Can International Law Alleviate Poverty?

In this new century, many of the world’s poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.

–          Nelson Mandela

Human rights are traditionally thought of in terms of the civil and political rights espoused by the major human rights documents, which tell states what they are to refrain from. We all know of the right to life and the prohibition of torture, but all too often we forget about economic and social rights such as the right to be free from hunger or the right to a fair wage, which compel the state to take progressive action for the realisation of these rights. The use of these economic and social rights is the way in which law can be used to combat the malignancy of poverty.

Poverty figures are staggering. It is estimated that the annual poverty-related death toll is around 18 million, which translates to a third of total human deaths. Perhaps the most shocking is that 22,000 children die every day from the silent killer known as poverty. That equates to one child every 4 seconds! These deaths are preventable and it is with law that we find one of our best tools to combat poverty.

Clearly to live and die under such circumstances is a violation of human dignity, the respect of which is a fundamental human rights principle, and the UN General Assembly believes that the only way to address extreme poverty is through a rights-based approach. By ensuring that every human being is able to exercise their right to education, right to adequate shelter, right to food and a general right to an adequate standard of living amongst others is the most important way in which we can provide people in this situation with the tools they need to change their lot in life.

Although the most logical way to do this would be through increasing economic growth within countries with high levels of poverty through increased investment and foreign aid, it should not be viewed as the only course of action available. Countries which have seen impressive economic growth have not necessarily seen a corresponding improvement in living standards, and as we have seen in recent years the economy is extremely susceptible to recession, leaving the fate of hundreds of millions in the hands of the boom or bust of the economy.

The international human rights community has attempted in the past to resolve such an issue. The Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order sought to alleviate poverty by reducing the prosperity gap between developing and developed nations through fairer economic deals and trading. The hope was that the establishment of such a system would not leave developing nations so vulnerable during economic crises. As is quite clear to many of us, the goals set forward in this Declaration have yet to be realised and have a long way to go if they ever will be. For example, the main goal of this Declaration was to create a fair economy based on equity and equality. However, according to WTO statistics the amount of world trade shared by the world’s 49 poorest states has dropped by 40% to just 0.4% and the number of people living on just $2 per day has increased by 50% to 2.8 billion since 1980. Today we see more trade restrictions than ever before being imposed on developing countries. Such data shows that although the NIEO had good aims and ideas, its lack of legal enforceability has rendered it effectively useless.

Of course, it is vital that a country sees significant economic growth through investment and foreign aid if it is to start helping its people get free from the shackles of extreme poverty, but by securing their rights to education, health care, food and shelter is the way in which the international community can ensure that this bottom billion remain free.

 

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Comments
2 Responses to “Can International Law Alleviate Poverty?”
  1. Jourdain L'Ecuyer says:

    You mention several times the importance of education in the developing world. Perhaps just as important, if not more so, is the education of the First world regarding the state of poverty in the Third world.

    Being made aware of a problem is not the same as being educated about it (as is the current state).

    If more people in a position of material wealth are aware of how to change their own lifestyles in order to better serve the under-privileged, then perhaps more pressure may be put on inter-Governmental and Governmental organizations.

    Inadvertently causing the death of millions is only slightly less forgiveable than doing so directly.

    ____

    Good column Jason.

    • Giorgos Moukazis says:

      In my view, your comment is on the right track. The first world should educate its citizens to be more charitable towards third worlds poverty rather than informed about that poverty. The society of information has emerged as a priority matter instead of being just secondary.
      On top of that, i would add a further comment relevant to the way well off citizens can put pressure on international organizations. Well off citizens should undertake more powers at the international scene, that is international organizations to be more representative of citizens’. Since there is such a gap, a gap of legalization in the function of int. org., then there is no much room for me or you to act and consequently to be hold responsible for anything.

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