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Human Rights: A luxury for the rich?

Human rights are not luxuries we enjoy in times of prosperity and abundance, but inalienable entitlements which should be exercised everywhere by all members of the human family. 

In this article Firouzeh Mitchell, 4th Year LLB, considers whether the protections afforded by international human rights frameworks are a luxury only affordable by wealthy nations.

Human rights are not luxuries we enjoy in times of prosperity and abundance, but inalienable entitlements which should be exercised everywhere by all members of the human family. 

A major critique of modern day human rights is the view that the protection afforded by the international human rights framework, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), is a luxury only wealthy nations can afford. Indeed, particularly in Africa, human rights are seen as a rich mans luxury. This criticism was first put forward by Karl Marx, who likened human rights to bourgeois freedomsthat protect the rich at the expense of the poor. Many reject this argument claiming that at the cornerstone of human rights is the concept of universality - that human rights apply to everyone. In theory, human rights are available to both the rich and the poor, however, there is clear variation as to the accessibility of these rights. For the wealthy, human rights are often seen and discussed in terms of civil and political freedoms, such as the right to freedom of expression. However, for the one-fifth of humanity currently living in extreme poverty even the basic social, economic and cultural rights, such as food, water and health, are unavailable. It can be assumed then that for them the highest priority will be to first achieve these basic rights. Therefore, essentially not only are these rights unavailable to the poor but the civil and political freedoms enjoyed by the rich are also unachievable. It is here that the luxury versus necessity controversy arises. 


At the heart of this controversy is the full belly thesis. This is the argument that civil and political rights are only relevant once basic economic, social, and cultural rights have been achieved. In other words, a mans belly must be full before he can indulge in the luxury of worrying about his political freedom. According to this theory, for the millions of people living in poverty certain rights are simply impractical due to their immediate circumstances. Therefore, a divide is created between the rights available for the rich and those available to the poor. 


To discuss this theory, it is first necessary to establish what the basic economic, social and cultural human rights are. Most relevant to the discussion of these basic rights is the right to an adequate standard of living. Article 25 UDHR states that: everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.This has been reinforced by Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which refers to the right to adequate food, clothing and housing.However, the right to an adequate standard of living clearly encompasses much more. The right of access to adequate water for personal and domestic use is essential in ensuring subsequent rights, such as the right to food and the right to health, as for example without water food cannot be produced. Indeed, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has noted that the human right to water is a prerequisite for the realisation of other human rights. This was explicitly recognised by the United Nations General Assembly through Resolution 64/292. Additionally, before being able to exercise civil and political rights individuals must have the necessary skills and knowledge to fully enjoy society. For this, the right to education, as defined under Article 13 and 14 ICESCR, must first be secured.


However, these guarantees are far from fulfilled in the reality of every day life in developing countries; the most notable violation being the right to food. It is estimated that there were around 805 million people who were chronically undernourished in 2012-14. Another example is exhibited in the vast number of children in developing countries that do not live in adequate housing. In 2005, 640 million children in developing countries were living without adequate shelter. In addition, due to the lack of food, water and shelter, the right to health is clearly affected. This creates a large gap between the standard of living in an affluent country compared to that of a developing country. For example, a child in Ethiopia is 30 times more likely to die before they are five than a child in Western Europe. Furthermore, in developing countries there is a severe lack of education as a result of poverty and the unfulfillment of the most basic human rights. In Sub-Saharan Africa over 32 million primary aged children are uneducated. Whilst these basic economic, social and cultural rights are guaranteed by international human rights in reality, in developing countries, these rights are unavailable. 


It has been argued that political and civil rights are best achieved where there is a certain level of economic and social stability, which guarantees a basic standard of living. It is clear that if a person is lacking basic human rights, this will take priority over political rights, such as the right to vote. In some cases the poor end up selling their votes in return for food, which evidently undermines the democratic process. For those living in severe poverty the need to survive is likely to surpass the perceived luxuries of civil and political rights. 


Conversely, many believe that first and second generation rights are wholly indivisible and interrelated. Civil and political rights are intended to protect individualsfreedom from interferences from the State. Therefore, arguably, these rights are essential in enforcing economic, social and cultural rights and thus empowering the poor to be able to fulfil their basic rights. They create the opportunity for violations of human rights to be remedied. For example, if a state unreasonably denies its population food then, in theory, they can be held to account for these violations. Additionally, in many cases it is difficult to separate the substance of first and second generation rights. As noted above, the right to health is intrinsically related to other human rights. Violations of the basic rights of food, water and shelter may negatively affect the right to health and in serious cases this may in turn lead to a violation of the right to life, which is a civil right. Thus, it is not necessary for an individual to have a full bellybut in order for civil and political rights to be available to the poor their belly must not be empty. 


Furthermore, it can be argued that the luxury versus necessity controversy undermines the supposed universality of human rights. Indeed, as identified by the full belly thesisthe necessities of the poor are not the same as the priorities for the rich. Typically, developed countries are more interested in protecting civil and political freedoms, as opposed to developing countries, which emphasise the importance of economic, social and cultural rights. In a test conducted to determine the difference in attitudes of the rich of poor in terms of whether they prioritise free speech, freedom of religion, freedom from hunger and poverty, or freedom from crime and violence. The middle class respondents favoured free speech, whereas lower-income respondents emphasised freedom from hunger and poverty. This reinforces the view that certain rights are simply not of immediate concern for the poor whilst they are faced with poverty. 


Additionally, an argument can be made that the protection of human rights requires huge financial resources that only developed countries can afford. In particular, it is recognised that the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights is costly since it obliges the state to provide welfare to the individual. Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) obliges states to take steps, individually and through international assistance and the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of the rights recognised in the present Covenant.The general view is that economic, social and cultural rights cannot be achieved in a short amount of time, primarily due to the cost of implementing them. By having a set of rights that is dependent on the availability of resources it widens the gap between the human rights protection for the rich and the poor, as evidently resources vary drastically between states. Developed countries argue that attempting to guarantee these rights to everyone would require a massive amount of resources. It is estimated that the global shortfall for achieving basic economic, social and cultural rights in developing countries is $70-80 billion a year. Due to this difference in treatment developed countries often see economic, social and cultural rights as aspirations, essentially rights but without legal enforceability. Therefore, it would therefore appear that whilst in theory human rights are designed to apply to everyone, in practice certain rights are only relevant to certain groups. This undermines the argument that all human rights are universal and apply to all human beings regardless of their nationality, cultural identity, racial background or development stage. 


It can be argued, however, that the need for the rights are universal, it is just the priorities put on the different generation of rights that may differ between different states. Clean water, for example, is a basic need required by everyone to keep themselves alive and enjoy a healthy life. It cannot be argued in this case that a child in Africa needs clean water, but a child in the West does not. As a whole, human rights are crucial in order to live a life of dignity. 


It is evident that despite continued attempts to ensure basic human rights for those in developing countries, for the majority this has yet to be achieved. It is not surprising that without the basic necessities needed in order to live, consideration of civil and political rights will not be at the forefront of their priorities. In terms of the luxury versus necessity controversy, it is clear that the proposal does not highlight that human rights are not designed to be universal but rather that the way they are enforced in practice does not render equal results for the rich and the poor. Ultimately, it is apparent that this situation is unlikely to be resolved due to the immense cost required to guarantee human rights – funds which developing countries are struggling to afford. Thus, for the poor human rights, or at least in terms of civil and political rights, are a luxury that only the rich can afford. 

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