Freedom from Poverty’ as a Human Right

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”- Nelson Mandela.

The world just observed the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on 17 October. This day mainly presents an opportunity to acknowledge the effort and struggle of people living in poverty, a chance for them to make their concerns heard.In today’s world, unfortunately, over 40 per cent of the world’s total population are living within the danger of poverty. Over the time, this crisis is reaching every sphere of human life and social structure around the globe.

In this context, it is already settled that the human rights and global economy both are interlinked and has a correlation to each other. However, this relationship is not always steady and harmonious rather sometimes problematic and rivalry.Therefore, this article intends to explore whether the idea of “freedom from poverty” should be considered as one of the fundamental human rights or not. The notion of the “freedom from poverty” is developed rapidly and appealed vital considerations from distinct national and international organizations. It is often argued that, poverty is neither an “accidental” nor “unavoidable” phenomenon rather it is an outcome of the substandard application of the human rights (UN Report: 2010).

It causes the “denial” of entire collection of rights that are connected to the human being. For instance, a person not having his/her food to eat and a house to sleep cannot think of going to school and participating in all other aspects of social structure. A number of scholars believe that the poverty should be considered as a subject matter of the economics not the human rights. However, this argument does not have any basis since the poverty itself is the reason of so many other human rights violation. Without eradicating the poverty some fundamental human rights would never be achieved.

In broader prospect, the definition of poverty should not be confined to “lowness” of income levels rather it should also include the deprivation of essential “capabilities” (Sen, 1999).

Thus, capability approach opens a new door and creates a theoretical bridge between the human rights and the poverty. This concept provides a way of assessing poverty that reflects what we usually care about from the “rights perspective”. Moreover, this approach in a way also creates a positive obligation on the State to eliminate the poverty.
Indeed, States have both positive and negative obligations towards its subjects. For instance, in regards to the right to life, States negative obligation is not to kill a citizen, however, States have also a positive obligation to protect and ensure the security of citizens’ life. Thus, the fundamental rights (or human rights) are believed to guarantee our most fundamental interests through the imposition of duties primarily on the States. Further, poverty is the main problem that affects all other fundamental rights including civil and political rights. Hence, this can be another strong way to conceptualize the poverty within the human rights.

It can be argued that, a wide consideration of poverty is inevitable and certain in order to ensure that the individuals exercising their basic rights. For instance, a death due to the failure to afford high medical cost should be seen as a violation of right to life.

In addition to that, poverty aggravates the discrimination and inequality in all respects. For example, poverty directly affects the women, children and disabled. In worst, sometimes-even people cannot discover their own rights due to the poverty,  that is denial of access to justice.

The guiding principles on poverty suggest that, universally, States and non-State actors have a duty to works through aid and assistance to eliminate the poverty in cross-border issues. This principle was also incorporated in the Maastricht Principles (2011) where it clearly states that the States have the duty to protect and fulfil all human rights including the poverty issue extra-territorially.

However, this raises an obvious question arises when we deal with the nature of such obligation. Is such obligation binding on the States? Or they are mere moral rights, thus not binding on the States! In the context of eradication of world poverty the term “international community” is limited to those States who hold power and influence over the international economic order. And those States often deny their legal obligations to work extraterritorially. Besides, those States only justify their assistance and aids based on morality, self-interest (political stability) and solidarity not as an obligation.

As regards to the nature of such obligation, Special Rapporteur (1991) strongly argues that, each and every country has some extraterritorial positive obligations to deal with the poverty. Further, Salomon in her book argues that, international law imposes a global duty of care on the States to achieve development goal. She further added that, only a shared endeavour from international community could reduce the poverty globally.

Therefore, international community cannot deny their obligations in addressing the issue of poverty extra-territorially. Concededly, on the other hand, international human rights framework alone would never be able to solve all issues related to the poverty. Therefore, we all have a role in this mission as Nelson Mandela said in his famous speech ‘make poverty history’ that, “as long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality exist in our world, none of us can truly rest.” Furthermore, other important factors such as political consensus on the extraterritorial obligation, creation of a large scaled awareness, recognizing ‘freedom from poverty’ as a clear violation of human rights, formation of a strong theoretical basis between poverty and the human rights would surely promote the existing human rights apparatuses to change the condition.


The Daily Observer, 22 October 2017, Bangladesh

By Mohammad Habibur Rahman