Human Rights Day: The Right to Dignity

Irene Kahn is on a mission. The first woman and the first Asian to head Amnesty International, she has dedicated her career to identifying and addressing human rights abuses around the world. In the course of her work, she has been developing a new approach to ending poverty. Since December 10 is Human Rights Day, it's the perfect opportunity to learn why viewing poverty through the prism of human rights may be the best way to effect change.


CS: So what exactly is the vital link between poverty and human rights?

IK: Poverty is not just an issue of people not having enough money: it's an issue of discrimination, of deprivation, of insecurity; it's the voicelessness that drives people into poverty and keeps them poor. So poverty is a human rights crisis and you've got to promote human rights if you are going to eradicate poverty.

You are quite critical of growth-driven poverty efforts and make the case that defining poverty as a question of human rights is the only approach that can truly succeed.

The tendency is to see poverty as 1 or 2 dollars a day and look at it as an issue of economic growth but we know that when economic growth takes place the poor are the last to benefit, and when there is a bust, the poor are first to suffer.They need other things and part of it is actually empowerment -- they need to be able to participate in decisions that affect their life. They need to be able to determine their destiny. Tell me what you learned about this type of participation from the women you met in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, known for its maquiladoras and the hundreds of young women -- many of them only girls --who have been abducted, raped and murdered in the area. The tragedy is that all these women are coming from the poorest part of Mexico to contribute to the economy. Working in these assembly plants they are part of the global economy, yet their own security is in danger and for years the authorities did nothing; no one was ever prosecuted, When I spoke to the mothers [of these women], they constantly said 'no one listens to us, we don't count.' When the mothers were able to organize with our support, and the support of many others, pressure was put on the government and they appointed a federal investigator and brought in forensic experts from Argentina. Now the women of Juarez are well organized and although problems continue to some extent, at least the mothers feel that they are in more control of the situation.

What would you call that --the right to self -advocate?

I would call it the right to dignity. It empowers people to feel they are in charge of own their own destiny.

The concept of human rights itself is quite modern. I hadn't realized that before the Universal Declaration in 1948 they were rarely considered.

The term 'human rights' is relatively new, but the values and concept are actually age-old because it's about justice and equality. It's about treating people with dignity. These concepts go back a long time and history has shown that when those principles are promoted you get stable society, you get progress. But so often poverty is about powerlessness and not being able to control your destiny.

So empower people to control their destiny and you can end poverty?

Just think about people who lose their jobs -- they are not in control. You have evictions, no access to health care, and those are the kind of things that actually drive you into poverty. Once you are driven to poverty , it's very difficult to get out of it unless you are actually given access to certain basic rights and you are able to actually participate in decisions being made about what will happen in your local economy, in your village, or your town.

What you say about dignity really resonates when I think of the newly homeless families I've met here in the U.S. That one word "dignity" kept coming up as something they wanted more than any material item.

You see that with people living in terrible physical condition but they want to put their best face forward. They want to be treated with respect --that's very important, that's part of being human and very often poverty denies people dignity. I was in Kenya (,) in the slums in Kibera , and we did a campaign there to ensure that people have due process prior to evictions. I met a woman who was suffering from AIDS and, when she came back from the hospital where she went for treatment, the landlord had just thrown her out. When I went to see her, she was very ill but she got dressed and came out and sat in a chair with me because she did not want to be treated with pity. She was running a small tea store in the slum before she fell ill and taking care of two children, and she was proud of what she was able to achieve, and she didn't want that taken from her. In the end, she had no home,she was living with a neighbor, she was very ill but, even then, her sense of dignity was very strong.

Somehow policy seems to have fallen in the zero-sum trap: economic development and human rights are being treated as an either-or proposition. How can we work around that?

You achieve better development results when you inject human rights into the process so when people participate in development projects they tend to have better results. The ultimate aim is to bring out the best -- to allow people to develop their own potential --and that is about freedom. What I say is not new: Amartya Sen who won the Nobel Prize for economics, he was the first to say it. So these ideas are out there and yet it doesn't happen; so what I'm trying to answer in my book is the question of why these things don't happen. What is stopping us from doing development the smart way as well as the right way?

So what is stopping us?

First is the notion that authoritarianism is the best way to development and in some countries like China they will say, first let's address economic rights and social rights then we will have civil and political rights. In reality, if poverty is about all kinds of human rights abuses, and if it's about discrimination as well deprivation, then you can't have one first and then the other later. You must approach this holistically.

As you say, there is nothing to show the economy is strong because it oppressed human rights. There is no correlation between the two. Right, and, secondly, there is the argument that economic and social rights are not human rights. A very heavy price is being paid in the economic development process in China, or instance, but, because it's an undemocratic society, they won't talk about it. In fact , this idea that economic and social rights are not "real" rights is playing out in the United State right now. Is health care a human right or not? Is it a privilege? Is it a commodity to be sold in the market? Is it a need you fulfill out of charity, or is it a right? I say they are rights because when they become rights they have an empowering effect on people. People can hold governments to account and get a remedy. Irene Kahn's latest book is called The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights To get involved with Amnesty International go to their website More information on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be found here.