Friday, June 05, 2009

Is Poverty a Human Rights Violation?

Another interesting point and counterpoint over at William Easterly's Aid Watch. Easterly points to Amnesty International's recent report that calls for getting people out of poverty, people apparently put there because of "entrenched interests", but saying the distinctions should not be blurred, poverty itself is not a human rights violation:

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.”
Amnesty International counters, also clarifying that what they're talking about is absolute poverty (not relative poverty that amn:

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. To give just one of many possible examples, estimates indicate that as many as 8,000 children die daily in Africa alone from preventable diseases such as cholera and dysentery. It’s certainly true to say that these are diseases of poverty – the rich can ensure that their water is not contaminated and can seek treatment at private hospitals as opposed to understaffed government clinics – but they are more than that. They are violations of the right to health and the right to clean water.

And people living in poverty are vulnerable to violations of their civil and political rights as well. In the Favelas (shanty towns) of Sao Paolo in Brazil, police and gangs are in daily conflict. There are allegations of human rights abuse on all sides, and the government feels little pressure to respect due process in large part because this violence is taking place in an extremely poor part of the city. Ordinary people are in danger from gangs on the one hand and from a state takes their rights less seriously because they live in a poor community.

I'm sympathetic to the Amnesty International argument. Absolute poverty/hunger is generally not a question of a lack of resources - it's a question of government policies - which can range from crony capitalism (not to be confused with capitalism) to straight despotism. But on the other hand, surely there are enough violations there to attack the violations themselves instead of seeing an effect and concluding a violation must have taken place. I wonder if this also means that if countries aren't developed they're automatically violating their citizens' rights? Amnesty International has been increasingly political in the last few decades and I think lost its moral legitimacy particularly when it came to Iraq and I wonder if that like this - expanding human rights to include economic welfare - is merely another effort in their search for relevance or just more simply a question of mission overreach?

No comments: