Unsolved Problems: World Poverty, Human Rights And False Promises – OpEd


By Dr Gyan Basnet (PhD) and Mansoor Hassan Albalooshi

Poverty is seen today as the world’s greatest moral problem and one that potentially poses the biggest threat to the planet’s future security and stability. Statistics show that over twenty per cent of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, and that poverty has become more acute and intractable than ever. The lives of billions of people are blighted: they are robbed of their dignity and deprived of the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Many world problems are undoubtedly rooted in poverty and inequality, the consequences of which could be very grave.

According to Professor P. Ekins extreme hunger and absolute poverty affecting one fifth of the human race must rate alongside the spread of nuclear weapons, increasing levels of military expenditure, environmental pollution, and various governments’ violation of fundamental human rights as having the ‘potential for the destruction of whole peoples’ and even threaten the ‘extinction of the human race’. In recent years, the traditional view of poverty has changed dramatically as it has come to be recognized as a denial of human rights that undermines the dignity and worth of the individual.

Poverty means deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security and power that are needed to provide a standard of living that brings with it the enjoyment of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. It violates personal freedom: its elimination should be seen as a basic entitlement and human right and not merely as a problem to be tackled by charity. Poverty so violates human rights that it must be tackled by a world that claims to be working towards full-scale adoption of human rights.

Based on the fundamental principle of the equality of all human beings, it demands that nationally and internationally there is a legal duty to create a moral, political, and economic order that will grant all persons the opportunity to live with dignity.

Poverty as a Denial of Human Rights

The understanding of poverty that has emerged in recent years is of sustained or chronic deprivation of the essentials needed to enjoy, not only an adequate standard of living, but also all other human rights. Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor A. K Sen has made an outstanding contribution to welfare theory and to the concepts of human development. One concept that he has elaborated is that of ‘capability’, a humanist alternative theory that regards poverty as a condition beyond the mere lack of income and living essentials. The ‘capability’ concept views the impact of poverty not merely as a daily life experience, but rather as the denial through social constraints and personal circumstances of any real opportunity to lead a valuable and valued life.

‘Capabilities’, which vary in form and content but are also interrelated, include the capability of satisfying bodily needs, so avoiding starvation and undernourishment, and of escaping ‘preventable morbidity or premature mortality’. The ‘capability’ notion of poverty, therefore, looks beyond mere economic considerations towards a more mental or semi-spiritual concept of well-being. The ‘capability’ approach views poverty broadly as a partial or complete inability to exercise (either positively or negatively) certain freedoms, such as the freedom to avoid hunger, or disease, or illiteracy, or powerlessness. These freedoms are fundamental in protecting minimal human dignity: hence the ‘human rights’ approach, which adopts the view that such freedoms are the inalienable rights of all individuals. In conjunction with the ‘capability’ approach, poverty has been hotly debated in the international human rights arena, and as a subject it has moved rapidly up the international human rights agenda. Thus the traditional understanding of poverty has shifted in favour of recognition as a denial of human rights.

International Human Rights Instruments and Poverty

Today the human rights ‘codex’ comprises numerous legal and political texts and procedures relating to civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, and the so-called ‘third generation rights’. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1966, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) 1966, and a number of regional level human rights treaties can be interpreted as providing a framework for dealing with poverty. The ICCPR covers freedom of expression, freedom of movement, of association, and of assembly, freedom from wrongful deprivation of liberty, freedom from forced or compulsory labour, and freedom to participate: these are freedoms daily denied to the poor. Moreover, these rights should be viewed in conjunction with more positive measures: for example, the right to life extends to measures to reduce infant mortality, to increase life expectancy, and to eliminate malnutrition and epidemics.

More importantly, the Declaration on the Right to Development (1986) inter-relates the right to development with other human rights, and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action 1993 further states that all human rights are universal, indivisible, and interdependent and interrelated. The enjoyment of one set of rights is indivisibly inter-related with the enjoyment of all other rights. For example, to enjoy the right to health an individual must also be able to enjoy the rights to information and education and the right to an adequate standard of living. Recognition that economic, social and cultural rights complement civil and political rights helps to boost efforts towards achieving a human rights strategy for poverty reduction.

Already a comprehensive international legal framework exists for the protection of human rights that could be extended to tackle world poverty. Poverty is now understood not merely in monetary terms: it is seen as depriving people of resources essential for social aspects of life, such as personal well-being, and the freedom to live as one would wish and the opportunity to choose one’s own fate. The struggles faced daily by those in poverty are a never ending shortage of food and other essentials, dependency on others, and a temptation to resort to desperate measures against others or even against oneself.

Unanswered Huge Questions

What can be the meaning of freedom, justice and dignity to those who are hungry today and do not know if they will eat tomorrow. We live now in societies that are hugely unequal, and the gap between advanced and poor countries is widening. To recognise that poverty is a violation of human rights is to accept that it is not a problem to be tackled by charity but by a legal obligation to protect, provide and fulfil the demands of right holders by duty bearers who are governments and international communities as a whole. However, many questions remain unanswered in terms of implementation. Who might enforce it and how? What are the mechanisms? At the same time, is it possible to uplift the poor without a fundamental re-structuring of today’s global political, social, institutional and economic structures? Are the developed nations willing to accept a legal obligation to uplift the poor? Are they ready to share fruits equally at the global level? Are they ready to invest infinitely more in the developing world and at the same time cut back in, say, arms’ expenditure? Or most importantly, are the mammoth international financial bodies such as the World Bank and the International Corporations ready to accept the demands and consequences of the human rights’ approach? The struggle against poverty and social deprivation will remain nothing more than merely aspirational unless the world community can offer its full support with legal commitments and obligations. So often we witness violations of fundamental rights, or are made aware of the many who suffer from poverty or starvation or torture or cruelty or war. Politicians talk about human rights and make vague promises, but do they react forcefully to what they see? Had all human rights, as nationally and internationally recognised, already been implemented, global atrocities could now be history.

Dr Gyan Basnet, who holds a Ph.D. and an LL.M degree in International Human Rights Law at Lancaster University, U.K, is a Prominent Columnist, Researcher in International Human Rights Law, and Human Rights and Constitutional Lawyer in the Supreme and Subordinate Court of Nepal. Email: [email protected].

Captain Mansoor Hassan Albalooshi is a Dubai Police Officer and PhD candidate at Lancaster University Law School in the UK.

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