6. What Does the New UN Human Rights Approach bring to the Struggle of the Poor? – II

The Human Rights Approach: Some Iron Laws

  1. As the new era of Human Rights-based planning in development work gets under way, there are a number of iron laws that begin to gain acceptance. Among them, and in no particular order, I would say, are the following:
  • The struggle for Human Rights is more than a struggle to defend legitimate immediate interests, but is a struggle for universal justice. (20)
  • A right is a right only when it is universal; otherwise it is a privilege.
  • Human Rights have already been accepted by almost all countries as universal, indivisible principles. No further discussions are necessary. The burden of compliance is now on the world’s state parties.
  • Human Rights cannot be departmentalized and are obligatory, not optional for states. They require governments to undertake active and effective steps in this direction. Therefore, Human Rights begin at home. (8, 4)
  • Human Rights cannot be prioritized either. But actions to end their violation can. (2a)
  • The Human Rights approach places development work within an internationally recognized and legally binding normative framework (a significant foundation that is currently absent from prevailing development approaches and activities). (4, 21)
  • Rights can be usefully seen as the codification of needs, reformulating them as ethico-legal norms and thus implying a duty on the part of those in power. (22)
  • The notions of duty and justice (…and merely not social responsibility or compassion!) give rights their cutting edge. (23)
  • Justice is supposed to be the source of state power. Challenging states on the basis of justice as related to Human Rights challenges their legitimacy. This is a very powerful challenge. (20)
  • Human Rights are inseparable from social justice. But to be effective, they require the adoption of appropriate policies and legislation at national and international level.
  • (Ergo,) To ensure that the values of Human Rights are respected, they have to be underpinned by international Human Rights law, and at the same time incorporated into national laws.
  • A lack of Human Rights means multiple denials. Therefore, poverty is the main obstacle to the attainment of Human Rights. (11, 4)
  • At the beginning of the 21st century, the implementation of the fundamental legal rights enshrined in the different Human Rights UN Covenants represents the right political approach to development, particularly because it allows us to identify and actively challenge the prevailing oppression of the poor and powerless in society.
  • Implementing a rights-based approach redirects the efforts in a way that optimizes the satisfaction of poor people’s basic and other needs in a sustainable way. (24)
  • All unmet basic needs represent violations of rights. (2a)
  • Up until a specific right is realized, this right is to be considered violated. (2a)
  • There is a big difference between having basic needs and having universal rights: the latter can be legitimately claimed. (As opposed to rights, charity is given when convenient). (4)
  • The health sector and other social sectors are often left to deal with the results of Human Rights abuses. (4)
  • In Human Rights work, taking the first steps is the most important; it is better to concentrate on a few practical issues and strive for an incremental progress in them. (11, 3)
  • In the national context, the best approach is to start using the Human Rights approach, not worrying about getting it perfect the first time around. (11)
  • One strategy can often be used to address the violation of several different rights. (2a)
  • Society produces endless ‘justifications’ for Human Rights violations which are often even accepted by the oppressed themselves. Human Rights work debunks these justifications. It liberates minds and mobilizes people. (20)
  • The ongoing feminization of poverty is a violation of Women’s Rights. The time has come to call these realities what they truly are: Human Rights violations. New Human Rights legislation has, therefore, to incorporate a gender perspective. (21, 5)
  • The invisible hand of the market has no capacity to create a decent Human Rights-based society for all. (22)
  • Human Rights facilitate the building of alliances –the joining of hands with millions of others–since appeals for justice generate worldwide support for widely shared moral reasons.
  • A sub-set of iron laws pertains to the issue of power in society as it relates to enforcing Human Rights. They are as follows: (23)

Rights holders cannot only be passive beneficiaries of the duties of others.

It is not good enough if the beneficiaries of the duties have no power or control over their enforcement (…i.e., they need to be empowered).

Having a claim necessarily involves having (or getting) power.

More specifically, to enforce a duty, the claim holder needs power over the duty bearer.

Claims are rather useless if there is no power to have duty bearers enforce their public duties.

A party other than the duty bearers has to possess power over the duties in order to make sure most public duties are enforced.

In sum, power is the key relation in Human Rights. A right confers power, i.e. the power to change some normative relations long taken as given –provided the system makes it possible for claim holders to do so. (…and we have to help making this possible).

(Montesquieu had it right:) It is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power.

  1. The question we are left with when looking at these iron laws collectively is: Will our new delineation of a new Human Rights approach be any more capable of solving pending fundamental development issues? This question is pertinent at this point since it is the same fundamental issues, which have been and are the central constraints that have limited progress and sustainability in prior development efforts. We are talking about the political constraints.

The politics of it all

Politics is nothing more than the ability to resolve, time and again, conflicts of interest.

  1. Because we need to be concerned with what happens to people now, what we do now will affect the next generation. That makes Human Rights eminently an issue in the contemporary political discourse. (8)
  2. Human Rights ultimately give direction and boundaries to political and economic choices; some economic choices simply are not permissible, even if they promise a good return. Just like the limits of a national Constitution, there are things politicians can simply not do, and other things they have to do. That is how we should conceptualize Human Rights.(8)
  3. With such an overwhelming mandate, most of us just feel helpless. But it is partly due to that feeling of helplessness that normative approaches are finding fertile ground, and that development thinking is no longer accepting utilitarian approaches. I thus see this as the beginning of a political movement; one that aims to develop and implement a non-ethnocentric global ethics (and, for now, we have to recognize that the United Nations is the organization that is set to lead that movement). (2)
  4. In reality, there is a need for a political solution in conjunction with humanitarian efforts. But in the last instance, only politics will determine the speed with which the ultimate achievement of Human Rights will be realized. (25, 13)
  5. I contend that it is by using a combination of the Human Rights instruments that we can become more political in our work. Furthermore, given their moral standing, people’s organizations should begin to speak more with one voice on these issues. (4)
  6. On the other hand, political leaders do understand that change is more inevitable when communities demand their rights. Development agencies need to do likewise. (26)
  7. Human Rights language raises social commitment. It is a very politically powerful language. As our social commitment increases, our level of political responsibility also increases. (5)
  8. But it is more, we also need to focus on the politico-legal links in Human Rights work. (4)
  9. The Human Rights framework is becoming a guidance and a directive in the area of global governance. It must now be used in a politically deliberate and systematic way to ensure its ultimate achievement, ergo the realization of Human Rights. (8)
  10. The question, of course, here is: Are we all likely to have the strength and the political will to use Human Rights effectively as our supposedly new weapon against global violations of the Right to Development? Or put otherwise, will the explicit inclusion of Human Rights into the politics of, for instance, malnutrition make any difference to the many millions whose lives are blighted by this problem? (27)
  11. One can be skeptical. Not much has really changed so far. This, because of the political sensitivities involved in resolving these issues. They have never really been addressed in depth. But these sensitivities are now under siege: We are at a point where you cannot but take sides! Get prepared for a fair struggle.
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