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“I have often been asked what is the most serious form of human rights violation in the world today, and my reply is consistent: extreme poverty. “

Mary Robinson

1. By demanding explanations and accountability, human rights work consistently exposes the roots of poverty.

2. In the 21st century, disparity reduction (rather than poverty alleviation alone) is not only a development goal –it is a central challenge for human rights (HR) work.  Regrettably, the prevailing “MDGs-path” does not characterize poverty as a true HR violation.

3. Governments have thus failed to take needed disparity reduction measures ‘to the maximum extent of available resources’ as HR standards require so as to achieve desirable outcomes.

4. While saying ‘poverty-is-per-se-a-violation-of-human-rights’ is well justified, the legal foundation for such a statement is actually a qualified one.*

* If a country has people who are poor and it genuinely lacks the minimum resources required for eliminating this poverty, General Comment 3 states that this poverty can not be seen as a violation of human rights –but in all honesty, there are very few, if any, such situations in the world today.

5. Furthermore, some argue HR can only be violated by acts of commission, not by acts of omission.**

** This is a disputed issue. It is one of the most controversial issues in the HR discourse. Those of us who make no difference between Civil/Political Rights and Economic/Social/and Cultural Rights promote the position that persons have a valid claim on the state for both acts of commission and of omission. Amartya Sen discusses this in his writings.

6. Since HR uphold and further equality and non-discrimination, as well as identifying clear duties –and duties demand accountability– disparity reduction is not just desirable, but obligatory.

7. Therefore, to address the structures of discrimination that generate and sustain poverty, HR urge us to speedily adopt workable poverty reduction strategies –as a matter of legal obligation.

8. HR principles (i.e., the required criteria for HR-based processes to be set in motion) also caution us against retrogression and against non-fulfillment of minimum-core-obligations when either of these are invoked by the state in the name of making ‘trade-offs’ or ‘temporary sacrifices’ in the application of economic, social or cultural policies. To avoid this, HR work requires creating and strengthening the institutions through which policy-makers can be held accountable for their actions.

9. As we all well know, the attributes of poverty manifest themselves through, among other:

  • low household income and expenditures,
  • low nutritional status,***
  • high morbidity and mortality from preventable diseases,***
  • insufficient and inadequate shelter and basic education,
  • a lack of security and of access to justice, and
  • restricted access to opportunities to earn a livelihood and to proactively participate in community life.

Each of these is addressed by specific human rights, namely, the HR to Life, the HR to Nutrition, the HR to Health, the HR to Education, the HR to Decent Work and wages, the HR to Adequate Housing, the HR to Personal Security, the HR to Equal Access to Justice, as well as a whole set of political rights and freedoms.

***: Let us not forget we actually do measure poverty through its biological impacts (e.g., stunting, low height/age rates, infant mortality, maternal mortality); that is why we say that these impacts are not only health impacts, but the biological manifestation of a social disease (i.e., part of a non-accidental political phenomenon). (Camapania 2007 por el derecho a la salud en Uruguay, diciembre 2008 and D+C, 35:9, Sept 2008)

10. This is why we, HR activists, so severely criticize the WB-sponsored PRSPs (and the MDGs for that matter…); their focus is too much on outcomes (rather than processes) –wrongly assuming HR are realized when an MDG has been met. Consequently, we see donors proposing only outcome indicators to be achieved by, basically, a set of traditionally-formulated-development-projects with corresponding targets –not even mentioning HR.

11. Symptomatic of the same is the fact that the Right to Development, which is the right of countries to a process of development in which all HR and fundamental freedoms can be progressively realized, is yet to come into full force. [The UN Declaration on the Right to Development (1980) has been adopted by many (although not enough) countries, but several others, in particular the United States, are against it].

12. To all of this, our opponents counter that we should not complain: our ‘morality’ is improving: “Look at where we come from: colonialism, apartheid, slavery, torture, genocide…”. But  …In South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, 70 % of all people are still poor… In 2008, the net financial flows from Sub-Saharan Africa to rich countries was 126 billion dollars: is this then predation compensated by charity? (The Broker, Issue 15, Aug. 2009) So is our morality really improving? I let you  be the judges.

13. The bad news is that there is still a significant rhetoric/action gap between statements in conventions, declarations, global initiatives and development plans AND real actions on the ground. The good news is that the HR framework provides the ethical and the political base to reduce this rhetoric/action gap!

14. To tackle the gap above, the mantra we hear about getting away from state intervention letting the forces of the free market take care must be combated not with yet other mantras, but with all the good things we have been saying in this Reader for over five years. Representative democracy, the rule of law AND the free market are simply failing to deliver a disparity reduction in too many countries in the world….

15. Also failing to deliver a disparity reduction, are the flows imposed by globalization (flow of capital, of technology, of people, of commodities, of information, of values and of norms) and the accompanying sanctions applied by the WB the IMF and the WTO for non-compliance.

16. So where does this leave us?:

  • We must further educate ourselves in the HR-based framework and the HR-based planning and programming process.
  • We must more actively promote the adoption of this HR-based framework and its approach to planning, programming, monitoring and evaluation in all development programs and projects.
  • We must then get some hands-on experience in applying the framework.
  • We must vigorously expose the lack of a HR-based ethical base of the currently-dominating-free-market-economic-theory making this fact visible and widely understood.
  • We must further clarify the relationships between human development and human rights.
  • We must always present the MDGs as simply ignoring a focus on processes with only a compelling and a mostly attention-grabbing focus on quantified goals.
  • We must further insist that development, democracy and human rights must progress simultaneously.
  • We must reject the ‘separationist thesis’; the separation of economic growth and human rights is not possible and is a conceptual fallacy.
  • We must develop indicators for HR principles (for equity, non-discrimination, participation, accountability, transparency), do something about them (!) and establish local, national and international monitoring and reporting systems for both HR processes and outcomes.
  • We must further influence the global and national media to provide more HR-based information, for instance, including periodic annual information on the ‘state of HR in the world’, showing both countries that are making progress in HR and countries that are not. The idea is to create a global-embarrassment-for-countries-that-fail-to-use-their-resources-for-the-realization-of-the-human-rights-of-their-citizens.

17. These will all be good first steps to a) expose and replace the current rhetoric, and b) demand more HR-based plans and actions making the systems that apply them more transparent and accountable.

18. In HR work, a 25 year time-perspective in development planning has been said to be more realistic. Does this upset some of you readers?

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



Mostly adapted from Urban Jonsson.

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  1. 1mosese nduguti wanja

    -lack of good housing
    -lack of education,heaith,food,

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