Using Human Rights to Reduce Poverty
By Louise Arbour
With comments by Arjun Sengupta
Poverty is the greatest human rights scourge of our time. Human rights violations are both a cause and consequence of poverty. Human rights are increasingly accepted as part of the definition of what it is to be poor, as well as offering pathways out of poverty. In other words, human rights serve both a constitutive and instrumental function insofar as poverty and poverty reduction are concerned. While my focus here is on the instrumental dimensions of the issue, this should not obscure the fundamental fact that human rights are of intrinsic importance in their own right, an expression of universally shared values enshrined in the UN Charter and international law.
How do human rights serve the goals of poverty reduction? Firstly, a human rights-sensitive understanding of poverty gives due attention to the critical vulnerability and assaults on human dignity that accompany poverty. It looks not just at resources but also at the capabilities, choices, security and power needed for the enjoyment of the rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and international human rights treaties to which all countries to varying degrees have subscribed. This multi-dimensional understanding accords with the conclusions of the World Bank’s "Voices of the Poor" surveys. It requires us to look beyond money-metric definitions of poverty towards the root causes of deprivation, focusing particular attention upon those most discriminated against and the people and institutions which—under human rights law—have an obligation to respond.
This is not to suggest that "law is the answer" in all situations, nor to deny the influential role played by informal and customary rule-making systems in many if not most countries. Equally importantly, human rights standards of themselves should not necessarily be expected to reveal clear answers to complex policy trade-offs. However, linking poverty reduction strategies to systems of entitlement and corresponding obligation, grounded in international and national laws and institutions, promises much for the sustainability of poverty reduction efforts. And even if human rights standards themselves will not likely resolve difficult prioritization and policy dilemmas, they at least help to establish a minimum level of social and economic entitlements below which nobody should be allowed to fall. Human rights standards buttress the case for more inclusive and participatory development processes, non-discrimination, transparency in policy-making, and strengthened accountability, including impact assessment, monitoring, and redress when rights are violated.
Theory and practice
How then does the theory play out in practice? There are a great many ways in which human rights entitlements are being "claimed’ in practice, through social mobilization, public interest litigation, political action, "legal empowerment" strategies focused on enlivening administrative action, alone or in combination. The World Bank is itself carrying out very timely research on the empirical importance of "claiming" human rights, and on the similarities and differences between "economic" and human rights approaches to basic services such as health and education (Gauri 2005). The World Bank Institute’s research on the instrumental importance of civil and political rights (Kaufmann et al. 2000;
Kaufmann 2005) contributes importantly to the human rights and development debate, as, in my view, does the World Development Report 2006 on equity and development.
The human rights framework places an obligation on States to protect their populations against situations of poverty and social exclusion, including by ensuring an enabling environment that protects human rights standards. The enforcement of human rights through the courts is one example of how human rights law can alleviate situations of poverty. Courts can of course be hard to access even for the relatively well-off in many countries, let alone the most marginalized. Decisions as to whether to litigate rights must be made strategically. Positive measures, including legal aid programs for low-income groups, are required to ensure that poverty does not bar people from claiming their rights and accessing effective remedies. Informal justice systems, paralegals, "alternative law groups" and community organizations all have potentially vital roles to play in ensuring access to justice for the poorest.
Among the human rights principles to which the international community has universally subscribed is the principle that all individuals should enjoy a basic level of social and economic rights necessary for a life in dignity. Most societies today recognize a right of access to adequate housing, basic education, social security, health care and nourishment, and right to work and adequate conditions of work, as provided for variously in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, regional treaties, and national constitutional arrangements. Courts the world over have been playing an increasingly important role in breathing life into these legal guarantees, helping people to escape the poverty trap.
The Supreme Court of India has interpreted the right to life to include nutrition, clothing, and shelter in considering whether the denial of emergency medical treatment at a government-run hospital violated an individual's right to life (Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity v State of West Bengal , SOL Case No. 169, 4 SCC 25, 3 SCJ 25, 2 CHRLD 109). In another case concerning the issues of inadequate drought relief and chronic hunger and undernutrition, the Supreme Court has issued a series of interim orders directing the government to implement food relief programs to halt starvation, provide mid-day meals in schools, and provide subsidized grain to millions of destitute households (PUCL v Union of India and Others, Writ Petition [Civil] 196 of 2001).
In South Africa, in a case involving children's rights to minimum shelter, the Constitutional Court held that the realization of socio-economic rights, including access to housing, health care, sufficient food and water, and social security, is necessary to ensure human dignity, freedom and equality of all individuals. The failure of the government to make any provision at all for the housing needs of the poorest was a violation of the South African constitution (Government of the Republic of South Africa and Others v Grootboom, 2001  SA 46 [CC], 2000  BCLR 1169 [CC].) In another case the Constitutional Court directed the government to provide HIV treatments to reduce mother-to-child transmission, leading to the development of one of the largest mother-to-child treatment programs in the world and saving potentially thousands of lives (Treatment Action Campaign & Ors. v Minister of Health & Ors).
Equally, courts in Argentina have on several occasions held that constitutional provisions on the right to health include an obligation to ensure access to essential medicines, decisions with major human development dividends(Viceconte, Mariela v Estado Nacional—Ministerio de Salud y Ministerio de Econom?a de la Naci?n ). And in the case of International Commission of Jurists v Portugal Complaint No. 1/1998, the European Commission for Social Rights found that Portugal’s failure to enforce its child labor legislation constituted a breach of its obligations under the European
Social Charter. In response to this, Portugal implemented a range a legislative and policy reforms and strengthened the working methods of its Labor Inspectorate, which in the assessment of the European Trade Union Council has had a major impact on the child labor problem (Governmental Committee 2001). While among the better known examples, these cases are the tip of the iceberg.
Naturally, the judicial enforcement of human rights claims is but one dimension of overarching strategies to reduce poverty. Equally obviously, to effectively tackle the root causes of poverty calls for action at the international as well as national levels. In this respect, the human rights framework makes it clear that the protection of human rights and the elimination of poverty is a shared responsibility. While the primary responsibility to protect human rights rests with national governments, other states and non-state actors also have a responsibility to act in accordance with international human rights norms and standards (UN Charter; and International Council on Human Rights Policy 1999).
A state which lacks the means to effectively protect basic human rights for its people has an obligation to actively seek international assistance and cooperation. Equally, states which are in a position to assist have a responsibility to support other states to enable them to ensure adequate protection of rights to their populations. Granted, identifying specific lines of legal accountability at this level can be problematic, although international law may well be evolving to meet such demands (Alston 2005; and Open Ended Working Group 2006). The recent acceptance by the international community of a "duty to protect" populations from crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide and ethnic cleansing—where their governments fail to act—is cause for optimism for those advocating for strengthened international rule of law (Arbour 2005a).
However, the Human Development Report 2005 (UNDP 2005) provides a sobering and timely insight into the dereliction of duty-bearers on the international plane in fulfilling their responsibilities. The report notes that the lack of level playing fields in international trade, and especially agricultural trade, remains a serious impediment to the elimination of mass poverty. The Doha Round of WTO negotiations provides an opportunity to remedy this problem, aligning trade and aid to the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but the political commitments agreed upon so far still seem to fall far short of the human rights demands of the poorest countries.
States’ human rights obligations should be a foremost priority and concern in these international trade negotiations as well as in the formulation of multilateral development policies. International cooperation for development, including with respect to aid, trade, and debt relief, should aim at creating an enabling international environment in which people living in developing States can lift themselves out of poverty. Aid pledges have increased in recent years, but problems concerning overall quantum, predictability, harmonization, and tied aid remain. Agricultural subsidies remain a particular source of concern, skewed towards the commercial interests of agribusiness and landowners rather than the human rights of small-scale farmers. As noted in the Human Development Report 2005 (p. 129), "it would be hard to design a more regressive—or less efficient—system of financial transfer than currently provided through agricultural subsidies."
The interests underlying all such policies and practices must be brought to the surface and exposed. Strengthened reform coalitions are needed at national and international levels, as a counterweight to those perpetuating such injustices.
So what are some of the lessons that the human rights field brings to poverty reduction? (See Arbour 2005b). Firstly, social mobilization, judicial review and political action can together vindicate rights, with potentially life-saving impacts.
The realization of economic and social rights is in some respects an inherently a political undertaking, involving negotiation, disagreement, trade-offs, and compromise. But political processes do not serve all equally. Equality of opportunity requires that the most disadvantaged be empowered to participate meaningfully in all spheres of life, including in political and legal processes. The World Development Report 2006 supports the view that empowering people to claim their rights—helping them realize their "capacity to aspire"—is indispensable for enabling them to transcend inter-generational patterns of inequity and escape the poverty trap.
Secondly, and self-evidently, there is no basis for artificial distinctions between the validity and justiciability of human rights of different kinds (civil, social, economic, political and cultural). Both theory and practice bear out that rights of all kinds have justiciable elements, and "freedoms" as well as "entitlements." Whatever historical or ideological biases might continue to privilege some human rights over others, this is a diminishing barrier to the potential of human rights as a vocabulary and vehicle for people’s empowerment.
Thirdly, securing implementation of court orders in human rights cases often proves a challenge, but such challenges only underscore the importance of seeing litigation strategies as part of broad, participatory movement for social change. In this, we see how all human rights are indivisible and interrelated. Economic, social and cultural rights claims cannot be vindicated in the absence of minimum civil and political rights guarantees: freedom to organize, access to information on the entitlements in question, access to the judicial system. And the same applies vice versa.
Fourthly, a human rights framework of analysis can help to disclose underlying agendas and policy preferences that perpetuate social exclusion and poverty, including those linked to unqualified faith in the market. The real issue, of course, is not regulation or public action in and of itself: but rather, what is being regulated, and in the interests of whom: the market, national or international elites, the aggregate interest of the majority, or the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. Poverty and exclusion is too readily accepted by majorities as regrettably accidental, or natural or inevitable, or perhaps even the fault of the poor, rather than the outcome of conscious policy choices. All competing interests must be brought to the surface if development efforts are genuinely to serve the goal of poverty reduction. Human rights laws and institutions can serve a valuable function in mediating and channeling the conflicting interests and claims that inevitably arise as development policies and programs are negotiated and implemented.
Fifthly, the human rights framework compels us to look at the MDGs within a broader, integrated system of human rights entitlements and obligations, as reflected in the Millennium Declaration itself. The MDGs themselves are, to a great extent, backed by obligations under international law (Alston 2005). Spurred by World Development Report 2006 and the Human Development Report 2005, issues of discrimination, inequality, and distribution must be brought to the front and centre of poverty reduction strategies. Empowering people to claim their rights against duty-bearers at the national and international levels is surely the most principled, logical, and sustainable means through which the MDGs might still be realized.
Finally, the examples that I’ve surveyed earlier indicate an encouraging trend in human rights claiming at the national level, with potentially significant implications for poverty reduction. No doubt the challenges in holding decision-makers to account at the international level are far greater still. However if accountability mechanisms do not work well in practice, then the solution must be to strengthen them, within overarching policy frameworks for poverty reduction. With a purposive interpretation of its Articles of Agreement, backed by research and experiences such as those I've outlined, I believe that the World Bank has much to contribute to international efforts to redress such shortcomings.
Louise Arbour is United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Alston, P., "Ships Passing in the Night: The Current State of the Human Rights and Development Debate Seen
Through the Lens of the Millennium Development Goals," 27 Human Rights Quarterly 755-829, 775-78 (2005).Arbour, L., 2005a, "The Right to Life and the Responsibility to Protect in the Modern World," speech given on the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg trails, John F. Kennedy Library Forum, Boston, U.S.A., 9 December 2005, available at www.ohchr.org.
Arbour, L., 2005b, "Freedom from Want—From Charity to Entitlement," LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture 2005, available at
http://www.lafontaine-baldwin.com/speeches/2005/. Gauri, V., "Social Rights and Economics: Claims to Health Care and Education in Developing Countries," in Alston, P. and Robinson, M. (eds.), Human Rights and Development: Towards Mutual Reinforcement (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Governmental Committee of the European Social Charter, 15th report (II), Strasbourg, 13 December 2001 (T-SG (2001) 21), paras. 36-42.
International Council on Human Rights Policy, Duties San Fronti?res: Human Rights and Global Social Justice (ICHRP, Versoix: 2003), and also International Council on Human Rights Policy, Taking Duties Seriously: Individual Duties in International Human Rights Law—A Commentary (ICHRP, Versoix: 1999).
Kaufmann, D., Kraay, A. and Zoido-Lobat?n, P., "Governance Matters: From Measurement to Action," 37(2) Finance and Development 10-13 (2000); Kaufmann, D., "Human Rights and Governance: The Empirical Challenge," in Alston, P. and Robinson, M. (eds.), Human Rights and Development: Towards Mutual Reinforcement (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Open Ended Working Group on the Right to Development, 2006 http://www.ohchr.org/english/issues/development/
UN Charter (Article 62(2)), Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 28), and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 2(1)).
UNDP, Human Development Report 2005: International cooperation at a crossroads: Aid, trade and security in an unequal world (New York, UNDP: 2005)
A RIGHTS-BASED APPROACH TO
By Arjun Sengupta
Poverty, especially extreme poverty, is the worst form of degradation of human dignity, a denial of the most basic human rights—economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights. The international community has recognized these rights in a number of international legal instruments: the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenants of Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and other international agreements. By viewing poverty as the deprivation of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in international law, an important link becomes apparent between the existence of poverty and the failure of states to fulfill their legal human rights obligations. This relationship should remind states, as primary duty bearers, of their responsibility to ensure that the rights of those who hold them are not violated, in particular the rights of the poor and disadvantaged.
In order to be successful, poverty eradication must involve more than legal protection. A rights-based approach to poverty eradication calls for a program of positive actions which are credible, transparent, and workable, as well as mechanisms of implementation which make all actors involved fully accountable, both at the national and international level. Poverty continues to be pervasive today in many parts of the world precisely because responsible agents have not been held accountable for their inaction and misguided policies. An understanding of poverty as a denial of human rights would be an important contribution to ensuring greater accountability on the part of duty bearers. If poverty eradication is raised to the status of fulfilling human rights obligations, through national and international public action, perhaps the world will have a better chance of abolishing the scourge of human dignity.
Arjun Sengupta is the Independent Expert on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, and is the former Independent Expert on the Right to Development for the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Formerly, he was the Executive Director of the IMF and also Special Adviser to the Managing Director of IMF on indebted developing countries. He was also Member Secretary of the Indian Planning Commission.
For more on these issues, see Arjun Sengupta, The Human Right to Development. Prepared for the Nobel Foundation Oslo Symposium, 13-15 October 2003.
ผมชอบมองหาวิธีปฏิบัติ ที่จะแก้ปัญหาใดปัญหาหนึ่ง และมองว่าการแก้ปัญหาความยากจนต้องแก้ที่ความไม่มั่นใจตนเอง ไม่รู้สึกเคารพตนเองของคนจน และวิธีเอาชนะปัญหานี้ ทำได้โดย KM โดยมีเป้าหมายหลักเพื่อทำให้ความมั่นใจในความเป็นมนุษย์กลับคืนมา ผมใช้คำว่า "กลับคืนมา" เพราะผมเชื่อว่ามนุษย์เรามีความมั่นใจในตัวเองมาแต่กำเนิดของความเป็นมนุษย์ แต่การกดขี่ทางสังคม ทางวัฒนธรรม ทางกฎหมาย และอื่นๆ ไปลิดรอนความมั่นใจของเขาลงไป ความมั่นใจในตนเองนี่แหละ คือพื้นฐานของ intellectual capital การถูกลิดรอนความมั่นใจในตนเอง คือตัวปัญหาสิทธิมนุษยชน และเป็นรากฐานของความยากจน
วิธีแก้ความยากจน นอกจากต้องยกเอาสิ่งกดทับออกไป ต้องดำเนินการฟื้นความมั่นใจตนเองของคนจนกลับคืนมา ซึ่งทำได้โดยการนำเอาความสำเร็จ (ที่แม้จะหาได้ยากในชีวิตคนจน แต่ก็มีอยู่) เอามา ลปรร. กัน โดย การเล่าเรื่อง (storytelling) ชื่นชมยินดี และส่งเสริมให้นำเอาวิธีการไปปรับใช้ในบริบทของตน
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