Poverty is not a human rights violation

police-2.jpg The title of this blog will make many think I am callous, and yet I definitely agree that poverty is an EXTREMELY BAD THING. Perhaps some use the words “human rights violation” to be equivalent to “extremely bad thing,” but why? There are many different “extremely bad things,” and it helps if everybody discriminates between them.

The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator. That is what historically has led to progress on human rights. The government officers of the slave-owning antebellum US and the slave-owners were violating the rights of slaves – leading to activism against such violators that eventually yielded the Emancipation Proclamation. The local southern government officers were violating the civil rights of southern blacks under Jim Crow, leading to activism against these violators that yielded the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The apartheid government officers in South Africa violated the rights of black South Africans, and activism against these violators brought the end of apartheid.

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.”

So it’s disappointing that the 2009 report of Amnesty International is blurring its previous clear focus on human rights to a fuzzy vision that now includes poverty:

So many people are living in utter destitution…As the global economic outlook appears more and more gloomy, hope lies in the … determination of human rights defenders willing to challenge entrenched interests despite the risks they face. (p. 9)

Social and political progress arguably happens the same way as progress in science or as progress in business: somebody precisely defines a problem and somebody (possibly somebody else?) hits upon a way to solve that well-defined problem. To confuse poverty and human rights violations is to slow down the solutions to both.

P.S. also see the excellent 2009 book by Chauffour