Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 79

Human Rights Day and World Poverty

Professor Laksiri Fernando, University of Sydney (Visiting)

10 December 2006 marks the 58th birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. During the last 60 years many achievements have been made in the name of human rights, but considerable challenges still remains to be fulfilled in making human rights an irreversible reality in the world.

In terms of democracy, the world has made considerable progress from just 29 countries in 1948 to 122 this year (now minus one after the recent military coup in Fiji!). This figure represents the number of electoral democracies. But in the case of poverty, the world community is still procrastinating without much advancement.

If we take the old benchmark, that less than $1 a day is poverty, it might be correct to say, "poverty fell by around 200 million during the last 20 years or so" (World Bank). But the fact remains that around 3.2 billion people still live on less than $2 a day, which might be the correct estimate of today’s poverty. "Poverty is more than just a lack of income," the UN has declared (A Human Rights Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategies, UNHCHR, 2002). "It is also the lack of health care, education, access to political participation, decent work and security."

It is admirable that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, has identified poverty as the gravest challenge of human rights today in her 2006 pre-Human Rights Day Statement. It goes as follows: "Today, poverty prevails as the gravest human rights challenge in the world. Combating poverty, deprivation and exclusion is not a matter of charity, and it does not depend on how rich a country is. By tackling poverty as a matter of human rights obligation, the world will have a better chance of abolishing this scourge in our lifetime. Poverty eradication is an achievable goal."

However, the task is so enormous it should definitely go beyond the words or rhetoric in achieving poverty eradication in real terms and in a tangible manner. If it is to be within "our lifetime," it may also have to be within this century, even if we take the firstborn babies today and their lifetime as the yardstick. It is highly questionable whether the United Nations, least of all the High Commissioner’s Office, has the muscle or courage to implement or even highlight where the problems actually lie in the case of world poverty.

It is too obvious to say that "combating poverty is not a matter of charity," whether on the part of the rich countries, the poor countries or the UN agencies. But it is well known that those countries and agencies often behave like that. Who is left out from the obligation often are the big companies. "Combating poverty undoubtedly is a matter of human rights," and that is the bottom line of economic and social rights that the Universal Declaration proclaimed 58 years ago.

It might not completely be correct to say, however, that "it does not depend on how rich a country is," because the level of development or richness undoubtedly impinges on poverty eradication. The reduction of poverty in any measure during the last 20 years, that corporate globalisation is often credited for, actually was due to the development of China and India where economic policies are far from being confined to mere globalisation. In the African continent and even in Latin America, poverty has increased in real terms as opposed to decreasing. The development of a country or the richness therefore is important in poverty eradication. The poor countries per se cannot be blamed for poverty. What might be correct is to highlight the equal moral responsibilities on the part of the poor or the low-income countries in poverty eradication, as the rich or the political elite of those countries thrive on economic inequalities.

This article should not appear, however, as a polemic against what the High Commissioner states or even what the Secretary General has said in his recent Report to the UN General Assembly (A/61/308, 5 September 2006), but as the vindication of their statements perhaps with some minor qualification. The "minor" qualification should include the following. The report titled "Observation of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty," has gone to a great extent to correlate poverty eradication goals to human rights standards already accepted by the international community in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Declaration on the Right to Development (DRD) etc. and etc. almost article by article. This is undoubtedly commendable, but appears excessively ‘academic’ without specifying the policy links between the two.

The report also reiterates what has been reiterated throughout years or decades that “it is necessary to respect economic, social and cultural rights on an equal footing with civil and political rights, and that the non-recognition of one type of rights can have consequences for other rights.” These kinds of statements appear and re-appear in UN statements almost like a ritual at least since the World Conference of Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993 (see Vienna Declaration), not to speak of the first world conference held in Tehran in 1986.

But the purpose of a report is to report the progress of a subject and the subject has been the "Observance of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty." Another reason for the particular report obviously was the closing of the UN Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (1997-2006), and perhaps to bury it without much adieu. In contrast, the day was announced with much fanfare in 1996. Apart from the Millennium Summit held in 2002 and the International Day (17 October), the UN has done very little to promote the eradication of poverty.

To gauge the success of the International Day, the UN distributed a questionnaire to its ‘stakeholders’ and that means the member governments, the UN agencies and the NGOs. What the questionnaire tried to review was: whether people knew about the international day and whether the day was observed! As the report revealed, only 25 member governments responded, representing only 13 percent of the member countries. In addition, 9 UN agencies and 176 NGOs responded. It is obvious that UN agencies are obliged to respond, but among over 2,000 international and regional NGOs only 9 per cent had responded. It would lead one to believe that the overwhelming majority of the non-respondents perhaps did not accept the importance of poverty eradication or the importance of the international day, or both.

Be it as it may, the following was what the report said about the success. "An overwhelming majority of people working in the area of poverty eradication within their Governments reported that they knew about the existence of the International Day. Governments reported that they came to learn about the International Day through a variety of ways, including United Nations publications…through the country offices of different United Nations agencies and programmes through "media campaigns and the news media" (My emphasis).

What the report says is "mission accomplished" as far as the UN, its agencies and the country offices are concerned. But the question is whether that was sufficient or even if that should have been the main objective. More importantly, why couldn’t the Secretary General report that the Decade or the International Day had been a flop and recommended something different for the future? Especially if poverty eradication is to be undertaken as a matter of human rights.

My questioning of the huge gap between the theory and practice, or the rhetoric and reality, should not lead to cynicism about human rights or its validity on this important Human Rights Day. Among the UN declared international days, perhaps human rights day is the most important and significant. But after 58 years of its main discourse - the Universal Declaration - the world and particularly the UN should be able to work in a more practical and effective manner in the realization of human rights, particularly on poverty eradication as intrinsic to human rights. Before making a few suggestions to turn poverty eradication into a reality, or the UN more effective, let me make few remarks on the Universal Declaration and its significance.

The historical necessity to have a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) arose after the Second World War, consequent to the Holocaust and after over 15 million people were killed during the war in the most despicable conditions. The war atrocities did not occur only in Europe, but also in Asia. The underlying causes of human rights violations leading to and during the war were not limited to civil or political spheres. They encompassed economic, social and cultural rights, and rights violations caused by poverty, unemployment and uneven development. While the dominant thinking on human rights as ‘natural rights’ or ‘rights of man’ in the West prior to the period was limited to civil and political rights, the socialist thinking both in the West and in the East succeeded in creating a necessary balance between the two types of rights in the UDHR which could be considered a historic victory. The debates and the neglect of economic and social rights, nevertheless, continue to this date in different forms.

The UDHR could be considered a synthesis of liberal and socialist thinking. The life was considered a matter of necessity, if not a right, by all civilized societies, except the barbarian ones, until arbitrary deprivation of life became the issue as matter of an important civil right under authoritarian governments. John Locke is celebrated as a pioneer thinker of civil and political rights emphasising ‘life, liberty and property’ as his three cardinal freedoms (1681).

There is no question that liberalism has made the greatest contribution to the development of human rights, the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Bill of Rights (1791) on the one hand, and the French Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) on the other, making major contributions.

It was Charles Fourier, the French socialist thinker, who declared the ‘right to food as the first right’ in 1848, a century before the UDHR. He also declared, if the first right is not guaranteed, there cannot be a social contract as Locke talked about, meaning there would be class struggle. It was in the same year that class struggle theory was prescribed as a way of overcoming the class distinctions in the capitalist society and ‘eradicating poverty’ through the establishment of socialism in the Communist Manifesto (1948).

The class struggle, however, is not something that people talk about these days after the demise of communism in the Soviet Union and market reforms in China. At this very moment, the Chinese regime has authorized the intervention of the Peoples’ Army to suppress any uprising by the peasantry. One is puzzled whether it is the Peoples’ Army or the ordinary peasants that carry out today’s ‘class struggle’ in the case of China. It is also an important question to investigate whether what Karl Marx called class struggles in Europe were actually ‘class struggles’ or the struggles for rights both by individuals and collective groups. It must have been both, but perhaps the latter explanation must have been more accurate than the former.

The importance of the above account is that although socialism appeared to be the only way of eradicating poverty once and for all during the first half of the 20th century, it has become a distant dream with the demise of communism and the socialist movement. If one observes carefully, the neglect of human rights - particularly in the civil and political spheres - can be considered to be the principle reason for the demise of communism and socialism in general. There is no rule to say, however, that socialism cannot be resurrected again, if and when the human rights discourse is taken as a central method of engagement. Perhaps this kind of an orientation perhaps could become a paramount necessity, considering the failure of purely liberal efforts during the last few decades to eradicate poverty in the world.

Apart from the UDHR being a synthesis of liberalism and socialism, what characterizes it most is the Universalist character that it gives to the discourse of rights. There is a considerable difference between what are called rights and what are called human rights. Rights can be defined within different cultural or social contexts, but human rights are common to all human beings and therefore universal. Human rights by definition cannot be culturally relative. ‘Culturally relative human rights’ are merely a misnomer.

While it might be correct to say that there is no complete universal acceptance of human rights as declared and proclaimed by the United Nations, compared to the situation that prevailed in 1948, both the degree of acceptability and applicability of universal human rights are considerably higher after 58 years.

To consider human rights as merely Western notions is also not correct. There was of course a distinct Western origin at the beginning. But during the last 58 years, for the development of over 100 new international human rights instruments, the influence and contribution of the East and the Third World countries have been decisive. The universalism has not been a static notion; it has been dynamic and evolutionary to bring various religious and philosophical experiences to the forefront.

Even if the origin is Western, it is not a good enough reason to reject human rights. It was Aung San Suu Kyi, whose photo decorates the home page of the Asian Tribune and who has been a political prisoner for 11 years and 45 days until today, who gave a rational answer to this question in her Freedom from Fear (1992). If something is to be rejected by sighting the origin of the place, as she pointed out, then Buddhism should have been confined to perhaps Nepal, Hinduism to India, Islam to Saudi Arabia and Christianity to Palestine. This is not the way Science or Philosophy became spread among various civilizations throughout the world from East to the West or from West to the East. This principle is equally valid to human rights, incorporating various viewpoints into its development.

It may be correct to say that the Universal Declaration should have incorporated human responsibilities as well, in a world where misconceptions of rights could lead to violent conflicts and thereafter to more violations than the fulfilment of human rights. But the responsibilities are in a way intrinsic in the recognition of human rights. The responsibilities, however, should have been explicit and written down. When the UDHR was in the drafting stage, the UNESCO Director Julian Huxley wrote to scholars, scientists and political figures requesting their comments and views on the draft. Mahatma Ghandi replied by telegram while travelling in a train to emphasise the importance of responsibilities, saying, "I learnt from my not-educated, but wise mother, that rights worth recognition derive only from the duties performed."

While it is debatable whether Ghandi was completely correct in the case of human rights, his emphasis on duties or responsibilities could be considered important. There was an effort on the part of the Inter Action Council initiated by the former Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda to formulate a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities in 1997, and UNESCO even had a draft by the end of that year. However, the effort to have it approved by the UN General Assembly did not materialize.

One may argue that if there had been a greater sense of responsibility on the part of the governments, the UN agencies, other multilateral organizations and more importantly Multinational Corporations, the task of poverty eradication in the world could have been better achieved than under the present circumstances. Unfortunately it has not been the case. Whatever the current weaknesses of the implementation of poverty eradication as a matter of human rights by the United Nations, the organization’s general record in the promotion (and partly the protection) of human rights during the last 58 years has been commendable. But the UN and the world community should do more.

It is a known fact that among the top 100 economies in the world, more than fifty percent are multinational companies and not countries. Perhaps the above ‘fact’ is a little old, as I could not get hold of the new figures. However, according to the Fortune Magazine’s latest information, the revenue of the top companies in the world, range from 75,000 to 340,000 in dollar million terms. Profits alone are quite handsome, ranging from 7,000 to 36,000, again in dollar million terms for the majority of those companies.

The above figures contrast with the 3.2 billion people living on less than $2 per day and show the enormous gap between the rich and the poor in the world, all who are considered to be human beings with equal rights according to the UN human rights standards and the Universal Declaration that we are celebrating today. The purpose here is not to create an ill feeling about the rich or the companies but to highlight the complex and contradictory tasks that need to be fulfilled in poverty eradication as a matter of human rights. No need to say that I myself enjoy comfortable living standards.

What might be necessary for poverty eradication is to make sure first that no one dies of hunger. But this is far from the world reality today. Among the poor, overwhelming majority are young and children (both girls and boys), because the poor normally don’t grow old. The second important task is to make sure that children go to school and get education, of course ensuring at least basic health care and housing for them as well as their parents. When they grow up, these children should be trained with the skills needed to acquire jobs or seek self-employment, in addition to facilities for those who are willing and capable of seeking higher education.

Of course for the necessary cycle of poverty eradication to complete, the economies should grow and employment opportunities should be available without major hindrance. That is not only a task for the multinationals and the nationals, but also could be their business through foreign direct investment (FDI). If there are political impediments for poverty eradication, in terms of authoritarian governments or lack of civil or political rights, they also may have to be addressed in the process.

Poverty eradication undoubtedly requires joint efforts by respective governments, multilateral organizations such as the UN agencies, the resource rich countries (OECD) and also the private sector participation at the highest levels, especially the multinational corporations (MNCs). If the present corporate globalisation is not going to be a zero sum game, it has to be the spirit of all, focusing on poverty eradication. As the UN and its Human Rights Commissioners’ Office have claimed, poverty eradication is not charity, but an obligation. If we were to translate the words to deeds, then there is a need to do something drastic and significant to change the present situation.

It is true that there is no possibility of imposing a levy on the big companies towards a global poverty eradication fund, as it is not practical, although the UN pronounces poverty eradication as an obligation. If we look at the actual situation, a levy or contribution does appear to be more than an obligation. The top 10 world companies with highest profits are: Exxon Mobil, Wal-Mart, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, General Motors, Chevron, DaimlerChrystler, Toyota, Ford and ConocoPhillips. Among these ten, seven are oil or oil related companies. At least the oil companies, like some of the countries in the Middle East, actually thrive on a natural resource, which should in fact be the common wealth of the common humanity.

What might be possible for the UN is to turn towards the big companies, around 500 according to Fortune Magazine’s full counting, on this Day of Human Rights to persuade them to contribute handsomely toward a global fund for poverty eradication starting with the New Year 2007. If this materializes with necessary practical measures to implement poverty eradication programmes, it might be a vindication of what is pronounced as a human rights obligation. Otherwise the pronouncements might remain as pronouncements, until the next human rights day.

- Asian Tribune -

Share this