Human rights and poverty
POVERTY is frequently both a cause and a consequence of human rights violations. And yet the linkage between extreme deprivation and abuse remains at the margin of policy debates and development strategies. To draw attention to this crucial, but often neglected correlation, this year’s Human Rights Day, being observed today is dedicated to the fight against poverty. This should represent not only an opportunity for reflection, but also a call for action to governments, as well as to the human rights and development communities, to ensure a life in dignity for all. All human rights – the right to speak, to vote, but also the right to food, to work, to healthcare and housing – matter to the poor because destitution and exclusion are intertwined with discrimination, unequal access to resources and opportunities, and social and cultural stigmatisation. A denial of rights makes it harder for the poor to participate in the labour market and have access to basic services and resources.
In many societies, they are prevented from enjoying their rights to education, health and housing simply because they cannot afford to do so. This, in turn, hampers their participation in public life, their ability to influence policies affecting them and to seek redress against injustice. In sum, poverty means not just insufficient income and material goods, but also a lack of resources, opportunities, and security which undermines dignity and exacerbates the poor’s vulnerability. Poverty is also about power: who wields it, and who does not, in public life and in the family. Getting to the heart of complex webs of power relations in the political, economic and social spheres is key to understanding and grappling more effectively with entrenched patterns of discrimination, inequality and exclusion that condemn individuals, communities and peoples to generations of poverty.
However, poverty is often perceived as a regrettable but accidental condition or as an inevitable consequence of decisions and events occurring elsewhere, or even as the sole responsibility of those who suffer it. A comprehensive human rights approach will not only address misperceptions and myths surrounding the poor, it will also and more importantly help to find sustainable and equitable pathways out of poverty. By recognising the explicit obligations of states to protect their populations against poverty and exclusion, this approach underscores government responsibility towards creating an environment conducive to public welfare. It also enables the poor to help shape policies for the fulfilment of their rights, and seek effective redress when abuses occur.
There are strong legal foundations for such an approach. All states have ratified at least one of the core seven international human rights treaties, and 80 per cent have ratified four or more. Moreover, the world community has subscribed to the millennium development goals which set concrete targets for joint international efforts to tackle poverty and marginalisation. The world summit in 2005 reiterated such commitments.
Irrespective of resource constraints, states can take immediate measures to fight poverty. Ending discrimination, for example, will in many cases remove barriers to labour market participation and give women and minorities access to employment. Child mortality can be reduced through effective, low-cost, low-technology interventions. For their part, states in a position to provide assistance should come forward and help.
In contrast, indifference and a narrow calculus of national interests may hamper both human rights and development just as damagingly as discrimination. Last year the World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz noted that it is “not morally justifiable for rich countries to spend $280bn – nearly the total gross domestic product of Africa and four times the total amount of foreign aid – on support for agricultural producers.” In one of his last speeches as United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan stated that he regarded focusing global attention on the fight against poverty as one of the biggest achievements of his tenure. He had emphasised the critical vulnerability and the assaults on human dignity that accompany poverty.Crucially, the secretary-general identified human rights, security and development as indispensable elements of a world where all people could live in larger freedom. As one in every seven people in the world goes hungry, that freedom depends on tackling poverty as one the gravest human rights challenges of our time.