the provision of adequate health care [and] the elimination of pandemics like AIDS …”[3]

The Report, Mr. President, appropriately calls attention to the single policy framework for health that was embodied in the Declaration of Alma-Ata on primary health care, promulgated, thirty years ago, by the world’s Health Ministers. This framework outlined the underlying principles to assure equitable exercise of the right to health as well as the implementation of essential interventions to assure strong links between health and development.

We note, however, that, in accord with the Constitution of the World Health Organization, the definition of health extends beyond medical interventions and social determinants to include a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”[4] The Holy See recognizes, as well, the need to assure access to spiritual assistance among those conditions which guarantee the full enjoyment of the right to health.[5]

The Report refers to the WHO definition of “health systems” that includes “all organizations, people, and actions whose primary intent is to promote, restore, or maintain health.” [6] Moreover, while discussing the pre-conditions for a “right-to-health” approach that strengthens health systems, he points out the entitlement of all individuals and communities to active and informed participation on issues relating to their health. In this regard, Mr. President, my delegation would like to focus on the key role that can and should be accorded to religious organizations as important stakeholders in the strengthening of health infrastructure.

Such organizations often assume significant responsibility for the burden of health care delivery, most especially to the poorest sectors of the population and to those living in rural areas. Too often, however, these faith-based service providers are not allowed a “place at the table” during the formulation of health care plans on national or local levels. They also are deprived of an equitable share in the resources – both from the national/local budgets and from international donors. Such funding is essential to facilitate the maintenance of ongoing health systems; the training, recruitment, and retention of professional staff; as well as the scaling up necessary to address the ever-increasing burden of global pandemics such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and other infections and non-communicable diseases that disproportionately affect the poorest sectors of society.

Mr. President, my delegation was pleased to note, in this Report, the inclusion of “non-discrimination” among the core obligations of health systems and the emphasis on the obligation of States to address the particular needs of disadvantaged individuals, communities, and populations and to reach out to those living in poverty.[7]

With regard to those who require special protection, let us never ignore or deny the very right to life among those whose conditions are most vulnerable and may entirely depend on being safeguarded by others. Particular cases in point are children in the womb and those suffering from grave and life-threatening illnesses. My Delegation urgently hopes that references to “emergency obstetric care” will never be misconstrued to justify the forced ending of human life before birth and that the reference to a state’s obligation to “identify a minimum ‘basket’ of health services”[8] and to “striking balances”[9] will not be interpreted in a manner that denies essential services to the seriously ill. While the report claims that “few human rights are absolute,”[10] it is the firm belief of my delegation, Mr. President, that no compromise can be made with a person’s right to life itself, from conception to natural death, nor with that person’s ability to enjoy the dignity which flows from that right.

In conclusion, we note that the Report gave due recognition to “health as a public good” which requires “international cooperation” on “trans-boundary health issues.” Urgent attention much be accorded to such issues since, in many countries, refugees, other migrants, and internally-displaced persons are deprived by host governments even of the most basic life-saving health services. In an attempt to fill such gaps, once again religious organizations often provide care, support, and treatment to such populations without concern for their national or ethnic origins.

Thank you.

[1] Document A/HRC/7/11, 31 January 2008.
[2] Ibid., #12.
[3] Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to H.E. Mrs. Mary Ann Glendon, Ambassador of the United States of America to the Holy See, 29 February 2008,
[4] Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19 June – 22 July 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948.
[5] Charter for Health Care Workers, #40, Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, Vatican City, 1995.
[6] Document A/HRC/7/11, 31 January 2008, #34.
[7] Ibid., #51.
[8] Ibid., #52.
[9] Ibid., #63.
[10] Ibid., #63.

Filed under: Social Doctrine, Social Justice

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