Human Rights Are a Vital Weapon in the Fight against Inequality

Article excerpt

Saliem Fakir's analysis of the place of a human rights approach in solving problems of poverty is correct in highlighting the importance of economic injustice but deeply mistaken in its framing of rights as inevitably serving the interests of the rich (Insight, March 22).

The choice to limit rights to "the political sphere" only, despite its indivisibility from socio-economic claims is, in itself, a political choice made by those who hold power, both at national and global levels.

For example, as illustrated by Shalini Randiera's work in India, so-called "poor" countries evade their obligations to improve the material conditions of their populations by claiming to be disempowered by the global economic order and the conditionalities of international lending institutions, yet are ruthless at enforcing the economic policies that benefit local elites, a phenomenon she describes as the "cunning" state.

Conversely, wealthy Western democracies appear willing to go to war on the basis of redressing violations of civil and political rights including heinous crimes of brutal dictators against vulnerable people (eg "rescuing" Afghan women from harsh gender oppression at the hands of the Taliban), but do not extend such concerns for the rights of the same poverty-stricken populations around the world to claim the benefits of equitable access to education, health care and food security.

These are commitments, which, if recognised, would require fundamental redress of the current inequalities in wealth at a global level. The reason for such duplicity has little to do with what human rights are; rather, they are selective choices made by powerful people and states.

This limited notion of rights is far from the emancipatory role that human rights have provided for poor people in regions such as southern Africa and Latin America, where social struggles have firmly placed social and economic rights on the development agenda.

Where rights-based approaches have tackled the joint problems of economic injustice and political freedoms, they have done so because social movements have recognised the space created by rights to ensure that rights are more than just nice words on paper.

South Africa has the largest anti-retroviral programme in the world, providing access to care to millions of poor, thanks to a social movement that turned the right of access to health care and to dignity into a socio-economic reality for the disempowered. …