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  • Human Rights and Public Health in the AIDS Pandemic
  • Robert F. Drinan SJ (bio)
Human Rights and Public Health in the AIDS Pandemic, by Lawrence O. Gostin & Zita Lazzarini (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 221 pp.

The right to medical care as an internationally recognized human right has not been widely acknowledged. But such a right is very clear from the conventions on human rights and from documents issued by the World Health Organization. The presence and clarity of such a right is the theme of this pioneering and very valuable study of the internationally recognized human rights of those living with HIV/AIDS.

Professor Lawrence Gostin, Professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and co-director of the Georgetown/Johns Hopkins Program in Law and Public Health, and his co-author Zita Lazzarini, Lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health, have in this unique volume synthesized all of the information available on the pandemic of AIDS and have eloquently argued that the advocates for the victims of AIDS need to forge new links between human rights and the communities that are involved in HIV/AIDS.1

The first chapter of this study reviews at length the surprisingly comprehensive coverage of health issues in the vast body of law at the international level. The United Nations Charter,2 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,3 and the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights4 proclaim a right to health for individuals and for families. In addition, the preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization5 in 1946 asserted that the “enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”6

Although none of these documents, which were drafted some forty years ago, mentions AIDS, an array of international resolutions explicitly address AIDS and human rights. In 1988 and 1989 the United Nations General Assembly [End Page 194] strengthened global cooperation in the AIDS pandemic by reinforcing national policies to assist the victims of AIDS. Other international bodies have insisted that the internationally recognized right to be free from discrimination applies in the HIV/AIDS context. Indeed there exists today a profound consensus and an increasing number of laws at the national level to support people living with HIV/AIDS.

One of the major recommendations advanced in this book is a policy that a “human rights impact assessment” be required before any public policy be instituted that would restrict the rights of persons with AIDS. This recommendation is fully presented with all of its implications in the areas of public health. This section is packed with information, careful argumentation, and a wealth of detail that will have a powerful impact on the reader.7 If human rights activists and academics acted on the directives in these pages there might well be a quiet revolution in the world in the way that humankind views the problems related to AIDS.

The final chapter of this impressive book presents three case studies regarding HIV policy and research. The human rights impact assessment is used to balance the public health benefits and the human rights burdens. An afterword by Dr. Jonathan Mann of the Harvard School of Public Health describes how a new journal on health and human rights will give information and insights on the global movement linking human rights and health issues.

For observers who feel overwhelmed at the pandemic of AIDS and for students of international human rights this carefully crafted study will be indispensable. Indeed it may become a prophetic voice linking the promises and guarantees of international human rights to the growing number of persons afflicted with one of the deadliest diseases in the history of the human race.

Robert F. Drinan

Robert F. Drinan, S.J., is a Professor at Georgetown University Law Center


1. Lawrence O. Gostin & Zita Lazzarini, Human Rights and Public Health in the AIDS Pandemic (1997).

2. U.N. Charter, signed 26 June 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, 3 Bevans 1153 (entered into force 24 Oct. 1945).

3. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted...

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pp. 194-195
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