Did the right to health get across the line? Examining the United Nations resolution on the Sustainable Development Goals

BMJ Global Health –  By Claire E BrolanVannarath TeNadia FlodenPeter S HillLisa Forman

Since the new global health and development goal, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3, and its nine targets and four means of implementation were introduced to the world through a United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution in September 2015, right to health practitioners have queried whether this goal mirrors the content of the human right to health in international law. This study examines the text of the UN SDG resolution, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, from a right to health minimalist and right to health maximalist analytic perspective. When reviewing the UN SDG resolution’s text, a right to health minimalist questions whether the content of the right to health is at least implicitly included in this document, specifically focusing on SDG 3 and its metrics framework. A right to health maximalist, on the other hand, queries whether the content of the right to health is explicitly included. This study finds that whether the right to health is contained in the UN SDG resolution, and the SDG metrics therein, ultimately depends on the individual analyst’s subjective persuasion in relation to right to health minimalism or maximalism. We conclude that the UN General Assembly’s lack of cogency on the right to health’s position in the UN SDG resolution will continue to blur if not divest human rights’ (and specifically the right to health’s) integral relationship to high-level development planning, implementation and SDG monitoring and evaluation efforts.

Key messages

What is already known about this topic?

  • The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were introduced to the world by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September 2015. The 17 SDGs considerably expand the eight millennium development goal agenda of 2001, and importantly the SDGs are to be applied to all, everywhere, living in low-income, middle-income and high-income nations alike. Furthermore, the SDGs explicitly recognise the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development and need to leverage technological innovation for strengthening countries’ performance measurement systems and statistical data.

  • In the lead up to September 2015, there was advocacy in the global health landscape for the new health SDG to include the human right to health.

What are the new findings?

  • This study reviews the text of the UN SDG resolution by applying a right to health minimalist and maximalist analytic lens, and finds that the inclusion of the right to health in the resolution depends on the individual analyst’s subjective position.

Recommendations for policy

  • The fact it is unclear whether the right to health is expressed in the UN SDG resolution reflects larger unanswered questions around the relationship between the right to health and global health and development policy and planning, as well as human rights and sustainable development implementation and practice more broadly.

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