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Professor Lisa Forman receives CRC Research Chair and Jus Prize for ground-​breaking human rights research

April 9/2015

If you are born in Canada, you can expect to live a much healthier life than if you are born in Cameroon.

These disparities are what the global health community increasingly understand as health inequities — differences in health that are avoidable and unfair. Yet views on how states should respond differ considerably depending on whether you believe that doing so requires a charitable response to misfortune or whether it provokes moral and legal responsibilities to respond to injustice.

Professor Lisa Forman is a leading international human rights law scholar who believes the latter and is leveraging her Canada Research Chair, awarded April 9, 2015, to advance health as a human right for all as an integral component of responses to global health equity.

“The right to health is a fundamental human right recognized in international law that can help political and health leaders to better address global health inequities,” said Forman, Lupina Assistant Professor in Global Health and Human Rights at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Supported by CRC funding, Forman’s research seeks to strengthen the international legal framework on the right to health to better respond to global health inequity in a number of ways.

“For example, there’s a loophole in the right to health argument that permits states to deny health care on the basis of limited resources, including for the poorest and most vulnerable populations,” said Forman, who is also director of the Comparative Program on Health and Society, a health fellowship program funded by the Lupina Foundation, which supports graduate research across U of T on the social determinants of health.

Forman explains that international lawyers have tried to fix this loophole by developing the idea of “minimum core obligations” to meet essential health needs that cannot be denied under any circumstances. Lawyers and policy-makers around the world have adopted this idea, but the definition of minimum core obligations does not specify the health needs it covers and it fails to specify the obligations of wealthier countries to assist poor countries to meet core obligations.

“These gaps in the definition limit the ability of the right to health to protect people’s health against government inaction and cuts in international health funding,” said Forman.

“My research proposes to fill this gap by analyzing how courts and scholars around the world have interpreted this concept, and using this analysis to reconceptualise how we define and implement minimum core obligations.”

Professor Forman’s work is recognized in the U of T community, nationally and internationally. She is the co-recipient of the 2015 Ludwig and Estelle Jus Memorial Human Rights Prize, an annual recognition of lasting contributions to the U of T community in terms of education and action against discrimination. She shares this year’s Jus Prize with U of T’s Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program and will accept the award at a formal presentation ceremony on April 13, 2015.

With almost 20 years of experience in health and human rights, Forman says the recent accolades are warm encouragement for what continues to be a small and often highly contested area of scholarship and practice, and she hopes to leverage the CRC to grow the field by supporting student research in this area.

“By training more students, we are teaching future activists, scholars, practitioners and policy-makers about the right to health in international law and the importance of adopting a human rights-based approach to health.

Building the field could have modest but significant down-stream influences on domestic and global policy on health, particularly as we try advance towards global health equity goals like universal health coverage.”

Photo: Lisa Forman (third from left) participates in a panel discussion about Power, Politics and Privilege at U of T’s Global Health Summit in November 2014.