Health in Foreign Policies: Security and Human Rights

The article by Labonte and Gagnon discusses health and its implication toward foreign policy. Global health financing has become an important subject in foreign policy. Several governments have issued new terms and frames for ‘global health’ regarding foreign policy to engage health in the decision-making processes. In Oslo Declaration in 2007, foreign ministers of seven countries identified global health as a pressing foreign policy of our time hence, hence global health diplomacy was coined.[1] Health in foreign policies have been argued under six frames such as, security, development, global public goods, trade, human rights and ethical/moral reasoning. I am going to focus on ‘health and security’, one of the heavily discussed topics, ‘health and human rights’, one of the least debated topics.

Health and Security.   Relationship between health and security has very long history among mankind. Plague hit hard on 14th century Europe and Middle East, the pandemic caused civil destabilization and mistrust of state institutions. States follow three categorized logics when they deal with epidemics (potential global health threats). (a) Epidemic itself can be an international problem but the social unrest caused by epidemic can also affect foreign economic interest. (b) Poverty caused by epidemic could induce terrorism that potentially threatens national security. One related example can be found in Somalia situation. After the outbreak of civil war in 1991, Somalia have not had properly structured government until recent, which is 2010. As a result, Somali have had difficult
time meeting even basic need for their survival. Coastal regions of Somalia have been the center of international focus due to its heavy piracy against commercial ships passing Gulf of Aden to/from Suez Canal. ( Evidently conflict can no longer be contained in one region. (c) Rise of peace keeping cost relating to conflict regions is also another issue. Then what/how can we apply this knowledge into policy-making? In reality, national and economic security ranks higher than human dignity and humanitarian aid. Health is securitized disproportionately toward diseases that deemed to be national security risk. As an example, the focuses of HIV/AIDS interventions were more toward outbreak containment than outbreak prevention reflecting more interest in wealthier countries. This is the limitation we face in foreign health policies. While it is no longer popular compared to 1990s, ‘human security’, the term focuses on the protection of human lives, should be included and debated in global health policy decisions.

Health and Human Rights   It seems like these two terms can naturally come together, it is not so in international policy. The term ‘human rights’ is used frequently in most countries’ policy statements. However, they make no specific references to actual international human rights framework. Human rights are broad terms. It is not just related to the health or health care, it expands to well-being and to a base for individual/group of health. Several scholars like Sen and Nussbaum have tried to itemize what need to be done for human rights. List is short, however, it could become the list that needs to be agreed before finalization of any health policy making.[2,3] The major problem of putting human rights in legal binding agreement in international law lies in its interpretation. ‘Right’ is interpreted as an individual right only in legal decision. In order to place and emphasize the term on the poor and the vulnerable, it requires more attention as a collective right. Since there is no formal enforcement outside of national jurisdiction, it will remain as a ‘soft’ law.

Maybe a moral language is requisite in health policy decision. But ethical arguments itself is not enough to insert health into foreign policy making. Without enforcing mechanism, moral comment won’t be compelling in the economic and political rationale.

The introduction of health in foreign policy making is relatively new. We need to continuously advocate, argue and debate the term in foreign policy decision making process, aiming the expansion of idea to eventually every foreign policy.


Main article: Labonte and Gagnon (2010) Globalization and Health, 6(14) 1-19

[1] Oslo Ministerial Declaration-global health: A pressing foreign policy issue of our time (2007) Lancet, 369(9570) 1373-1378

[2] Sen, A. Development as freedom (1992) Oxford, Oxford University Press

[3] Nussbaum, M. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (2000) Cambridge, Cambridge University Press


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