The Power of Law in Achieving Health and Well-Being

Law Health JusticeThe power of law in achieving health and well-being

As someone who studied psychology, I am interested in human behaviour and how we can change it to improve society. So, I’d like to give my perspective of why the Framework Convention on Global Health (FCGH) – a legally binding international treaty – has the potential to change people’s behaviours to help us achieve better health and well-being around the world.

Law is an expression of how we want society to be and, with this in mind, can thus be used as a powerful tool to change culture and behaviour. One could see law as the blueprint for society – the architecture of society and the scaffolding around which living society moulds itself. With such frameworks, we can build better societies where everyone can enjoy scientific and social-political advances. To this end, law is an expression of intent – it is a declaration to say that global civilisation has not yet reached its peak and that there is still so much to achieve; laws can provide what we envision as a better future and how we want to reach it. For example, the idea of an international treaty based on the right to health can slowly change people’s understanding of what norms we want to strive for.

That is not to say that laws are stagnant or perfect. Laws should change with the times. In our globalised world, now more than ever, we need stronger expressions of how we want the world to be. Do we want a world where only a minority of people can access the recent breakthroughs in healthcare? Do we want a world where we value profits over people’s health and well-being? Do we want to live in a world where billions of people are left behind while few enjoy the advances that global civilisation has made over the past centuries?

Law has been, and is still currently, used by powerful actors to cause suffering and hardship; such when limiting the affordability of medicines in some instances. But laws that are formulated with the full participation of citizens – that reflect the real needs of citizens – can be a powerful tool used to enable communities to flourish.

Law has been, and is still currently, used by powerful actors to cause suffering and hardship; such when limiting the affordability of medicines in some instances. But laws that are formulated with the full participation of citizens – that reflect the real needs of citizens – can be a powerful tool used to enable communities to flourish.

When one thinks that laws are essentially words written down, it is remarkable to witness the positive change that laws can bring about. As soon as words are written down in the sacred constitution, the rest of the branches of government follow suit. This shows the power of what words can do to shape norms and behaviour. It is a testament to how man reveres law and the potential of it to sow positive change.

For me, the FCGH is thus a step in the historical chain of human progress and may be used to reach a more secure and sustainable future.

The FCGH can be seen as one of the most upstream public health interventions available to us – it can help prevent needless death through better accountability of governments to provide access to healthcare services as well as to hold businesses responsible for encouraging the consumption of unhealthy commodities, such as tobacco, alcohol, ultra-processed foods and sugary beverages. It also has the power to legitimise, standardised and shift into reality the values that society holds dear, such as placing health and well-being of populations ahead of financial gain. It is thus an international instrument for creating a better world for ourselves and future generations.

With the rise of the Internet and mass communication, it is easier – now more than ever – to ensure that governments and businesses achieve their human rights obligations. That is why the FCGH can, for example, act as a counter-weight to international trade agreements (which dominate the global playing field) and to the rise in deadly non-communicable diseases worldwide. The FCGH could help to ensure governments include health and well-being as an inherent feature of domestic laws and policies. Moreover, the FCGH could help to explicitly define extraterritorial obligations of governments and businesses so that the right to health in other international legal instruments, such as trade and investment, are adhered to.

We must be mindful, however, that the FCGH will not be a panacea for all the diseases and problems that humanity faces. Ill health and infirmity will not evaporate should the FCGH come into force. Of course, there will still be much to do, and governments around the world will need to continue to make concerted efforts in investment and action to create better health outcomes for their citizens. Nevertheless, the FCGH is a big step forward for humanity in achieving a world where people can attain the highest levels of health and well-being possible in our time.

Adam Bertscher
Secretary, FCGH Alliance


Adam Bertscher is a health policy researcher based in Cambridge, UK.  Tweet: @adam_bertscher