Human Rights Day is observed by the international community every year on 10 December. It commemorates the day in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its formal inception dates from 1950, after the Assembly passed resolution 423 (V) inviting all States and interested organizations to adopt 10 December of each year as Human Rights Day.
The material in this article has been provided by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Commissioner, as the main UN rights official, and her Office play a major role in coordinating efforts for the yearly observation of Human Rights Day.
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Fighting Poverty: a matter of obligation, not charity
Poverty is a cause and a product of human rights violations. It is this double edge that makes poverty probably the gravest human rights challenge in the world. The links between human rights and poverty should be obvious: People whose rights are denied — victims of discrimination or persecution, for example — are more likely to be poor. Generally they find it harder or impossible to participate in the labour market and have little or no access to basic services and resources. Meanwhile, the poor in many societies cannot enjoy their rights to education, health and housing simply because they cannot afford them. And poverty affects all human rights: for example, low income can prevent people from accessing education — an “economic and social” right — which in turn inhibits their participation in public life — a “civil and political” right — and their ability to influence policies affecting them.
Yet, poverty is still rarely seen thought the lens of human rights. Rather it is often perceived as tragic but inevitable, and even as the responsibility of those who suffer it. At best those living in poverty — countries and individuals — are portrayed as unfortunate, at worst as lazy and undeserving.
The reality is different. Many ingredients go into making poverty, but factors like discrimination, unequal access to resources, and social and cultural stigmatization have always characterized it. These “factors” have another name: the denial of human rights and human dignity. What’s more, these are factors governments and those in a position of authority can, indeed are obliged to, do something about. They have committed to it by overwhelmingly accepting a number of human rights treaties and by signing on to the international consensus to make poverty history, through the Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals, as well as most recently the 2005 World Summit Outcome. The realization of human rights – including the fight against poverty — is a duty, not a mere aspiration.
What is poverty?
This seemingly simple question has a complex answer. Poverty is understood today to be more than just a lack of income. Poverty is just as much about equity, or the lack of it. Living in poverty means one is more likely to die from preventable diseases, a higher rate of child mortality, not being able to get an education and a lack of adequate shelter. It also means more vulnerability to crime and violence, inadequate or no access to justice and the courts, as well as exclusion from the political process and the life of the community. Poverty is also about power: who wields it, and who does not, in public life and behind closed doors. Getting to the heart of complex webs of power relations in the political, economic and social spheres is key to understanding and grappling more effectively with entrenched patterns of discrimination that sentence individuals, communities and peoples to generations of poverty.
Absolute poverty, measured by income alone, has fallen since the 1980s, albeit slowly since the mid-1990s. However, global inequality remains at extraordinarily high levels, within and between countries. Most developing regions are falling behind, not catching up with, rich countries. And even some of the world’s richest countries are still struggling with a stubborn problem of poverty, even extreme poverty, owing in large part to deep seated patterns of discrimination and inequality. Moreover, links between income and social progress are not automatic. Some of the strongest performers in reducing income inequality are widely off-track on human development targets such as maternal mortality and child mortality, frequently the result of entrenched patterns of discrimination. This underscores the need to understand poverty from a human rights perspective.
Greater gender equity would act as a powerful force for reducing child mortality. Using cross-country data, the International Food Policy Research Institute has estimated that equalizing the access of men and women to education, nutrition, income and property rights could reduce the underweight rate among children less than three years old by 13 percentage points in South Asia, meaning 13.4 million fewer malnourished children vulnerable to early mortality. For Sub-Saharan Africa child malnutrition would fall by 3 percentage points, with 1.7 million fewer malnourished children.
Poverty, conflict and insecurity: a vicious cycle
Eighty per cent of the world’s 20 poorest countries have suffered a major war in the past 15 years. On average, countries coming out of war face a 44 percent chance of relapsing in the first five years of peace. Even with rapid progress after peace, it can take a generation or more just to return to pre-war living standards. And again, the link between poverty and confrontation is not a question of income or material hardship alone: the poor are not inherently rebellious. But when deprivation is coupled with injustice and stark inequalities, history has shown that armed conflict, terrorism and other violence are not far behind.
In a 2005 study of development and human security in the Philippines, the UNDP and local and international development agencies found that low incomes alone are not enough to explain armed conflict. Instead, deprivation, inequality, and social discrimination are more likely to drive people to arms. The evidence shows that things like education, access to water, and respect for diversity are powerful tools against conflict, while deprivation and discrimination can fuel resentment and violence. The study of the situation in the Philippines, home to two of the world’s longest-running armed conflicts, was the first quantifiable documentation to show that cultural isolation, discrimination, and a lack of basic services, such as electricity, water, roads and education, can be predictors of armed encounters. Discrimination, unequal access to resources and lack of respect for cultural identity, among other human rights breaches, form part of a common thread in conflicts across the globe.
Source: UNDP, Human Development Report 2005
Eliminating poverty: not by bread alone
If poverty is about power, then solutions must focus on the empowerment of people themselves, especially those suffering the greatest discrimination and social exclusion. History is littered with well-meaning but failed ‘top-down’ solutions that overlook the root causes of poverty as well as the demands, perspectives and capacities of people themselves to be architects of their own destiny. Sustainable solutions will often depend on multi-faceted responses, aiming at a just redistribution of power relations, rather than quick fixes or one-off handouts.
Practically all countries can take immediate measures to fight poverty in all its complexity. Claiming a lack of resources does not absolve countries of responsibility. Reducing poverty will often cost money, but not all rights require significant resources for their realization, including many obligations attached to socio-economic rights. Political will is at least as important. Ending discrimination, for example, will in many cases remove barriers to labor market participation and other structural constraints to the fulfillment of human rights. Child mortality provides another good example. Most child deaths are avoidable, yet mortality rates are high in many countries because of the indefensible under-use of effective, low-cost, low-technology interventions, and owing to a failure to address the structural causes of poverty and inequality. UNDP estimates that about 6 million children’s lives a year could be saved through simple, low-cost interventions. A number of low-income countries, like Viet Nam and Bangladesh, have taken on some of the root causes of the problem and registered impressive gains in reducing child mortality.
Tanzania: a human Rights-based approach to improve access to water
In the Kileto District, Tanzania, WaterAid has been implementing a project to improve water access for residents. By integrating human rights principles into the programming process – in particular participation, non-discrimination, equality and empowerment – and including these as explicit programme goals, WaterAid was able to identify the underlying obstacles to equitable access to water. The participatory approach and analysis revealed that power imbalances, lack of land rights and exclusion from national policy decisions had resulted in two of the three main ethnic groups being excluded from access to water. The project was therefore able to work with the communities to overcome the inter-group conflict.
Source: Overseas Development Institute
Since 1990 Bangladesh has recorded some of the developing world’s most rapid advances in basic human development indicators. Child and infant mortality rates have been falling at more than 5 per cent a year, the fertility rate has fallen sharply, and malnutrition among mothers has fallen from 52 per cent in 1996 to 42 per cent in 2002. Primary school enrolment rates have reached more than 90 per cent, up from 72 per cent in 1990, with close to gender parity, and enrolment in secondary education has been rising. Economic growth alone does not explain this transformation. Even with more rapid economic growth in the 1990s, Bangladesh is still a desperately poor country, with income poverty falling relatively slowly, by 10 per cent between 1990 and 2002.
Four strategies with a direct impact on the realization of a number of human rights have contributed to improvements in Bangladesh’s human development:
Active partnerships with civil society. For example, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), a non-governmental organization (NGOs), has pioneered initiatives to recruit and train local female teachers, develop relevant curriculum material and support parental involvement in school management.
Targeted transfers. Wide-ranging social programmes have targeted improved nutrition while also creating wider incentives for human development. The Food for Schooling programme offers free rations to poor households if their children attend primary school. Participating schools have achieved higher rates of girls’ participation and lower drop-out rates, demonstrating how incentives can counteract the economic pressures and cultural prejudices that keep girls out of school.
Extended health projects. Immunization coverage against six major childhood diseases increased from 2 per cent in the mid-1980s to 52 per cent in 2001. Immunization programmes have been implemented through partnerships with international agencies and national NGOs.
Virtuous cycles and female agency. Improved access to health and education for women, allied with expanded opportunities for employment and access to micro-credit, has expanded choice and empowered women. While gender disparities still exist, women have become increasingly powerful catalysts for development, demanding greater control over fertility and birth spacing, education for their daughters and access to services.
Although serious problems remain, Bangladesh achieved this remarkable progress at low levels of income and starting from a position of low literacy, high malnutrition and weak institutions. Its successes demonstrate what can be achieved through stronger public action and civic activism.
Source: UNDP, Human Development Report 2005
Compassion or duty?
Poverty is rarely accidental. As it is understood today poverty is as often the result of policy choices as of any other reason. Public policies, at the national and international levels, too often ignore or blatantly violate standards essential for poverty reduction, including human rights. All States to varying degrees have accepted a legal obligation to ensure that their people enjoy, among others, the rights to life, to liberty, to an adequate standard of living, to education, to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, to food and to housing. It is accepted that realizing these rights will take time in poorer countries. But it is also clear that human rights are not optional, or mere aspirations.
The link between the fulfillment of human rights and poverty reduction is clear. Human rights obligations require that governments put people’s well-being first. And they demand that governments and authorities banish one of the root causes of poverty, namely discrimination and differences in treatment among different groups. All States have ratified at least one of the core seven international human rights treaties, and 80 per cent have ratified four or more. A growing number of countries, including in the developing world, have been acting on these obligations in a very concrete way, giving people the possibility to go to court to demand that the State uphold its duty to ensure a life of dignity and respect for human rights for its citizens.
In Johannesburg, South Africa, about 300 people living in allegedly unsafe buildings succeeded recently in getting a court order to prevent their eviction by the municipal authority. Under the South African Constitution, people have a constitutionally-protected right to adequate housing. The High Court of South Africa ruled that the 300 people could not be evicted from the buildings until they were provided with adequate alternative accommodation or the City of Johannesburg has implemented a comprehensive and coordinated programme to progressively realize the right to adequate housing to people in the inner city of Johannesburg who are in a crisis situation or otherwise in desperate need of accommodation.
In adopting the 2005 World Summit Outcome, the world leaders resolved to integrate human rights into national policies. The primary responsibility to protect human rights rests with national governments, but other states, as well as institutions, also have a responsibility to act in accordance with international human rights norms and standards. A state that lacks the means effectively to protect basic human rights for its people has an obligation to actively seek international assistance and cooperation. Equally, states in a position to assist have a responsibility to support other states to enable them to ensure adequate protection of rights to their populations. In this respect many of the wealthier states are falling short of fulfilling their duty. They need to live up to their commitments to assist poorer countries in reducing poverty. At the current pace, the Millennium Development Goals will not be met by the deadline of 2015. Even where they are likely to be met, huge disparities may still prevail within countries, violating international and national legal commitments and threatening the sustainability of aggregate gains.
The global duty to fight poverty
The principle embodied in the Millennium Declaration that all countries share the responsibility of reducing poverty globally, even if poor countries must take the lead in fighting deprivation at home, is widely accepted. Yet, on the whole, the conditions that would make aid more effective in fighting poverty have not been met. Aid has not been delivered in sufficient quantity; it has not been delivered on a sufficiently predictable, cost effective basis, and many receiving countries have not created the conditions – including in human rights – necessary for aid to yield optimal results.
The large aid shortfall for financing the MDGs is set to increase from $46 billion in 2006 to $52 billion in 2010. The financing gap is especially large for Sub-Saharan Africa, where aid flows need to double over five years to meet the estimated costs of achieving the MDGs. Failure to close the financing gap through a step increase in aid will prevent governments from making the investments in health, education and infrastructure needed to improve welfare and support economic recovery on the scale required to achieve the MDGs, according to UNDP. However, it is not only the amount of aid, but also the quality of aid that matters. The lack of level-playing fields in international trade, especially in agricultural trade, also remains a serious impediment to the efforts of many developing countries to eliminate poverty at home.
The overarching goal of human rights frameworks is the empowerment of the weakest and most marginalized, including the poor. Human rights can help secure and strengthen their ability to claim rights and entitlements and take advantage of opportunities. Significantly, many multilateral development agencies have been integrating human rights into their policies and programmes, most notably in the U.N. system, with the adoption of a UN Common Understanding on a Human Rights-based Approach to Development Cooperation. An increasing number of donor countries are also integrating a human rights approach in their development cooperation activities, including, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, among others. The Swiss development agency (SDC), for example, says its work is guided by the conviction that “sustainable development, poverty reduction and the promotion of economic prosperity in developing countries are possible only with good governance and only when the people involved take responsibility for their own futures”. A number of multilateral and regional development banks are increasingly recognizing the human rights dimensions and relevance of human rights in their operations.