Poverty and Human Rights: Reflections on Racism and Discrimination

By Cuellar, Roberto | UN Chronicle, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Poverty and Human Rights: Reflections on Racism and Discrimination


Cuellar, Roberto, UN Chronicle


Currently, in both the international system and the inter-American system for the protection of human rights, there are instruments which emphasize the obligation of States to guarantee the observance of the rights of all human beings, without distinction as to race, gender, religion or political stance. However, although a considerable body of treaties, declarations and conventions exists to safeguard such equality in law, as yet there is no effective equality in practice. In our opinion, poverty is inseparably linked to human rights, acting as both cause and effect of human rights violations, and must be tackled if de facto equality is to be achieved. Excluded groups and persons will then be able to claim their rights from States and obtain prompt and appropriate responses at a reasonable cost, thereby ensuring that social well-being spreads to all parts of society.

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While our subcontinent has moved on from the authoritarianism and flagrant assaults on life and liberty of the 1980s, and the majority of countries in the hemisphere now model their political relations on representative democracy and their economic thinking on market forces (the criterion for the allocation of resources), poverty and social exclusion are still widespread. This situation means that vast segments of the population experience a high degree of economic insecurity and despair about the future. Economic growth was 4.5 per cent on average during the period 2003-2006, showing an exceptional performance over the past 25 years, and the poverty rate, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, dipped slightly below the 1980 level for the first time, from 40.5 per cent of the population in that year to 39.8 per cent in 2005. However, the Commission states (Panorama Social de America Latina 2006) that the recent encouraging progress should not obscure the fact that poverty levels continue to be very high, and the region still faces enormous challenges. It adds that historically one of the chief features of Latin America has been the marked inequity of income distribution and its inflexibility to change, and that this inequity not only exceeds that of other regions, but also remained invariable throughout the 1990s and even worsened at the beginning of the current decade. (1)

By "social exclusion" we mean social discrimination processes engaged in by human groups on the grounds of sex, ethnicity, religion, political or ideological belief, social origin or socio-economic status and practices that fail to respect differences or value diversity. Excluded individuals and communities suffer distinct disadvantages by comparison with the rest of the population. First, they are deprived of the legitimate aspirations to which they are entitled, such as an adequate standard of living, labour force participation and social integration. Unable to attain these conditions, they are barred from the life style that a person expects to enjoy in a democratic society, including the exercise of human rights, whether civil and political or social, cultural and economic. For these reasons, such individuals and communities cannot be considered full members of society.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, racism and discrimination have historical, economic, social and cultural features which have kept specific groups, including indigenous populations, Afro-descendants and women, in a state of marginalization, exclusion and extreme poverty. In this sense, discrimination is a crime, not only because it conflicts with international law but also because it lays the ground for the violation of basic human rights. (2) Moreover, when discrimination stems from prejudice based on race, ethnic identity, nationality or culture, it also affects collective subjects (populations and communities) that have rights as a group, deriving from their identity and culture, but do not always have the necessary legal or political status (a particular citizenship) to be able to defend themselves and claim rights. …

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Poverty and Human Rights: Reflections on Racism and Discrimination
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