Header image for news printout

High Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage

Statement by Michelle Bachelet,
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
New York, 23 September 2019

Distinguished President of the General Assembly
Colleagues, Friends,

One of the most inspiring and far-reaching achievements in recent decades has been the improvement of health. People are living longer; they are living better; and this progress in achieving the right to health for millions of people has helped to generate broader and deeper development.

Healthy societies are the key to unlocking sustainable development, and poor health outcomes severely restrict their capacity to flourish and build resilience; the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development clearly affirms this link.

More than half the people alive today have little or no access to live-saving services such as prenatal care and basic treatment for malaria, tuberculosis or HIV-AIDS.

This reality undermines prospects for sustainable development for entire countries and regions. Instead of thriving, individuals and communities are forced to struggle, simply to survive. They are extremely vulnerable to outbreaks of communicable diseases, as we see clearly with the Ebola epidemics.

Cost is a significant barrier. WHO estimates that 930 million people spend more that 10% of their annual household income on health care and about 210 million people spend more than 25%. Extending coverage for health services, and ensuring that people are protected from financial risks, is vital – literally, a matter of life or death.

But socioeconomic determinants of health, such as inequality, discrimination and poverty, are also major reasons why millions of people lack access to good quality health care and services. Some of the worst affected by these denials of human rights are women, ethnic and caste minorities, persons with disabilities, migrants and LGBTI people.

The right to health framework is an essential basis for the advancement of Universal Health Coverage. It embraces both health services and the underlying determinants of health. Both of these aspects need to be tackled to ensure that no one is left behind.

Laws and policies must uphold the equality and dignity of all members of society – and they need to implemented.

Moreover, sexual and reproductive health-care services are essential to empowering women to make their own decisions about their lives. They are central to establishing universal health coverage.  

Universal health coverage is achievable. As Dr. Tedros has noted, many countries which today benefit from inclusive systems for health care and other forms of social protection, built those systems not when they were wealthy, but when they were financially on their knees – in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Many countries are already moving towards universal health coverage. In others, we must pick up the pace. As more adolescents than ever before grow into adulthood, safeguarding their health will be crucial to achieving the SDGs.

Moreover, all of us will be facing new threats to health in coming years – whether because of the impact of climate change; the refusal of vaccine protection, which exposes children to multiple threats; or other forms of vulnerability to communicable and non-communicable disease.

I strongly encourage all States to integrate binding human rights commitments into their health legislation and policies, in order to protect and fulfil the rights of millions of people who are currently left behind.

Thank you, Madam President.