Creating new insights into health and human rights

THE HON. MICHAEL KIRBY AC CMG, FORMER JUSTICE OF THE HIGH COURT OF AUSTRALIA, WAS JOINED BY VISITING PROFESSOR GLENN COHEN FROM HARVARD LAW SCHOOL AND PROFESSOR LAWRENCE GOSTIN FROM GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY TO SPEAK AT A PUBLIC FORUM HOSTED BY THE LAW SCHOOL ENTITLED ‘MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE: HEALTH, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND GLOBAL JUSTICE’.

Written by Professor Roger Magnusson

Creating new insights into health and human rights

Dr Belinda Reeve (Sydney Law School), The Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG, Professor Lawrence Gostin (Linda and Timothy O’Neill Professor of Global Health Law, Georgetown University, Washington DC), Ms Alexandra Phelan (SJD candidate, Georgetown University Law School), Professor Glenn Cohen (Harvard Law School and Faculty Director, Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics).

Reflecting on several decades of experience as a global health advocate, Michael Kirby reviewed the contribution of the late Dr Jonathan Mann and the response of the World Health Organisation and other UN organisations to the HIV epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

Contrasting this with responses to the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Mr Kirby discussed the need for both personal and institutional leadership at the highest levels, and the challenge of achieving a voice for affected communities.

Mr Kirby also highlighted the importance of Jonathan Mann’s central insight: that in circumstances where medicine has little to offer and where health systems are weak, effective prevention relies heavily on a collaborative approach, based on respect for the human rights of those most at risk of infection, and those most likely to transmit it.

Mr Kirby emphasised the need for a realignment of health rights and intellectual property rights – a central issue in the report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, of which he was a member.

Prompted by questions from the audience, the panel discussed a range of issues, including the relative importance of a human rights approach to disease prevention, the opportunities for civil society and the critical importance of institutions.

Professor Gostin called for an integrated approach to addressing the Ebola epidemic, drawing upon national healthcare systems, regional action, and global institutions and frameworks. Professor Cohen pointed to the lack of alignment between global health needs and the incentives for pharmaceutical manufacturers to invest in ‘face creams and Viagra’.

Although Ebola virus created dread in many communities, in Professor Cohen’s view, this will not provide sufficient impetus to reconstruct broken health systems in the poorest countries of the world. Globalisation remains a potent economic force, and progress is likely to be incremental.

Nevertheless, the panel ended with optimism, with Mr Kirby suggesting that love is the shared value that underpins all human rights, and calling for an inclusive, collective response to infectious disease control that recognises our shared humanity and mutual responsibility to promote health for all.