University of Minnesota

International Council of Nurses, Nurses and Human Rights (1998).


ICN Position:

Human rights in health care involve both recipients and providers. The International Council of Nurses (ICN) views health care as a right of all individuals, regardless of financial, political, geographic, racial or religious considerations. This right includes the right to choose or decline care, including the right to accept or refuse treatment or nourishment; informed consent; confidentiality, and dignity, including the right to die with dignity.

Human Rights and the Nurse’s Role 

Nurses have an obligation to safeguard people’s health rights at all times and in all places. This includes assuring that adequate care is provided within the resources available and in accordance with nursing ethics.  As well, the nurse is obliged to ensure that patients receive appropriate information prior to consenting to treatment or procedures, including participation in research.

ICN advocates inclusion of human rights issues and the nurses’ role in all levels of nursing education programmes. 

As professionals, nurses are accountable for their own actions in safeguarding human rights. National nurses’ associations have a responsibility to participate in the development of health and social legislation related to patient rights.

Nurses’ Rights

Nurses have the right to practice in accordance with the nursing legislation of the country in which they work and to adopt the ICN Code for Nurses or their own national ethical code.  Nurses also have a right to practice in an environment that provides personal safety, freedom from abuse and violence, threats or intimidation.

National nurses’ associations need to ensure an effective mechanism through which nurses can seek confidential advice, counsel, support and assistance in dealing with difficult human rights situations. 


Nurses deal with human rights issues daily, in all aspects of their professional role. Nurses may be pressured to apply their knowledge and skills in ways that are detrimental to patients and others.  There is a need for increased vigilance, and a requirement to be well informed, about how new technology and experimentation can violate human rights. Furthermore nurses are increasingly facing complex human rights issues, arising from conflict situations within jurisdictions, political upheaval and wars. The application of human rights protection should emphasise vulnerable groups such as women, children, elderly, refugees and stigmatised groups.

ICN has developed Health and Human Rights fact sheet addressing the major areas where human rights impacts on the health of populations, including public health, health care reform, access to care and gender perspectives. 

ICN endorses the Universal Declaration of Human rights, adopted in 1948.1

1 Universal Declaration of Human rights (1948), New York: United Nations

Adopted in 1998
(Replaces previous ICN Position: “The Nurse’s Role in Safeguarding Human Rights”, adopted 1983, updated 1993)

Related ICN Position:· The nurse's role in the care of prisoners· Rights of children· Nuclear war· Torture, death penalty and participation by nurses in executions

The International Council of Nurses is a federation of more than 120 national nurses' associations representing the millions of nurses worldwide.  Operated by nurses for nurses, ICN is the international voice of nursing and works to ensure quality care for all and sound health policies globally.


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