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Basic goods as basic rights

If we were to try summarizing the many statements on human rights within the United Nations system, it might be as follows: basic goods are basic rights. True, there was an old approach to human rights that focused exclusively on “negative” political rights and cast doubt on “positive” subsistence rights. For example, it has been argued that we should not focus on economic or social rights because this would distract attention from political rights. This distinction, however, was forcibly shown to be illogical by political philosopher Henry Shue in his book Basic Rights (Princeton University Press, 1997).

As demonstrated by Shue, and as common sense suggests, even “negative” political rights require positive action in the form of the provision of human security services, legal services, and judicial services. Further, it is impossible for individuals to effectively exercise political rights when severely deprived of subsistence goods. Starkly put, there are no functioning political rights for the prematurely dead.

Shue defined basic rights as those rights that must be fulfilled so that other rights can be enjoyed. So being able to escape severe but preventable disease would be a basic right in that it would preclude the individual with the disease from effectively exercising his or her rights. Shue included both security rights and subsistence rights as two central categories of basic rights. Importantly, these two categories mirror “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want” that underpin the emerging notion of human security. The bottom line is that basic rights exist and require positive action for their fulfillment.

Basic rights are fulfilled (and human security provided) through the provision of basic goods, those goods and services that meet objective human needs. Basic goods include nutritious food, clean water, sanitation, health services, education services, housing, electricity, and human security services. Since basic good deprivations can have dramatic impacts on the well-being of those disadvantaged, such deprivations are violations of basic rights. As it turns out, however, basic goods deprivations are globally widespread.

Basic goods include nutritious food, clean water, sanitation, health services, education services, housing, electricity, and human security services.
  • Approximately 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger in the sense that they are not well nourished enough for an active life.
  •  More than 700 million people do not have access to an improved drinking-water source.
  • Approximately 2.4 billion individuals do not have access to clean and safe toilets, and nearly 1 billon individuals practice open defecation.
  • Approximately 6 million infants and children die each year, largely due to preventable causes.
  • Approximately 250 million of the 650 primary school-age children have not mastered basic literacy and numeracy, and there are more than 750 million illiterate adults.
  • A much-quoted but unverifiable statistic is that at least 1 billion people lack access to adequate housing, with approximately 100 million of these being homeless.
  • Approximately 1.1 billion people live without access to electricity.
  • Half a million people die each year as a result of armed violence.

The imperative to address these deprivations has strong support within existing human rights language. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights addresses basic goods provision in Articles 25 and 26 on standards of living, and these considerations are reiterated in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Added to these was the 2010 United Nations General Assembly Resolution on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation.

Identification of these violations of basic rights does not automatically lead to their rectification. Indeed, as stated by Henry Shue, “A proclamation may or may not be an initial step toward the fulfillment of the rights listed. It is frequently the substitute of the promise in the place of the fulfillment.” Actual fulfillment of basic rights requires provision, but the provision processes involved are often ignored in philosophical considerations, or largely assumed away by technological optimists. But ensuring basic rights requires that we delve into the sticky basic goods provision issues on a case-by-case basis.

Such careful consideration offers few rules-of-thumb. While in some cases, we can rely on bottom-of-the-pyramid, private provision, in others, the involvement of government in conditional cash transfer systems are critical. Sometimes technological change is important, as in the case of small-scale solar photovoltaics, lithium-ion batteries, and LED lighting. In other cases such as sanitation, technology does not seem to be the hold-up. This messiness is unavoidable.

To reiterate, basic goods are basic rights. Fulfilling these rights is one of the most important policy goals for global development policy. Existing language within the United Nations system supports this goal. Fulfillment of the goal requires careful thought and commitment to approaching development policy with fresh eyes, as well as a keen focus on critical provisioning processes and the economic, political, and technological constraints holding them back.

Featured image credit: Kids water by Abigail Keenan. Public domain via Unsplash.  

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