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MDGs Donít Recognise Role of Human Rights in Poverty Fight: Irene Khan PDF Print E-mail

© Neena Bhandari, Inter Press Service

ImageSYDNEY, Nov 23 (IPS) - As the number of people living in poverty swell to over two billion, Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan makes a strong argument for human rights to be made central to development and eradication of poverty.

In her book, ‘The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights’, she reveals through personal reflection and case studies why poverty is the worst form of human rights abuse: One billion people live in slums, one woman dies every minute in childbirth, 2.5 billion people have no access to adequate sanitation services, at least 963 million people go to bed hungry every night, and 20,000 children die a day from hunger. 

Khan, who was in Australia last week and visited the Utopia Homelands in central Australia—a group of aboriginal communities comprising an estimated 45,000 population—drove home the crucial link between poverty and human rights when she called attention to the indigenous people’s dire living conditions in one of the world’s most developed countries.

"For a country which, by human development standards, is the third most developed in the world and one which has emerged from the global financial crisis comparatively unscathed, such a level of poverty is inexcusable, unexpected and unacceptable," she said.

Khan, who is also the first woman and Asian to head the world’s largest human rights organisation for the past eight years, debunks the idea that freedom of market, economic growth, more aid and investment is the panacea for everything.

A graduate of Harvard Law School and winner of several prestigious awards, including the 2006 Sydney Peace Prize, Khan hopes the debate on poverty will also focus on fighting deprivation, exclusion, insecurity and powerlessness.

IPS: In your view economic solutions alone cannot fully address the problem of poverty. Do we need to change the way we view poverty and formulate policies to tackle poverty?

IRENE KHAN: We see that discrimination, insecurity and voicelessness, the powerlessness of the poor as well as deprivation from basic needs play a very big part in keeping people poor. These issues—deprivation, discrimination, insecurity and voicelessness—are human rights problems and therefore you need a human rights strategy to tackle poverty.

IPS: You have provided a critique of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in your book. Worldwide, the number of people living in extreme poverty this year is now estimated to be 55 to 90 million, higher than was forecast before the recession. Will denying human rights pose a significant barrier to achieving MDGs?

IK: The Millennium Development Goals have some advantages. They are focused. They allow entire international communities to work together and address some of the key development problems.

However, the weakness of the MDGs is that they don’t recognise that rights play a part in getting people out of poverty. So the MDGs don’t deal with discrimination, gender violence and participation of people in the development process. These are key issues that need to be tackled if we are to address poverty.

If you look at the MDGs, they are failing. Governments are failing; countries are failing to achieve the goals that have been set. One reason, not the only reason, why they are failing is their failure to address the human rights issue. Yes, Amnesty International believes that the MDGs need to be made more effective by incorporating the human rights approach. It’s the how, the Goals tell you what, but it doesn’t tell you how and human rights provide the how.

IPS: In the book you relate various instances of how, when poor people have no voice, they are excluded and unable to demand even the basic rights due to them. Are states failing the poor?

IK: What I am saying in the book is that you need to have respect for economic, social and cultural rights, but also need to have respect for civil and political rights if you are going to eradicate poverty. To that extent you do need a government that is ready to be held accountable; you do need a transparent system of governance, and you do need space in which people can participate for an effective poverty eradication strategy.

IPS: What is the goal of your book coming at a juncture when there are many more poor people even in the developed countries following the global financial crisis?

IK: The purpose of this book is to change the debate on poverty, to insert a human rights dimension in the poverty debate and to make the point that economics is not the only factor that needs to be taken into account in either defining poverty or resolving it.

IPS: Seventy percent of the world’s poor are women. The United Nations Population Fund report released a few days ago has said poor women bear the climate burden and have been worst hit and overlooked in the climate debate. Coming to another issue very close to your heart is that of maternal mortality. How do you think the world should address this major problem?

IK: The tragedy is that the figures of maternal deaths globally have not shifted since the early 1990s. For almost two decades there has been very little progress, and that is the tragedy. Half a million women die in the prime of their life giving birth, and that is not a disease. And when a woman dies, the impact on the family is enormous.

The problem again why it has been so difficult to address maternal mortality is because it is very closely linked to the social status of women, to the secondary status of women in many situations and inability of women to access maternal health care.

Health systems have to take into account the views of women. It has to be culturally sensitive. It has to be where the women are, especially in rural areas you need to provide birth attendants, specialist emergency obstetrics care. And finally, there has to be accountability. Women have to be able to hold decision makers accountable for the provisions of health care.

IPS: You recently visited an Aboriginal town ironically named Utopia in the Northern Territory of Australia. Were you shocked to see people living in Third World conditions in a First World country? What should Australia and other countries be doing for their indigenous populations?

IK: Yes, I was shocked because there is no reason for people to be living in those kinds of conditions. It is a rich country with resources and opportunities and therefore people should not have to live like that.

Well, the Australian Government has put forward plans like 'Bridging the Gap’. There are a lot of resources available there. The Minister (for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin) has described all the measures that have been taken there, but the key factor on which there needs to be more focus is these people and communities itself have to be involved in designing these projects.

IPS: Do you think today’s media is fair and unbiased in highlighting the cause of the poor or do you think in a way it has compounded their misery?

IK: I think the problem with the media is that good news is not news and therefore when there are success stories about how communities managed to improve their situation—that is not reported in the media.

The other issue is that media tends to look for sensational stories, so there is a tendency to sensationalise things, and in some cases some populist media also seem to demonise poor people or minorities and therefore entrench the prejudice that exist, particularly in societies where there is a history of injustice.

IPS: Your book has a compelling title, ‘The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights’? What does ‘Unheard Truth’ signify?

IK: The truth is that empowerment of people, respect for human right, is the way to overcoming poverty. That is the truth, but it is not being heard. Experience shows that when you respect people’s rights, when you empower people and they are able to stand up and claim their rights, that is where the success stories are.

That truth is not being heard and their voices are not being heard.
 

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any www.india-voice.com content is expressly prohibited without  the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated. 

 
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