Economic Rights & Human Rights

by Nathan Hamm on 4/26/2007 · 2 comments

ChorsuCommenting on Mark Seidenfeld’s case in Kazakhstan, Bonnie Boyd wrote the following:

Just as human rights watchers note the harassment of independent journalists, they should take note of the harassment of other aspects of media service provision—and this includes the harassment of businessmen and entrepreneurs in telecommunications, publishing, and electronics.

I think that can be extended quite a bit. As human rights watchers note and publicize cases of political and religious persecution, they should do the same for economic issues, advocating for economic freedoms. After all, issues of economic freedom have much broader relevance to and resonance with the populations of developing countries. As far as I am concerned, barriers to economic exchange, sudden seizures of assets, and a neo-feudalist agricultural system that shackles farmers to land they cannot own are some of the bigger human rights issues in Uzbekistan. Elsewhere in the region, the ability of elites to manipulate judicial processes to freeze out or punish competitors is a similarly important human rights issue.

We even have an international convention that addresses some of these issues, but it seems that, at least as far as Central Asia is concerned, very little attention is paid by human rights watchers to economic issues. Seems to me that there should be quite a bit more.

UPDATE: This story seems to reinforce my point.

Photo from night_eulen.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Brian April 27, 2007 at 9:06 am

I totally agree that economic rights and prosperity are just as important as political rights, however I’m not sure that human rights organizations should address all of these issues for fear of diluting their message. I know that Amnesty International has come under some grief lately for taking on economics as well as politics, thus making issue with the large income distributions in countries like America and Brazil, for example.
No doubt the millions of poor people around the world are a massive issue, but should a organization like Amnesty really advocate, for instance, a more progressive tax code, bigger welfare payments, or better schools to help poor inner city kids? That’s something that may definitely be worth advocating, but by other types of organizations, imho.

Nathan April 27, 2007 at 9:41 am

I think they absolutely should not be advocating those kinds of things. But that’s because I don’t think those are fundamental human rights issues so much as they are ones of fairness. We have, for example, a progressive tax code, a welfare system, and universal education. When you start getting down to saying that the tax code isn’t progressive enough, the welfare system is not generous enough, and education in urban school systems is not good enough and try to make the case that those are human rights issues, you run into a tricky problem of definitions. Where’s the line that divides simple unfairness from being a human rights issue? It also seems to me to be defining down human rights in such a way that ends up diluting and somewhat discrediting the concept altogether.

I’m a fan of the K.I.S.S. philosophy, and I don’t think any advocacy for universal economic rights needs to get into policy specifics or any shades of gray. It can stick with basics such as rights of property ownership, protection from arbitrary and uncompensated seizure of property, a right to have contracts respected… The language should, I think, be very basic and focused on the individual (nothing about lowering trade barriers or barring protectionism, for example).

I don’t see much of a problem with human rights organizations communicating such a basic message. However, I don’t see the big ones doing it. As I’m sure I’ve said many times before, I think nonprofits/NGOs are businesses that sell things like for-profits, at least as the funding side is concerned. What they sell is the feeling that one is a good person who is making a difference by making a donation. Taking a look at HRW’s donors (PDF, page 62), I don’t see them getting too fired up in support of basic economic rights. It’s nowhere near as dramatic as torture or freedom of the press.

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