What’s human rights got to do with preventing cancer?

A map of the world on bread

Louise MeinckeSaturday is Human Rights Day, which is observed every year on 10 December to commemorate the day on which, in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world, from birth until death, but what does this have to do with the prevention of cancer and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs)?

Cancer is a human rights issue

Our analysis of global research shows that about a third of the most common cancers can be prevented through diet, maintaining a healthy weight and taking regular physical activity, and there is strong evidence that being overweight or obese is linked to an increased risk of 11 cancers.

Worryingly, overweight and obesity is becoming an increasing problem in lower socio-economic groups and developing countries as they enter the ‘nutrition transition’ – where there is an increased consumption of ultra-processed food and drinks that are high in sugar, salt and saturated fats.

The sad truth is that many people in lower socio-economic groups and developing countries don’t have access to healthy, nutritious food – a fundamental human right, and an essential part of a healthy lifestyle that could reduce the risk of cancer and other NCDs.

The lack of access to nutritious food may go some way to explaining why preventable cancers are an epidemic hitting the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest. A human rights based approach to promoting global public health and preventing cancer and other NCDs has the potential to challenge the unjust, discriminatory and unequal social and economic determinants of health, make legal instruments available to regulate the food and drinks industry, and hold governments to account for the lack of progress to promote healthy diets and prevent overweight & obesity.

The right to healthy, nutritious food

This summer, the UN’s Special Representative on the Right to Food, Ms Hilal Elver, published a ground-breaking report. In the report the Special Representative clearly set out that the right to health is intrinsically linked with the right to food, and that this must be healthy and nutritious in order for humans to thrive and not just survive.

Applying a human rights approach to promoting healthy nutritious food underlines the responsibility of governments to regulate and monitor big food and drink corporations. Our NOURISHING framework and policy database highlights that governments often prefer to enter into voluntary agreements with industry to self-regulate.

However, such initiatives have proven ineffective and more needs to be done to regulate the food and drinks industry, including through labelling, advertising restrictions and economic measures which support the most vulnerable and poorest people in our societies.

Human rights are not a complete solution, but they are a tool at our disposal – on this human rights day the UN encourages us to all stand up for our rights. I choose to stand up for our right to healthy nutritious food. What about you?