Human Rights Special
Elimination of poverty: Mother of all human rights
Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Human rights exist simply because one is a human being. Human rights are universal and they regulate structures of institutions in society. Human rights are universal in another sense. They are almost universally accepted as values in community across the globe.
Human Rights Day falls on 10th of December simply because on this day in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN. It contained a list of 30 Articles setting forth human rights and fundamental freedom to be enjoyed by men and women without discrimination.
The 1948 Declaration has become a " Charter of Mankind" and has been a part of customary international law.
Article 1 lays down the philosophy upon which the Declaration is based and reads:
" All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."
What do we mean by poverty?
Poverty means one's inability to meet one's end. Poverty entails not only the lack of basic necessities but also the denial of basic opportunities that permit human development. It includes discrimination, inequality, destitution, hunger, homelessness, ill health and exclusion from educational facilities.
Since equality of all human beings is a human right, denial of basic rights to survive by an individual is a violation of human rights.
Human Poverty Index (HPI) differs from other measures of human well-being such as Gross Domestic Product or Human Development Index (HDI). HPI takes into account of deprivational perspective. Its components are similar to those of HDI, such as a long and healthy life, literacy and a decent standard of living, but it uses other measures of deprivation. There are three dimensions of this approach of deprivation.
The first dimension is measured by the number of people in the population, not expected to survive to age 40. The second dimension is measured by the proportion of adults who are illiterate and are excluded from the world of reading and communication in writing. The third dimension is a composite of three variables, the percentage of people without access to health services, the percentage of people without access to safe water and the percentage of malnourished children under the age of five.
Link between poverty and human rights
The link between poverty and human rights is profound. Both equity and human rights principles dictate striving equal opportunity for human development. Elimination of poverty is the mother of all human rights. Personal liberty does not mean anything to an individual with an empty stomach nor does freedom of expression or thought. The former UN Human Rights Commissioner, Professor Mary Robinson (a former Irish President) said in 2002:
" I am often asked what is the most serious form of human rights violation in the world today and my reply is consistent: extreme poverty."
In 1999, the horror of poverty was highlighted in a message given by the Secretary General of the UN on the observance of International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. He said:
" How many times have we said that poverty was incompatible with human dignity. But billions of people are still trying to live less than a US$2 dollars a day, with no drinking water, heath care or access to education... and thus still deprived of some of their basic rights."
Poverty is not an immediate phenomenon. It is a result of historical and systematic denial of basic rights through established institutions. Grameen Bank has shown that poverty is an artificial social construct and a new banking method can help poor to uplift their conditions in life.
The other dimension of poverty is that poor people are vulnerable, powerless and suffer humiliation in their day-to-day life. Media reports indicate how many domestic maids are beaten and tortured by their employers in developing countries including Bangladesh. Many of them die due to torture.
Practical experience suggests that eliminating systematic poverty requires correcting their fundamental causes including denial of basic human rights. A human rights perspective can relieve poverty.
Furthermore the internationally recognised human rights mechanisms could be used to provide concrete approaches to reducing poverty. International human rights and domestic constitution and laws provide not only a framework but also a legal obligation for programmes towards achieving elimination of poverty.
Strategies that narrowly focus on poverty and human rights without broader perspectives may fail because they do not take into consideration the key factors that influence the relationship between poverty and human rights.
Given the pervasive links between poverty and human rights, a commitment to human rights pertaining to reduction of poverty (i.e. material deprivation and the multiple social disadvantages associated with it ) is imperative.
Equity is an ethical concept grounded on the principle of distributive justice and is part of human rights. Equity in promoting equal opportunity for all individuals must be ensured. Poverty influences many social indicators, such as, state of health, education, food access, housing and work conditions.
The 1972 Bangladesh Constitution in its Article 14 under Fundamental Principles of State Policy (Part II of the Constitution) provides a fundamental responsibility of the State to emancipate the toiling massesthe peasants and workers- and backward sections of the people from all forms of exploitation. Article 15 provides that it shall be a fundamental responsibility of the State to provide the basic necessities of life including food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care.
Poverty is a curse in human society. Do all rich people have social conscience towards uplifting poor people in the community? It has been reported 3 richest people in the world have more assets than the total assets of the poorest 600 million people.
A human rights perspective can provide a universal frame of reference for identifying inequitable conditions and human rights standards to a decent living with long and good health can play a crucial role in elimination of poverty. Unless poverty is removed, concept of human rights is an empty shell and has no relevance to poor and deprived people.
The author is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.