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August 22, 2007

Whatever Geoffrey Robertson and The Lancet's writers might believe, there is no universal human right to health - argues Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple argues that Geoffrey Robertson Q.C. and the writers on The Lancet are wrong to argue that there is a universal human right to health.

The spirit of Pecksniff is alive and well, and has taken up residence at The Lancet, one of the most influential medical journals in the world.

Much of the edition for 4th - 10th August 2007 was filled with articles about the supposed human right to health. Never was Bentham's dictum about the talk of rights being nonsense on stilts better illustrated. One of articles quoted the World Health Organization's definition of health to the effect that it is not simply the absence of disease or infirmity, but the presence of complete physical, mental and social well-being; and the same paragraph stated that:

the highest attainable level of health is the fundamental right of every human being.
Perhaps it will not altogether surprise the reader to know that the authors, academics all, made no attempt whatever to draw the logical consequences of what they wrote and professed to believe. These neo-Pecksniffians were content simply that health and human rights sound grateful in the ears of the assembled congregation. "Health and human rights: not unholy names, I think."

It follows from what they professed that the non-fulfilment of any human desire whatsoever represents an assault on human rights, in so far as a thwarted desire causes unhappiness, which is to say a decline from complete mental well-being. (As Blake said, better murder an infant in its cradle than nurse an unacted desire.) And since it is the duty of governments to ensure that everyone reaches "the highest attainable standard of health", it is clear also that every government has a duty to interfere in practically every aspect of life, in all its tiniest nooks and crannies.

The doctrine of rights, which started out as an attempt to defend the citizen against arbitrary governmental power, has thus been transformed into the locus standi of arbitrary government power. To adapt slightly the words of Dostoyevsky with regard to freedom and despotism, starting from infinite rights we arrive at infinite subjection. In the process - and not entirely coincidentally - absolute power will pass into the hands of an elite of infinitely benevolent administrators.

Among them, of course, will be the lawyers who will stand guard over the benefits conferred upon the great mass of helpless, suffering mankind by rights inscribed in the law. One such lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, QC, contributed an editorial to the edition of The Lancet I have referred to above. Readers of The Lancet were informed that he is an appeal judge for the UN War Crimes Court in Sierra Leone, but not that Mr Robertson resigned, not at his own initiative, and indeed after some considerable resistance on his part, from appeal jurisdiction over one trial conducted by that court, because he had written a book before the trial in which he condemned, in the strongest possible language, the guilt of the accused whose appeals he might have to hear.

This, I think, is the kind of justice we can expect under the new dispensation of the immaculately benevolent.

In the course of his editorial, Mr Robertson writes as follows, thus confirming the impression given by his evident belief that a man who has written and published a book condemning people for their "grotesque crimes against humanity" is a fit and proper person to be a judge in their case:

Direct involvement in human rights abuses is obviously wrong. Nobody criticises the Harley Street doctors who treated Pinochet, though perhaps they should; providing medical succour to a terrorist on the run now entails, under UK law, a legal duty to inform the police, immediately and in detail.
This passage is either very carelessly or very artfully worded. You would think that a prominent lawyer would at least write with forensic precision, but in this case you would be mistaken. Whatever your opinion of Pinochet, he was not a terrorist on the run, as Mr Robertson's semi-colon as good as implies; he was a visitor to Britain who had entered perfectly legally, as he had done many times previously.

But what is most shocking about Mr Robertson's words - in a prominent medical journal, be it remembered - is the implied criticism of the doctors who treated Pinochet. For what could they be criticised, if not for treating him at all? Presumably, then, Mr Robertson believes that doctors have a duty not to treat those of whom he disapproves sufficiently strongly.

Or perhaps he criticises them for taking money from Pinochet. But if they had not taken money from him, they would have been treating him pro bono, which presumably Mr Robertson would have found even more reprehensible, in so far as to have done so would have implied a sympathy for him rather than a mere professional relationship.

Or does he object that the doctors in question failed at once to inform on General Pinochet to the British police? On what grounds would they have done so, other than hearsay? They were not experts on Chilean history, and it is unlikely that they had any knowledge of Pinochet that was not that of an average newspaper reader. It is very unlikely that the general would have confessed a specific and very serious crime to them that he had personally committed that would have given the doctors a duty to inform the police and override their duty of confidentiality; and even if he had confessed to such a crime, it would most probably have been committed in Chile, not Britain, which would have complicated matters.

It is not easy to know what exactly Mr Robertson meant by his implicit criticism of the Harley Street doctors who treated General Pinochet - after all, he didn't criticise the doctors who treated Fidel Castro in Cuba, and quite rightly so - but such imprecision of language in a lawyer is an indictment, especially one who presumes to legislate for the whole world on the basis of his own unquestionable virtue.

The authors of the other articles in The Lancet about health and human rights are equally smug and self-satisfied. I do not look forward to a world in which they are triumphant.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor.

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