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UN Takes on Issue of Poverty for Human Rights Day

In 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since that day, December 10 has marked World Human Rights Day. This year, the United Nations is focusing on fighting poverty as a human right.

Early morning in Monrovia, Liberia and Shadrock prepares to go to work. Shadrock is one of almost three billion people around the world the United Nations estimates lives on less than two U.S. dollars a day. Like many in this war-torn West African country, he did not have enough money to finish school and now works as a wheelbarrow pusher carrying goods around the city.

"They don't have money to send me to school. So, then I decided to do the work, to get my pay, my daily bread and find food for my children for the day."

Shadrock is barely able to support his family on his meager wages. It is a cycle of poverty that is difficult to break. A cycle the United Nations and other organizations are working to change by redefining poverty as a human rights issue.

Daniel Bradlow is Director of the International Legal Studies Program at the American University in Washington D.C. He says the human rights message must be clear. "I think putting the debate about poverty in human rights terms sends a very powerful message to governments. And as I said before, it should begin to shape their view of what their responsibilities are in terms of the policies they have, the way they spend their budgets, they are accountable to having to deliver certain things to their citizens like health care, education, housing, jobs."

The premise of the argument starts with redefining poverty as a cause and result of human rights violations. When people are denied their rights, through persecution or discrimination, they are more likely to be poor.

Michael Shifter is Vice President for Policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Latin American policy institute in Washington D.C. He offers his perspective. "I think that human rights violations lead to poverty and I think it is a source -- it works both ways. I think that human rights violations clearly are designed by people with power to repress and suppress people without power. And that condition leads to increased poverty."

Daniel Bradlow says repression and poverty often lead to some of the world most destructive problems like hostility and war. And war in turn creates even more poverty. According to United Nations statistics, 80 percent of the world's 20 poorest countries have had a major war in the last 15 years. And after hostilities cease, about half of those countries relapse into war within five years.

"I think poverty is in one sense a cause of conflict and insecurity," says Bradlow. "In countries where there is a great deal of poverty, they are more likely to see conflict as people struggle over the limited amount of resources that are available to them. But also conflict causes poverty because in situations with serious social conflict, the opportunity focus on dealing with questions of poverty are so much less. And so people are more likely to fall into poverty just because society is not really focused on dealing with their needs"

According to Michael Shifter, the solution to a better life for people like Shadrock is to press governments to make social and economic issues a human right and a priority, just as political and civil rights have been made a priority around the world. "I think it adds a lot of force and a lot of pressure to get people to take responsibility for people who are denied food, denied housing, denied education, denied basic rights. I think it is a way to frame the poverty issue that will give it a lot more power and a lot more pressure to bring about some, effective response."