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  5. Freedom from Poverty: A Fundamental Human Right

 
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FOCUS June 1998 Volume 12

Freedom from Poverty: A Fundamental Human Right

James Gustave Speth - Administrator, United Nations Development Programme

(Editor's Note: The following is text of a speech presented at the Swedish Development Forum, November 1997.)

Speaking in Tehran on December 10, the Secretary-General made a strong appeal for human rights. In this address he stated: "human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent. . . human rights lie at the heart of all that the United Nations aspires to achieve in peace and development." In this fiftieth anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these are indeed appropriate words to describe what is not only a common commitment to human rights but an approach to the work of the United Nations in the post-Cold War era.

The promotion of the full enjoyment of human rights--political, civil, economic, social and cultural--does indeed lie at the heart of the work of the United Nations. At UNDP, support for human rights covers this full spectrum. Civil and political rights, important as they are, cannot be viewed in isolation. They must be pursued simultaneously with economic, social and cultural rights. Just as the enjoyment of political rights is essential for an enabling environment for people-centered development, so too economic and social rights, including freedom from poverty, are crucial for the full enjoyment of civil and political rights. In short, we cannot be selective in promoting the full spectrum of human rights.

When we struggle to eradicate poverty, we are working for the implementation of the right to development. Through UNDP's gender in development programs, we are working for the equal rights of men and women. In our support of the institutions of civil society, we help nurture the growth and efficiency of human rights organizations, including those focusing on the rights of indigenous peoples. By strengthening the institutions of civil society we are contributing to strengthening democracy and civil rights as well as supporting crucial actors in development. And in UNDP's governance programs, we support institution-building for democratic transitions, rule of law, and open and accountable government.

It is time this rights-based approach to our development work were made more explicit and strengthened.

International agreements and the right to development

Starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international legal instruments have adopted an unmistakably pro-poor position. The Universal Declaration is quite explicit on the right to development, stating:

Everyone is entitled to the realization of . . . economic, social, cultural rights indispensable for his dignity. . . . Everyone has the right to work. . . . Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of his family including food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability . . . or other lack of livelihood. . . . Everyone has the right to an education.

These are strong words indeed. The right to live a life of dignity was reaffirmed in subsequent instruments of international law such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

At the World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in June 1993, Member States, with strong support from the NGO community, stressed the link between the right to development and the different categories of human rights: economic, social, cultural and civil. The right to development was affirmed as a universal and inalienable right.

A right implies an obligation; the violation of a right underscores the need for a remedy. Thus, the right to development was linked in Vienna to the collective obligation of the international community. The Vienna Declaration further stated that the least developed countries in particular deserve the support of the international community. This seminal document in the rights-based approach to development called for equitable economic relations among States, and a favorable economic environment at the international level. To achieve these objectives, the Vienna Declaration stressed that the external debt burden must be alleviated, and that widespread poverty and illiteracy in various countries must be combated. Moreover, the Vienna Declaration called on industrialized countries to refrain from causing injury to populations of other countries by exporting environmental hazards.

This is a powerful statement on the right to development, and on the duty of States in the international community to promote this right. Nor do all the duties fall on the international community. The Vienna Declaration also put the onus for achieving the right to development firmly on individual countries themselves, in part by calling for long-term work to put in place the infrastructure of a society capable of guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law.

Poverty is a denial of human rights

Poverty is a denial of human rights. If human beings have rights, and we all believe they have many, then surely the right to be free of the crushing burden of poverty must be counted among the most fundamental of those rights. For the 1.3 billion people, one-third of the population of the developing world, who live on less than a dollar a day, there can be little doubt that they are deprived in fundamental ways.

Poverty is brutal. It is embedded in all realms of the existence of poor people, not only lack of income. Perhaps the most basic human right challenged by human poverty is the right to life. Nearly a third of the people in the least developed countries, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, cannot expect to live beyond forty. Another mark of poverty, adult illiteracy, means that the poor have severe restrictions on their access to knowledge, to information and to the press, as well as restrictions on other basic human rights such as political participation.

Women are the hardest hit by human poverty. In addition to suffering the same deprivations as men, they face the additional sufferings of unequal opportunities to education, health and upbringing and to productive assets by which they can hope to break free from the shackles of poverty. And violence against women who are poor is pervasive. Women's rights are curtailed by poverty, and women's rights are human rights.

Poor people around the world, and the organizations that represent them, see poverty as an injustice, a denial of freedom from want. In their efforts to lift themselves out of the poverty trap, they are claiming their right to development.

A rights-based approach to poverty eradication

Despite the international mandate for a human rights approach to poverty eradication, such an approach, though based on venerable antecedents, has tended to be neglected in justifications for the eradication of poverty.

The eradication of poverty has been seen in two ways. One approach tends to look at the eradication of poverty as international charity. Though this view has lost salience in recent years, it still emerges from time to time, and that is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with charity; we need more of it in a selfish world.

Another approach is to view the eradication of poverty in purely functional terms. In this approach, the eradication of poverty is perhaps good in itself, but more important it serves to prevent the rise of conflicts, of social disruption, and of many other social ills such as drugs, diseases and terrorism. In this view, the eradication of poverty is the handmaiden of the search for peace and security. This view of poverty eradication is captured nicely in the quip "You may not be interested in poverty, but poverty is interested in you!"

Both approaches have merit. Charitable impulses have been bolstered by the shocking images of poverty and hunger brought closer than ever before by the communications revolution. The importance of altruism, of human solidarity, was evident in the cry that echoed throughout the world in the wake of the first televised pictures of the Somalia tragedy: "something must be done." And this sense of altruism is one of the important means by which valuable resources are collected and allocated to development co-operation.

The link between development and peace is also quite strong. In country after country, failures of development can be seen as contributing to instability and the eruption of conflict. Experience demonstrates that poverty, hopelessness, inequity and marginalization are often among the root causes of devastating conflict. In crisis situations, and in societies emerging from conflict, human rights are often violated. International support for governance mechanisms leading to the restoration of the rule of law is important for the protection of human rights. Indeed, it is significant that some of the most important actions in terms of peace-building in post-conflict situations have been projects that seek to promote greater employment opportunities for the demobilized and the disadvantaged, and programs to rebuild national capacity for good governance.

But we now see that there is another fundamental reason for eradicating poverty: It is our duty in a world of civilized and civilizing norms. Even if we do not feel particularly charitable, even if we believe we can wall ourselves off from the consequences of poverty, we must respect the rights of others, including the right to be free from poverty.

In so doing we recognize the dignity of all human beings and arrive at a better analysis of the nature of poverty. Poverty is a wrong suffered by the poor; they are the victims of a violation of their human rights.

By following a human rights-based approach to the eradication of poverty, a variety of human rights goals can be achieved within the same set of policies. For example, enacting and implementing equal opportunity laws will help empower men and women to gain more equitable access to productive resources liberating individual initiative and creating economic opportunities. Legislating against gender discrimination will enhance the capabilities of women by entitling them to better access to credit and other productive resources, to property and inheritance rights, and to improved political participation and representation. Supporting and enacting a rights-based approach to the needs of indigenous peoples can not only end discrimination against them but also serve to protect and regenerate environmental resources and mediate social conflict over resource allocation.

A human rights-based approach to the eradication of poverty enables international development agencies to provide the essential bridge between two of the main pillars on which the United Nations rests: respect for human rights and the promotion of social progress. Both are mentioned together in Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations. Certainly, we are stronger in every context if our anti-poverty and development work is firmly grounded in agreed upon norms and the universal values for which the United Nations stands.

Mainstreaming human rights in UNDP programming

As we look to the future, we can see that UNDP has a sound platform on which to build. The development philosophy captured in the phrase "sustainable human development" (SHD) gives both content and momentum to "the right to development," and by making poverty eradication UNDP's "overriding priority" within the SHD approach, we have put one of the most pervasive denials of human rights at the centre of UNDP's work. Our work must remain demand-driven, owned and supported by the countries we have the privilege to serve. In part by adopting this demand-driven approach, UNDP's work in the area of good governance has become the fastest growing area of UNDP's program. And a surprising number of the requests for UNDP assistance in governance fall in the area of broadening and deepening political and civil rights.

Thus, UNDP has frequently supported the right to take part in government through periodic and genuine elections, as article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates, as in both its financial contributions to the first multi-party elections in Mozambique and voter education programs in Bangladesh. Beyond supporting the electoral process, UNDP has also helped governments in their efforts to develop human rights institutions exemplified by UNDP technical assistance in reviewing Paraguay law for international human rights standards compatibility.

Conclusion

The practice of development, linked as it is so closely to political variables such as governance, human rights and democracy, is an art. Our record is far from perfect, and we have a long way to go in moving from theory to practice. We are still learning as we seek to grapple with the changing realities and diverse needs of developing societies.

Perhaps the words of the Secretary-General, at Tehran, are the most appropriate with which to end these reflections:

The United Nations' work in peace and development has increasingly placed human rights at the forefront. That includes all human rights, from civil and political rights to social and economic rights. The right to development is a universal and inalienable right, and it is inseparable from all other rights. Indeed, it remains the measure of respect of all other human rights.

We, at UNDP, are pledged, in this spirit, to assist in the realization of all human rights.


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