UN Human Rights and Wrongs

Last Friday’s post “Poverty is not a human rights violation” spurred a very healthy dialogue on rights, including a response from Amnesty International , which mentioned the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I will not be a last word freak and answer Amnesty directly. But let’s talk about rights at the UN. The UN publicizes such positive rights as “right to water,” “right to housing,” “right to health”, etc. These rights sound wonderful, while not imposing any specific obligation whatsoever on any specific actor to do any specific thing for any specific poor person. It is impossible for the UN or any other body to allocate responsibilities for observing the “right to water,” and also decide who will be first in line among the 884 million people now without clean water. So even if the UN creates international pressure to observe these “rights,” the pressure is diffused across so many potential actors with unclear responsibility that it has no effect, accomplishing nothing for poor people.

What about the UN’s record on the more traditionally defined “negative” human rights, like freedom from state killings and torture? These human rights are a lot easier to specifically address – the UN could denounce human rights violations, identifying the violator and the victim each time. Here international pressure could have more of an effect, because it is applied to very specific wrong-doers to stop very specific actions against specific victims -- some of whom are in the Amnesty International 2009 report

According to Amnesty, among those who could appeal to the UN Human Rights Council are:

--the families of the 100 Cameroonian demonstrators that dictator Paul Biya’s forces killed in February 2008, shooting some in the head at point blank range

-- the family of Paltsal Kyab, 45, a Tibetan from Sichuan province, who died in Chinese police custody on May 26, 2008, after having been present at a protest march on March 17, 2008. The Chinese government did not allow his family to visit him in detention. When his family members went to claim his body, “they found it bruised and covered with blister burns, discovering later that he had internal injuries.”

---the 49 people the Egyptian government arrested after violent protests on April 6, 2008 in Egypt. The trial began in August 2008 before “the (Emergency) Supreme State Security Court…The defendants said they were blindfolded for nine days and tortured by State Security Investigation (SSI) officials …{including} beatings, electric shocks and threats that their female relatives would be sexually abused…Twenty-two of the defendants were sentenced in December to up to five years in prison.”

So such victims could appeal to the UN Human Rights Council for their rights vis-à-vis the governments of Cameroon, China, and Egypt – except that the governments of Cameroon, China, and Egypt are MEMBERS of the UN Human Rights Council. The UN is perpetrating a sick joke on such victims, by filling the Human Rights Council with human rights violators. This travesty is already well known, but that doesn’t mean anyone who cares should stop talking about it.

So here’s the scorecard on UN human rights. On something like “the right to water,” where it is impossible to identify who is violating such “rights,” the UN talks big. On human rights violations like killings and torture, where the UN knows precisely who is the violator, the UN sometimes shows up on the violator's side.

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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

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