Human Rights Have Done Nothing for My Poverty

By Saliem Fakir · 16 Mar 2010

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Picture: Steve Crane
Picture: Steve Crane

The expression, as phrased here, is an attempt to demonstrate the hollowness of human rights and a rights based constitution if all they are can be reduced to normative ideals written on fine paper with no material effect on those that matter. Or as the philosopher Jeremy Bentham once mockingly called it, a mere exercise in “bawling upon paper.”

To phrase it differently: What is the point of political justice when there is no economic justice?

Is it good enough to say that people should be the author of their own lives when what is being denied is precisely that -- being an author of one’s own life?

The perpetuation of a human rights discourse in the void of a discussion of how to transform the absence of economic rights and the asymmetry of economic interests only reinforces the mischief between moral pretence and the absence of the material.

The rights based approach, which builds on the human rights framework is meant to under-gird the developmental aspects of human rights.

However, questions need to be asked as to whether the rights-based approach is realisable through passivity and subservience to a model of economics based solely on growth and “trickle-down” or perhaps a more aggressive pursuit of developmental goals through active intervention in the economy.

In general, human rights speak to inalienable rights. They impose upon us a moral obligation. Like the obligation not to torture or deny certain freedoms. They are meant to ensure that these moral guards are established under legal provisions that people can then use to claim their rights.

Based on a reading of different human rights cultures and experiences, the debate as to whether human rights through complementary second generation rights (the right to housing, jobs and education) are sufficient to guarantee development needs as well as care for others (the other moral obligation) throws up a whole set of contradictory insights.

The record is not always consistent and the issue here is: concession on political rights has inevitably come through the ceding of economic power to those to whom it has always belonged -- the elite.

It raises two main premises that are simultaneously separate yet intertwined, viz., that if we all have moral obligations to protect each other’s freedom then we all also have moral duties to ensure that each one of us is no better or worse off than the other.

The ethos of the human rights culture cannot be so truncated that its existence is of relevance only to the political sphere.

The reality is that people only act in the interests of those closest to themselves and do little for those whom they have no direct affinity with, unless they are induced to do so, or a share is taken from them and redistributed where it is needed most.

Three things stand out when contemplating obligations: the right not to be denied the means to exercise economic opportunity and to receive a fair share of income and wealth based on the proportion of effort; the duty of the economic agent not to cause harm in such a way in which fair income and share of wealth is denied pre-meditatively; and finally, the duty of others, (these third party onlookers) to provide reasonable assistance or help in preventing this harm or denial of right to opportunity or a fair share of wealth/income.

Where human rights has been great is in making the morally compelling case for the protection of human freedoms, but where it has failed is to recognise that freedom within an economy is fundamental, if not the most important, in assuring the enjoyment of political freedoms and expression within the political sphere.

The reality is that economic authoritarianism, through this monopoly of economic agency over the levers of influence and privilege, makes a mockery of political liberties. If anything, political freedoms are the public relations tools of those who have cornered the share of the economy for themselves.

Here, the mountain of privilege that is extracted from the economy by the well healed and well connected, in effect, undermines a human rights culture.

Cynicism is such that political freedom becomes the trinkets dished out to the masses while the economy is the real power and mover of the social body.

Where human rights are enshrined in law, they can also develop a twisted logic, offering a protection of perverse economic interests. The owners of capital, machines and land extract a disproportionate share of wealth through excessive and undeserved rents.

The law also develops a constellation of ironies and conflicts. It serves them - these excessively rich - as much as (or perhaps more than) it dishes out superficial trinkets to the economically disadvantaged.

In effect, the law’s outcome in the context of economic asymmetry is that it in itself cannot be mobilised without financial means. The effect of economic disempowerment serves this - the nullification of the recourse to law - or a certain amputation of the arm of the law when exercised in their defence.

Of course, things can change. And even the poor and under-resourced can find kindly support and contributions from progressive members of society with means.

They can make the law work for them or in defence of their rights. But this is not near universal and often too few and far between. The law is easily handy to those who can use their economic privilege to reinforce their advancement.

In so doing, always encumbering the extent to which social externalities, as a result of their excess, can be defended against or rights claimed, when abused.

Democratic societies that profess to protect human rights and have democratic political traditions, but a sea of economic victims, like India and South Africa, in turn, only breed cynicism for the whole system.

Some of that cynicism has already exploded into violent impatience as the Naxalite insurgency in western Bengal so aptly demonstrates.

The Naxalites are a radical Maoist group that broke away from the Indian Communist Party and have called on peasants and the poor to take up arms against the government and the upper classes whom they blame for their plight.

It is clear that economic transgressions on freedoms and rights can go unnoticed and unchallenged in democrat societies, despite political liberalisation.

For a human rights culture to be fostered, the economic hand cannot be vastly separated from the political hand such that it sours the whole social culture.

And certainly not to the extent that political freedom is constantly battered by economic transgressions, which structurally or through agency, handicap the advancement of the economic rights of the poor by perpetuating conditions that imprison people in poverty.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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Rory Short
19 Mar

Economic Freedom

Salim I could not agree with you more. Freedom is actually indivisible so political freedom without economic freedom, or without spiritual and other freedoms, means that freedom is incomplete.

The freedom at issue here however is economic freedom. What is economic freedom? This is not something that is easy to answer however. In a sparsely populated society spread out over land that is fairly uniformly agriculturally productive one might be able to say economic freedom exists if there is a rule of law under which voluntary economic exchanges can take place and in which each citizen has a plot of land allocated to them on which they can sustain themselves.

Things are not so simple in modern societies however. For instance in South Africa we could not allocate a piece of land to every citizen on which they could sustain themselves even if they knew how to do so. Not only that but it would seem that like any economic activity, the volumes and efficiencies of agricultural production are dependent on scale, there is an optimum size of unit when it comes to efficiency of production and this size will change over time as technology changes. So what might be an appropriate size of an agricultural unit in order to enable economic freedom in today

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Rusana Philander
22 Mar

Human rights article

I enjoyed the article. It is very interesting.

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27 Mar

Colur of Corruption and This ...

Brilliant article.

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