The idea of human rights has been on my mind lately, and it’s good to know that I’m not alone. Bill Easterly, fresh off his battle in HuffPo with Jeff Sachs, has had a few posts this past week about the topic of poverty as a human rights violation. I think he makes some salient points.
Here’s an excerpt from his opening salvo (titled, “Poverty is not a human rights violation”):
The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator. That is what historically has led to progress on human rights…
Poverty does not fit this definition of rights. Who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income? There are many theories of poverty, but few of them lead to a clear identification of the Violator of this right. Moreover, human rights are a clear dichotomy – someone violates your rights or they do not. But the line between poor and not-poor is arbitrary – it is different in different countries, and on a global scale, many still argue what is the right dividing line that constitutes poverty. So calling poverty a “human rights violation” does not point to any concrete actions that the “violator” must stop in order to restore rights to the “violated.”
So it’s disappointing that the 2009 report of Amnesty International is blurring its previous clear focus on human rights to a fuzzy vision that now includes poverty…
To confuse poverty and human rights violations is to slow down the solutions to both.
I agree with this mostly- poverty is systemic, so there is no “Violator”. It is hard to blame Amnesty for wanting to extend their reach into a major global problem, but perhaps framing it this way is not productive.
Sameer Dossani of Amnesty responded:
It’s true that lack of income, in and of itself, isn’t a human rights violation. But poverty is about a lot more than just income. As Easterly knows, those who live on less than a dollar a day are poor not just because they lack income; the lack of income implies lack of access to services, clean drinking water, adequate education, housing, employment and so on. All of these are violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights…
Human rights abuses cause poverty and keep people poor – and living in poverty makes you more likely to suffer violations of your human rights. So human rights must be part of any solution to poverty.
Now, I’m sympathetic to UDHR arguments. In fact, I was part of a campus labor campaign that was framed around UDHR Article 23, which upholds labor rights. I think Dossani talks right past Easterly’s main point: unlike labor rights, there is no clear violator with the poverty-inducing “infractions”. I think Dossani’s last statement, however, is critical, and Easterly would certainly agree with it; without giving people the human rights of political and civil freedom, solving poverty will be very difficult, and in the vein of Amartya Sen, somewhat pointless.
Easterly then amplified a few of his earlier points:
It is impossible for the UN or any other body to allocate responsibilities for observing the “right to water,” and also decide who will be first in line among the 884 million people now without clean water. So even if the UN creates international pressure to observe these “rights,” the pressure is diffused across so many potential actors with unclear responsibility that it has no effect, accomplishing nothing for poor people.
What about the UN’s record on the more traditionally defined “negative” human rights, like freedom from state killings and torture? These human rights are a lot easier to specifically address – the UN could denounce human rights violations, identifying the violator and the victim each time. Here international pressure could have more of an effect, because it is applied to very specific wrong-doers to stop very specific actions against specific victims…
The UN is perpetrating a sick joke on such victims, by filling the Human Rights Council with human rights violators. This travesty is already well known, but that doesn’t mean anyone who cares should stop talking about it.
So here’s the scorecard on UN human rights. On something like “the right to water,” where it is impossible to identify who is violating such “rights,” the UN talks big. On human rights violations like killings and torture, where the UN knows precisely who is the violator, the UN sometimes shows up on the violator’s side.
And Easterly followed that up with a post today about human rights and development:
Paul Farmer is my hero as a man of action, who has done amazing things for poor people at great personal sacrifice. He is also a forceful advocate for the human rights of the poor…
Poverty is indeed tragic, which all of us care about, which all of us are working on.But who will be held responsible to satisfy these rights? Farmer struggles for an answer. With health care, for example: “we’ve learned that the public sector, however weak in these places, is often the sole guarantor of the right(his emphasis) of the poor to health care.” […]
No single actor gets any guidance from human rights what step that actor could take to do the MOST good for the MOST poor people…
Guidance how to fight poverty will have to come somewhere else than from economic and social human rights.
I have a hard time disagreeing with him on these points. A human rights framework certainly provides ample motivation for fighting poverty, but it is lacking in the “how” area.
I think he misses one key point, though: social rights can inform approaches that emphasize the importance of subsidiarity in aid programs- having decisions made at the most local level possible. Of course, this effort must be combined with political and civil rights that build the capacity so that this type of process can actually happen.