"Armoede is de ergste mensenrechtencrisis"
MO*-lezing met Irene Khan over armoede en mensenrechten
Dinsdag 20 april 2010, te Brussel (Beursschouwburg)
In her book ‘The Unheard Truth’ Irene Kahn focuses on the link between development and human rights. She explains that the ‘war’ on poverty cannot be won without being successful in the ‘battle’ for human rights. Violation of human rights keeps people in poverty, for it withholds justice from the oppressed and denies the dignity of the poor.
Although it is not simply evident that the eradication of poverty is a human right by itself, it is clear that poverty is a violation of human dignity. A victim of poverty is a human being deprived of his first freedom, the freedom from want. Therefore, the eradication of poverty sets people free. As the US president Herbert Hoover observed in the late twenties of the last century (alas, a short time before the crash of Wall Street) : “Through liberation from widespread poverty we have reached a higher degree of individual freedom than ever before…”
Without freedom from want a human being cannot be a free man with rights and duties. Poverty is a deeply embedded wound that permeates every dimension of life and society. Gandhi once said that “poverty is the worst form of violence”. And it should be added that the violence of poverty attracts several other forms of violence. As Irene Kahn writes, poor people live in fear, not only of disease and hunger, but also of gangs and guns, police brutality, family violence and armed conflict.
Without human rights a man cannot fully enjoy his freedom from want. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” illustrates this truth very eloquently. It is also wrong to think that political and civil freedoms can wait or have to wait till economic and social freedoms are fulfilled. The lack of development cannot be invoked by states to justify the abridgment of internationally recognized human rights, and it is the primary responsibility of states, including developing states, to create the internal conditions for the realization of the right to development.
Irene Kahn calls this so-called wish to prioritize one set of rights to achieve results “the sequencing trap”. It is not necessarily true that civil and political freedoms will follow automatically economic development, investment in health, education and housing.
But it is also an error to think that investment in rule of law and democracy without investment in social progress will create automatically an engaged citizenry able to debate on equal terms the development options.
At the first World Conference of Human Rights after the end of the Cold War (Vienna, 1993), UN members States recognized that democracy, development and respect of human rights and freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. At the 2005 World Summit, world leaders followed the appeal of Secretary General Koffi Annan in stating clearly that development, peace, security and human rights are forever interlinked and mutually reinforcing.
This leads to somewhat of a paradox. Progress in one field is a necessary condition for real progress in the other field – and vice versa – but neither can be considered to be a sufficient condition for progress in the other area.
The interdependence of human rights and poverty is obvious when we compare democracy and authoritarian regimes. The former being the cradle of human rights, the latter being the oppressor of human rights. We should note that no democracy has let absolute poverty worsen over a substantial length in time, and no democracy has allowed famines to take place. Authoritarian politics have seen of both and have for long periods of time also managed to get away with it.
The wild authoritarian fluctuations contrast sharply with a certain democratic consistency. Democracies may not be necessarily pro-poor, but authoritarian systems can be viciously anti-poor. Democratic attacks on poverty have simply been slow but steady.
Poverty as a social problem calls for a social solution. That solution is the clear, conscious and deliberate removal of the factors of poverty, including ignorance and lack of education, bad governance and lack of freedom.
It is too easy to pass the buck on the responsibility of the wealthy nations alone, when we see that in some regimes the rise in economic growth is accompanied by growing disparities in the country affecting the greater part of the population. Why is that, especially in more authoritarian states? Because in democracy it is not only the state that runs the society, but the state shapes freedom for society to run itself with responsibility. In a democracy the state is not the only responsible actor and does not pretend to govern all aspects of life.
A democratic state respects the fundamental freedoms of their citizens and allows them to organize themselves and take their destiny in their own hands, to plead for better social and labour conditions and to be the active participants of development, welfare and growth, in what the Rhineland Model of the economy calls the tripartite cooperation of state, economy and society.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Poverty is not only about economics, growth and income levels, but also and foremost about a lack of respect for human rights. The fight against poverty is a fight for human dignity and it has to be carried out in a human rights perspective. My country and all members of the EU support the realization of the right to development. Let me quote the Declaration of the General Assembly of the UN on the Right of Development, which states that “the human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development”. It also underlines that “States have the primary responsibility for the creation of national and international conditions favorable to the realization of the right to development”.
This means that states have to formulate socio-economic development policies, but also have to respect the principles of good governance, the rule of law, non-discrimination, empowerment and participation of all citizens. The respect for democratic principles is a pre-condition for the realization of the right to development. In this perspective the UN-declaration reaffirms that “States should encourage popular participation in all spheres as an important factor in development and in the full realization of all human rights”.
In the past the bipolar world of the Cold War, the East tended to emphasize the collective social and economic rights, the West the individual political and civil rights. Today the old adagio “bread before ballots” occurs again, meaning that freedom can be an obstacle to economic growth. When economic growth prevails to human rights we see that due to a lack of political control the rights of decent housing and work are violated in the name of economic growth. How can a country develop if its citizens cannot participate to the decision-making process and raise their concerns through free and fair elections? As I have done so in my speech to the Human Rights Council on March the 1st this year, one can never stress the fundamental importance of the universality and indivisibility of all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
Freedom of expression and the right to organize are essential in creating a society where citizenry is actively engaged in debates on development. When the American president Franklin Roosevelt in his Union Message in January 1941 set out a vision of the post-war world centered on what he called the ‘four essential freedoms’ for peace, dignity and development, he mentioned in the same breath “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear”. Poverty creates fear, fear leads to poverty.
That poverty still prevails in the world, even in Europe, is a crying shame for humanity and a disgrace for civilization. Social inequality, both within a single country and between the populations of different countries, diminishes social cohesion, thereby placing democracy at risk, through the progressive erosion of ‘social capital’: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence.
Although I have said that the state is the first responsible authority to eradicate poverty and to respect human rights in its realm, in a globalized world no country can function on its own. The necessity of international cooperation in the struggle against poverty and the involvement of the international community in the struggle for human rights are obvious.
Therefore, in Belgium’s external policy on human rights, the fight against poverty is closely related to the promotion and protection of economic, social and cultural rights. Our country actively contributed to the drafting of the Optional Protocol on economic, social and cultural rights and has signed it in September 2009 when it was first opened for signature. We also act by supporting the realization of the Millennium Development Goals, including in our development cooperation policy. The Belgian government has committed itself to spend 0.7 percent of its Gross National Income in development aid from 2010. In fact, EU Member States and the EU provide approximately 50 percent of the global development aid in the world.
We all agree, I think, that a rights-based approach to development – that means the integration of human rights and development – is the way forward. I hope that with the publication of Irene Kahn’s book this truth about the interdependency of violation of human rights and poverty on the one hand, and respect for human rights and development on the other hand will no longer be an Unheard Truth.
Only spoken word prevails