How far have Human Rights advanced when poverty is so widespread?

If the measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable, then societies everywhere have cause to be ashamed. In a changing and dramatically unequal world, the global human rights system must prove its worth, says Vijay Nagaraj
Vijay Nagaraj
9 December 2011

In her statement on the occasion of Human Rights Day, Navaneetham Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, maintains that “2011 has been an extraordinary year for human rights”. According to her the “very idea of “power” shifted” and from Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi and Dara’a to Madrid, New York, London and Santiago, people’s mobilisations signaled the end of tolerance for injustice and a new determination to secure their rights. While acknowledging the various tragic consequences including deaths, disappearances, torture and excessive force, the conclusion is that human rights “went viral” in 2011. 

Our recollection at the ICHRP of the year is somewhat different. When reflecting on these popular mobilisations, one is not reminded, as Ms. Pillay points out, of the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) holds the Guinness World Record for the most translated document, but of the many other records that were broken in 2011. Job losses and unemployment at an all-time high; malnutrition reaching a historic high of around one billion people; food prices scaling new peaks; and rising inequalities, in the global North and South. For those living in poverty, this is certainly not their year.

While the financial and economic crises are still very much in full swing for those living in poverty, severe ‘austerity’ measures continue to be entrenched, eroding social services and destroying, in some cases, the long-term gains in education and healthcare. These measures are already having an especially dire impact on those living in poverty, in particular children. Not only does this threaten to reverse the gains in combating poverty achieved over the last decade, but also presents the most serious threat to the enjoyment of human rights of millions more who have been forced into poverty during the recent years.

In commemorating Human Rights Day, we must recognise that poverty is almost always the result of the wrong policy choices by those at the helm of States and other powerful national and international economic institutions. People in poverty are enmeshed within a complex system of human rights denials in which violations of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights interact and mutually reinforce each other with devastating effects. And if the global human rights system does not tackle this seriously, it will soon be left facing a political, moral and legitimacy crisis that it may not be able to weather.

As poverty levels and inequality continue to rise across the world, now more than ever is the time for us to recognise that too often, public policies and societal attitudes continuously undermine the efforts made by people to lift themselves out of poverty. Too often, public polices ignore the mutually reinforcing and interrelated deprivations that people living in poverty suffer, instead misattributing their situation to simplified, stereotypical causes like laziness, irresponsibility or criminality. As a result, the governance of poverty has only served to further entrench the deprivation and marginalisation of those it is supposed to be benefiting.

When confronted with an increased number of people living in poverty, instead of adopting measures to address the structural causes of poverty, States are adopting a variety of laws and regulations that penalise the poor with an increased intensity. These include banning begging, outlawing homelessness, sleeping and eating in parks; restricting the sharing of food in public; allowing the ejection of people from train stations and shopping malls; displacement and relocation; and intrusive and onerous welfare regulations. Such measures not only arbitrarily and disproportionately target people living in poverty but do so at a time when the economic and financial crises have resulted in unprecedented risks of impoverishment, with a dramatic increase in foreclosures and evictions forcing a growing number of families into homelessness, renders them even more sinister. Moreover, these laws and policies do nothing to tackle the root causes of poverty and exclusion; rather they prevent people living in poverty from exercising their autonomy and enjoying a whole range of human rights, from the right to an adequate standard of living to the freedom of expression.

Human rights leaders and advocates should use Human Rights Day to raise awareness and demand that policy makers recognise the adverse impacts that such steps have, not just on those living in poverty but on society as a whole. Not only do these measures undermine the enjoyment of human rights by those living in poverty and threaten States’ ability to fulfil their international obligations, but they also undermine the values of our communities and contribute to the fragmentation of our societies. Paradoxically, they are not even justifiable from an economic perspective – they are costly to implement, ineffective, and entrench deprivation.

If the measure of a society is the treatment of its most vulnerable, then every State should take a moment to reconsider how they treat their poorest and most disadvantaged citizens. Sixty years ago, the United Nations affirmed the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. Now is the time to recall those unassailable rights and to act on them in good faith and with strong conviction. For a start, the human rights community must push to ensure discrimination on the grounds of poverty (or economic status) is prohibited in human rights law, alongside race, colour, sex, language, religion, etc. The continued failure to recognise discrimination on the grounds of poverty is not only a failure to account for the real-life experiences of millions of people who experience it every day, but also reinforces the secondary status of socio-economic rights in mainstream human rights practice.

On this 10th of December, let us call for a paradigm shift in how we see and address poverty. A human rights approach calls on us to view poverty not as unwelcome collateral,  temporarily inevitable or even a result of faceless, unstoppable economic forces, but rather as the result of acts of commission and omission and bad policy choices by political and economic elites. It is a problem of justice.

The global human rights system and its champions must demand States and other actors take measures to immediately address the dramatic situation of people in poverty and press for accountability for generating, perpetuating and exacerbating poverty. Nothing less will do. Beyond the moral imperative, continuing to deny equality in social and economic life will create unsustainable contradictions and tensions and the danger that—to invoke the words of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s famed Constitution—“those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy”. Universal human rights may have become the lingua franca of social justice, but they must prove their worth, most of all to the poor, in a changing and dramatically unequal world.



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