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Effective laws and an enabling legal environment are essential to a healthy society. Most public health challenges – from infectious and non-communicable diseases to injuries, from mental illness to universal health coverage – have a legal component. At global, national and local levels, law is a powerful tool for advancing the right to health. This tool is, however, often underutilized.

This report aims to raise awareness about the role that public health laws can play in advancing the right to health and in creating the conditions for all people to live healthy lives. The report provides guidance about issues and requirements to be addressed during the process of developing or reforming public health laws, with case studies drawn from countries around the world to illustrate effective practices and critical features of effective public health legislation.

Advancing the right to health: the vital role of law is the result of a collaboration between the World Health Organisation, the International Development Law Organisation (IDLO), the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Washington D.C., USA, and Sydney Law School, University of Sydney. The Project Directors were:

  • Professor Lawrence O. Gostin, Linda D. and Timothy J. O’Neill Professor of Global Health Law and University Professor, Georgetown University; Faculty Director, O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Georgetown University;
  • Mr David Patterson, Senior Legal Expert – Health; Department of Research & Learning, International Development Law Organization;
  • Professor Roger Magnusson, Professor of Health Law & Governance, Sydney Law School, University of Sydney;
  • Mr Oscar Cabrera, Executive Director, O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Georgetown University Law Center;
  • Ms Helena Nygren-Krug (2011–2013), Senior Advisor, Human Rights & Law, UNAIDS.

The content and structure of the report reflect the consensus reached at the second of two international consultations in public health law that preceded the preparation of the report, hosted by WHO and IDLO in Cairo, Egypt, 26-28 April 2010. Part 1 introduces the human right to health and its role in guiding and evaluating law reform efforts, including efforts to achieve the goal of universal health coverage.

Part 2 discusses the process of public health law reform. The law reform process refers to the practical steps involved in advancing the political goal of law reform, and the kinds of issues and obstacles that may be encountered along the way. Part 2 identifies some of the actors who may initiate or lead the public health law reform process, discusses principles of good governance during that process, and ways of building a consensus around the need for public health law reform.

Part 3 turns from the process of reforming public health laws to the substance or content of those laws. It identifies a number of core areas of public health practice where regulation is essential in order to ensure that governments (at different levels) discharge their basic public health functions. Traditionally, these core areas of public health practice have included: the provision of clean water and sanitation, monitoring and surveillance of public health threats, the management of communicable diseases, and emergency powers.

Building on these core public health functions, Part 3 goes on to consider a range of other public health priorities where law has a critical role to play. These priorities include tobacco control, access to essential medicines, the migration of health care workers, nutrition, maternal, reproductive and child health, and the role of law in advancing universal access to quality health services for all members of the population. The report includes many examples that illustrate the ways in which different countries have used law to protect the health of their populations in ways that are consistent with their human rights obligations. Countries vary widely in terms of their constitutional structure, size, history and political culture. For these reasons, the examples given are not intended to be prescriptive, but to provide useful comparisons for countries involved in the process of legislative review.

Publication Citation

Geneva: World Health Organization (2017)