Monday, June 08, 2009

Does a human rights violation require a violator? 

Bill Easterly says so.
The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator. That is what historically has led to progress on human rights. The government officers of the slave-owning antebellum US and the slave-owners were violating the rights of slaves � leading to activism against such violators that eventually yielded the Emancipation Proclamation. The local southern government officers were violating the civil rights of southern blacks under Jim Crow, leading to activism against these violators that yielded the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The apartheid government officers in South Africa violated the rights of black South Africans, and activism against these violators brought the end of apartheid.

Poverty does not fit this definition of rights. Who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income? There are many theories of poverty, but few of them lead to a clear identification of the Violator of this right. Moreover, human rights are a clear dichotomy � someone violates your rights or they do not. But the line between poor and not-poor is arbitrary � it is different in different countries, and on a global scale, many still argue what is the right dividing line that constitutes poverty. So calling poverty a �human rights violation� does not point to any concrete actions that the �violator� must stop in order to restore rights to the �violated.�
Easterly gives Amnesty International a chance to respond. Their response concludes:
Human rights abuses cause poverty and keep people poor � and living in poverty makes you more likely to suffer violations of your human rights. So human rights must be part of any solution to poverty.
We argue in many places that poverty results from a lack of property rights (see here for example.) Would one expand the term human rights to include the right to use, exclude, and exchange private property as a human right? I'm going to guess Amnesty won't go that far. But if you increase the security of someone's private property rights, you may get both an increase in economic growth (which usually decreases poverty) and a reduction in human rights violations. So it was argued by Bagus [2008] and Cheneval [n.d.].

So who violates property rights? Governments, which at one time human rights groups fought to allow the poor to keep their land. (For the U.S. roots of this, see the discussion in Nedelsky [1994].)

UPDATE: Chris Blattman comes down on the same side.

Labels: ,