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UN rights expert calls on Spain for “a meaningful commitment to protecting the human rights of all”

Rights of all, including migrants

29 April 2014

GENEVA (29 April 2014) – “It is time for the Government of Spain to change course,” the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda, said today, reiterating her call on the Spanish authorities to ensure universal access to health.

“Spain has positive obligations concerning access to health care, including for migrants, whatever their residence status,” Ms. Sepúlveda noted.
The UN expert first raised her concerns with the Spanish authorities in a letter last November, in which a group of UN human rights experts warned that “the changes adopted by the Government of Spain in 2012, reducing access to the public health system, are not in keeping with the country’s human rights obligations.”

The European Committee on Social Rights found in January 2014 that Spain’s exclusion of undocumented migrants from access to free health care violates European human rights law. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights made similar recommendations in 2012.

“The Government must now demonstrate a more meaningful commitment to protecting the right to health for all,” the Special Rapporteur said. “The advice of international expert bodies has been consistent and the Spanish Government should not ignore it.”

The UN Special Rapporteur thanked the Government for its extensive response to the letter, but disagreed with its arguments and conclusions. “Basic human rights standards cannot be ignored because of fiscal pressures,” she stressed.

Ms. Sepúlveda stated: “The government argues that Royal Decree 16/2012 is not discriminatory simply because it focuses on the legality of residence in the country and not on national origin, but this argument reflects an erroneous understanding of the principle of non-discrimination.”

The expert acknowledged the Spanish authorities’ commitment to continue coverage for pregnant women and children, but she rejected their argument that health care continues to be universal, public and free.

“Excluding migrants from accessing primary health care is not only questionable from a human rights perspective, but also unlikely to reduce costs over the longer term. Without access to primary health care, expensive emergency services are overloaded and public health is under threat,” Ms. Sepúlveda said.

The UN human rights expert was encouraged by reports that local authorities and medical professionals continue to provide healthcare in many cases. However, she also warned the Government that it is not fulfilling its international human rights obligations.

“Reports of incidents resulting in lack of treatment for poor, undocumented migrants – or others asked to pay even if legally in the country - are unacceptable,” she stressed. “Not only are the rights of those individuals being violated but, even if no broader health impact has been detected so far, the risk keeps growing.” 

The expert recalled that the Spanish Constitutional Court dealt recently with the more generous law adopted in Navarra. It noted that Government data supposedly showing the restricted access is reducing public expenditure (and not having any adverse impact on the health of the population) cannot be used to undermine the uniquely important, constitutionally protected right to health and physical integrity.

Magdalena Sepúlveda (Chile) was appointed the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in May 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. She has extensive experience in economic, social and cultural rights and holds a PhD in international human rights law from Utrecht University. She is independent from any government or organization and serves in her individual capacity. Learn more, visit:

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