Food for a not meaningless thought


Human Rights Reader 299


Historically, economic inequalities have made civil and political rights meaningless. This categorically demonstrates the importance of implementing economic, social and cultural rights.


1. Little by little, ‘the poor’ have become ‘a dangerous class’. So a philanthropic movement in favor of the-poor-willing-to-work-for-miserable-wages began to develop.*

*: Note: The rich love philanthropy and spend ever more on it. The 50 biggest donors in the United States spent some US$ 10.4 billion last year. The great foundations –such as those from Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, Rockefeller and Ford– give away much much more than what most national governments devote to development. Philanthropy concerns only a tiny part of the income of the rich and puts them under no obligation. They can give what and to whomever they want, and there is neither control over their priorities nor over their choices. On the other hand, the powerful of the world (whether legal or physical persons) have recourse to all sorts of maneuvers to avoid paying taxes, to avoid observing regulations protective of safety in the work place, of the environment and of human rights.


2. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) went on record long ago stating that “poverty is a human rights issue; extreme poverty involves the denial, not of a single right or a given category of rights, but of human rights as a whole”. Poverty is actually intimately related to the absence of control by impoverished people over resources, especially land, education and training, knowledge and information, capital and influential social relations.


3. Although affirmations such as CESCR’s and many other UN commitments constitute, in a sense, a road map for the member states that are 100% valid, they are –as you know– not implemented. In fact, for all its authority, the UN General Assembly has not managed to break through the wall of neoliberal policies. The problem is that the current powerful Member States are longstanding supporters of these policies and impose them upon the entire world through, in particular, the international financial institutions including the Bretton Woods institutions, which they dominate. This is why, for some fifteen years now, one sees the influence of neoliberal ideology in texts adopted during the world summit meetings organized by the General Assembly. (The Millennium Development Goals, which are supposed to “reduce poverty”, are among these texts which not only rehash previous commitments, but also are used as a dilatory maneuver to avoid implementing them).


4. Bottom line here, one must face the facts: Such as conceived today, poverty reduction policies cannot succeed, and this in spite of the well-intentioned efforts of thousands of social workers and volunteers.


‘Disparity reduction’ between the rich and the poor is not even in the lexicon of well-intentioned ‘reformers’.


5. How can one claim to fight poverty if, at the same time, one is carrying out policies that create poverty? By privatizing public services and charging those who use them, by laying off workers and reducing unemployment compensation, by maintaining social assistance at levels below the poverty level, by privatizing pensions… one can only increase the number of poor people.


6. By the same token,  by selling huge tracts of land in poor countries and by chasing their small-holders from their lands, by leaving the way open to huge transnational corporations that are not obliged to respect any social, environmental, fiscal and human rights policies, as well as by underpaying the workers one can only make poverty permanent.


7. But, perhaps, the purpose of neoliberal strategies is not to eliminate poverty (?). Perhaps, they may be satisfied just to avoid conflicts, to maintain a certain social cohesion and to help poor people to (just better) ‘formulate their social demands’. (In that scenario, poor people as claim holders are certainly not helped to evaluate their own situation and to proactively place demands on duty bearers). As for their poverty, it will not be diminished with just that.


8. The only real solution to poverty is to end the active process-of-impoverishment. That means setting up an economic and social system subject to democratic control that will correct the inequalities and will rectify countless injustices. Needed is an economic system respectful of decent work standards, of the environment, and of human rights. That will also mean creating a system of social protection and public services. The ‘pursuit of growth’ is a dead-end for all these.


9. All this means that poverty must be viewed, not as a problem of the poor, but as a problem of society overall. Here is where disparity reduction fits in. If one wants to fight effectively against poverty, the flagrant inequalities in our societies must be fought against. In 1992, the 20% richest persons in the world had 82.7% of the overall income.

Today, 1% of them controls 50% of the world’s wealth. In 20 years, there has been a concentration of wealth (and power) in the hands of a tiny minority. It is one more proof  –if any more proofs were needed– that poverty cannot be eliminated without an equitable redistribution of wealth, without a fair, progressive tax system, without income redistribution. The fight against poverty and against inequality is not possible through charity. Does this need any further proof? It will never succeed without radical changes: it is the current system that produces and perpetuates ever greater inequality.


10. As the United Nations human rights bodies unequivocably affirm, poverty is a denial of human rights of the first order (including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights). Treating the question of poverty from the perspective of human rights makes it possible to take the fight against poverty out of the realm of charity where it still is, I’d say, presently situated. Moreover, poverty cannot disappear without the respect of all human rights, which implies the elimination of all discrimination, the right to an adequate standard of living allowing for health, education, housing, social security, etc. These last elements are listed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and governments are under obligation to respect them, to see that they are respected by others (financial and international trade institutions, as well as transnational corporations, for example) and to implement them at both the national and the international level (thus the newly approved extraterritorial human rights obligations).


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



Excerpted almost verbatim from: F. Mestrum and M. Özden, The fight against poverty and human rights , Critical Report #11, CETIM, Geneva, June 2012. 

Long Postscript: Political commitment has never stood in the way of refined writing. In that vein, these Human Rights Readers (HRRs) merely transmit versions of given tales that have been told and retold many times, and have been heard many times in the course of daily life around a dinner table or elsewhere.

Over five years, HRRs have become immune to time and to the diversity of many cultures –only that their purpose differs according to the historical moment they were written in.

They are designed to be read in one sitting so that the whole of it is present in the mind of the reader as she gets to the end . This effort pervades much of their pace and tone.

While reading them, the reader is expected to be reminded of earlier incidents and to establish connections in her mind. HRRs are thus sudden and intense and count on the reader’s ability to provoke associations. In doing so, HRRs can enjoy a certain anonymity, because it is hoped they become common property.

The question I always ask myself is: Is there really a universal tale being told in the Readers?

At least they follow a sequential construct to build an intelligible tale. I rewrite them several times. The reader should, therefore, be aware of the inevitable distortions that rewriting always perpetrates on original texts that I have gathered to come up with each Reader. I am the first to recognize that the Readers incorporate a fundamental ideological repertoire; they castigate those felt to be guilty of not abiding by the tenets of their own proclamations  –often using the ideological tools that even honest conservative ideology provides; Readers unravel the deeds and misdeeds of those judged to be guilty; they also expose the worn-out traditions they purport to uphold as represented by the reassuring reiterations of ‘good intentions’ they utter. (Actually, often making wry comments about the utter fiction of opportunistic political programs often concocted in the comfort and safety of large urban capitals).

HRRs denounce the proclamations that announce new, false and wishful beginnings made even more ubiquitous by the development of the internet. Readers thus use the same medium to do so. They allow us to converse with one another across national borders.

Moreover, Readers have a distinct conscious political and sometimes even philosophical nuance when denouncing duty bearers who, when reduced to barbarity, act in the same manner as the lowest barbarian.

Politics then becomes an honor issue as a vexing philosophical question is probed openly.

HRRs  probe deeply into social reality –allowing no room for sentimentality. They display, in miniature, the mechanics of an entire system fraught with HR violations. This, ultimately, as a way to cleanse the many undesirable elements of an implacably stratified authoritarian society. HRRs also focus on reverting the historically arrested resistance to these HR violations often fueled by the religiosity and the credulity of common people who are either fatalistic or believe in miracles. (Adapted from R. Gonzalez Echeverria, Ed., Latin American Short Stories, Oxford University Press paperback, New York, 1999).



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  1. 1Iftikhar Soomro

    Such categories as ‘commodity’, ‘money’, ‘wages’, ‘capital’, ‘profit’, ‘tax’, and the like are only semi-mystical reflections in men’s heads of the various aspects of a process of economy which they do not understand and which is not under their control. To decipher them, a thoroughgoing scientific analysis is indispensable.

  2. 2Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay

    Production(creation) of Space.
    As you know most of the communities (such as Bengali or Tamils) in this sub-continent are covered by ‘Culture of Poverty (hopelessness)’ (Oscar Lewis), irrespective of class or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody genuinely condemn or ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption in this society, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-governance, bad work place, weak mother language, continuous consumption of common social space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming fathers & mothers only by self-procreation, mindlessly & blindfold(supported by some lame excuses), depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a decent & caring society, fearless & dignified living. Simply pushing persons for a nasty survival. Do not ever look for any other positive alternative values to perform human way of parenthood, i.e. deliberately stop giving birth to any child him/herself till the society improves up to the mark, co-parenting children those are born out of extreme poverty, instead. All of us are driven only by the very animal instinct. If the Bengali people ever desires genuine freedom from vicious cycle of poverty, rotten capitalism, need to involve themselves in ‘Production of Space’(Henri Lefebvre) movement, an intense attachment with the society at large to overcome inherent ‘hopeless’ mindset, decent Politics would certainly come up. – SB, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah -711101, India.

  3. 3Shah I Mobin Jinnah

    Excellent,Very realistic.The thematic insights are more educative for the politicians,the should be more aware to develop the pro-people policies,but how? it needs Peoples Organization to facilitate all the political activists to reform.

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