Will the Human Rights Council of the United Nations Address Children’s Health Needs?


By Dr. Eric Silverman

Currently, the 22nd regular session of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations is in session in Geneva (February 25 – March 22, 2013).  A full day meeting on The Rights of the Child will occur on March 7, on “The right of the child to the highest attainable standard of health.”  The universal right to health is recognized by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

As the Child Rights International Network declares,”

Every day, 30,500 boys and girls under five die of mainly preventable causes, and even more children and young people succumb to illnesses, neglect, accidents and assaults that did not have to happen. Failure sets in early: what happens during the very earliest years of a child’s life, from birth to age 3, influences how the rest of childhood and adolescence unfolds. Yet this critical time is usually neglected in the policies, programmes and budgets of countries.”

I can personally speak to the urgency of this issue on the basis of my anthropological fieldwork in a community along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea.  Children routinely die of illnesses such as diarrhea and snakebite—ailments that almost never prove fatal or debilitating in the developed world.  According to the World Health Organization:

  • Each year around three million children under the age of five die due to environment-related diseases.
  • Acute respiratory infections annually kill an estimated 1.6 million children under the age of five. As much as 60 percent of acute respiratory infections worldwide are related to environmental conditions.
  • Diarrhoeal diseases claim the lives of nearly 1.5 million children every year. Eighty to 90 percent of these diarrhoea cases are related to environmental conditions, in particular, contaminated water and inadequate sanitation.
  • Nearly 1 million children under the age of five died of malaria in 2008. Up to 90 percent of malaria cases are attributed to environmental factors.

Clearly, we need a global plan of action to address children’s health needs in the 21st century.  The range of issues that require resolution is staggering.  One can only hope that the Human Rights Council’s meeting will result in real action and deliverables.  What can we do to make this happen?

Dr. Eric Silverman is a cultural anthropologist who teaches in the American Studies and Psychology/Human Development departments at Wheelock College.  He employs a binocular approach to teaching and research that tacks between American culture and other societies, especially in regard to dilemmas of globalization.