Global poverty: the human-rights dimension

Kate Allen
28 May 2009

The worldwide economic recession is working its way through every level of the global economy. Most people in the rich states of the west in one way or another are experiencing its negative effects with regard to their jobs, savings, prices for basic goods, and career-prospects. But the recession's impact on people in the poorest and most conflict-ridden parts of the world - who were already living with great insecurity of employment, food and shelter - is even greater. Kate Allen is UK director of Amnesty International

Amnesty International's annual report on the state of the world's human rights is published on 28 May 2009; for details, click here

Amnesty International's latest annual report on the state of the world's human rights, published on 28 May 2009, documents the devastating consequences of the crisis on the world's poorest people - and finds that the economic problems they face are at their heart human-rights problems too. We are concerned that world leaders' tendency to reduce the recession to a financial issue that requires limited technocratic solutions ignores this deep human-rights dimension.

In our survey of the state of the world's human rights, Amnesty finds that the recession is undermining poorer people's human rights in three key ways.

The three costs

The first is that it has driven more people into absolute poverty. The World Bank says that around 150 million people were pushed into poverty during 2008 - i.e., forced to live on less than $2 per day - because of soaring food and fuel prices. It also estimates that the number of chronically hungry people will rise beyond a billion people this year, reversing the gains that have been made in fighting malnutrition in recent years.

Sky-rocketing job losses, especially in countries employing lots of migrant workers, are making not only individuals unemployed but whole communities and even countries dependent on those workers' remittances facing destitution. For example, Bangladesh receives more money via remittances from the 6 million Bangladeshis working overseas than from any sector of its domestic economy; but in March 2009, Malaysia cancelled the visas of 50,000 of them, saying local jobs should be reserved for local workers. Also in openDemocracy on human rights in transition:

Mary Robinson, "Making 'global' and 'ethical' rhyme: an interview" (9 December 2003)

Robert Walgate, "The United Nations and human rights: the danger of irrelevance" (18 March 2004)

Stephen Bowen, "'Full-spectrum' human rights: Amnesty International rethinks" (3 June 2005)

Marielos Monzón, "Guatemala: journalism under pressure" (26 September 2005)

Maryann Bird, "Rhetoric, rights and reality" (23 May 2006)

Stephen Hopgood, "Amnesty International: the politics of morality" (8 June 2006)

Becky Hogge, "Amnesty's China hit-list" (21 July 2006)

Isabel Hilton & Luis Afonso de Alba, "Rethinking human rights" (1 February 2007)

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008)

Conor Gearty, "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the next sixty years" (10 December 2008)

The rights to food, secure housing, education and healthcare are basic human rights, enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and written into international law in the 1950s. Everyone everywhere has the right to a basic adequate standard of living, and all governments are obliged to protect and uphold those rights. Poverty is not inevitable; it is the result of decisions, actions and failures to act by governments and others. Neither should anyone see increasing poverty as an inevitable consequence of this recession. All governments should, in tackling the crisis, be putting the protection of the poorest people's human rights at the top of the agenda.

The second major way in which the recession is wrecking human rights is through social and political tensions created by food shortages and increasing poverty, which lead to protests which in many parts of the world have been clamped down on violently by police. Desperate people have taken to the streets to protest about food and fuel prices on every continent.

In Cameroon more than 100 people were killed in violent clashes with security forces. In Ivory Coast the police put down protests about rising food prices with tear-gas and live ammunition, killing at least two people. In Senegal high prices have lead to violent demonstrations and a violent reaction from the police who tortured some of those they arrested. In China a staggering 20 million people have lost their jobs and been sent back to the countryside, where thousands have been involved in protests about their living conditions.

The third way in which the recession is seriously damaging the human rights of the poor is that world leaders are distracted from giving the comprehensive attention needed to many critical and ongoing human-rights crises. As I write, the Sri Lankan government is trying to proclaim a moral victory over terrorism in its war against the Tamil Tigers, whose bloody conclusion over the last few weeks has caused a still unknown degree of suffering among hundreds of thousands of civilians. This very situation should have received the international community's concerted attention years ago - if it had been, a peace agreement could well have been brokered with far fewer human casualties and violations.

Similarly, the human-rights crisis in Darfur and eastern Chad has worsened over 2008-09, with more attacks on civilians and no end to the conflict in sight. The international community's response to date has been a woefully inadequate United Nations force. Here too, more interest and action from the UN Security Council and governments around the world might have prevented many murders and forced displacement - and the same is true in a range of conflict-zones from DR Congo to Somalia, Colombia to Afghanistan. The problem is that the overwhelming focus on the recession, financial negotiations and bailouts has pushed these problems into the shadows.

A call to power

For almost a decade, since the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001, the message of the powerful has been that human rights have to be compromised in the name of security. Now, in the name of economic recovery, these rights are again being de-prioritised. It won't do. Human rights are not an ideal you opt into when times are good. Most governments are signatories to treaties which oblige them to protect everyone's human rights at all times.

Amnesty is calling on governments, the United Nations and the G20 to put the protection of everyone's human rights at the centre of their plans to tackle the recession - rather than narrow, financial-only measures which have no regard for actual impacts on millions of people's lives.

What does this mean in practice? It means that governments must consult with the poorest and most vulnerable when devising their financial plans and make sure their human-rights effects are monitored. Above all they must make explicit commitments to protecting the poorest from further destitution and exclusion. In this way we will finally begin to see the realisation of the commitments first made in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights more than sixty years ago.


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