The Impact of Poverty and Starvation on Human Rights

On December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by fifty-six members of the United Nations. The vote was unanimous, although eight nations chose to abstain (not vote).

At the time, the most powerful countries in the world was the members of the alliance that won World War II. It would take another sixty-three years for the rest of the world (minus three) to join and reach 193 countries. That means in 1948, twenty-nine percent of the world’s countries decided what human rights was.

Although Nationalist China was one of the original fifty-one members of the UN in 1945, Communist China (established in 1949 after the end of the Chinese Civil War) didn’t become a member until October 25, 1971, when the UN General Assembly expelled the Republic of China (Taiwan), and admitted the People’s Republic of China as one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. – Growth in United Nations membership, 1945-present

The five most powerful countries are on the U.N. Security Council: China, Russia, France, United Kingdom, and the United States. They are also the five most powerful countries that worked together to defeat Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II.  Six of the eight that abstained and did not vote were members of the Soviet Union’s Communist Bloc in Eastern Europe.

Merriam-Webster defines human rights as: “rights (such as freedom from unlawful imprisonment, torture, and execution) regarded as belonging fundamentally to all persons.”

When I read A Different Turning Point for Mankind by G. W. Bowersock in the May 9, 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books, I had one of those “Aha!” moments while I was reading about the history of several different cultural philosophies and ideologies.

For millennia, the major cultural influences on the planet have been: Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian, Chinese, Hindu, Islamic, and Buddhist.

But the concept of human rights that dominates the planet today has its roots from ancient Greece and Rome, not China, Africa, India, or the Middle East.


China focused on poverty reduction first over human rights. After all, what good are human rights if you are poor and starving?

This Western, Greek-Roman concept of human rights that evolved over a period of centuries to dominate the planet today came about due to the fire and brimstone of the colonial era of the 18th and 19th centuries where European countries such as Spain, England, France, Germany, Portugal and Italy ruled, often brutally, over most of the planet as colonial powers. Later the United States joined in building its own global empire once again based on a Greek-Roman, Christian foundation.

When Western citizens criticize China or Asia, the Middle East, or Africa for human rights violations, these cultures are not being judged by their own perception of what human rights might mean. Instead, the West, especially the United States, is forcing its beliefs on those cultures.

In the West, human rights are based on the ideology of the self that emphasizes autonomy, but this is not relevant to a Confucian based society that stresses the primacy of community and the person’s obligation to others. – University of Illinois Press

And for the Islamic Middle East, Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im says, “Shari’ah, which is the historical foundations of Islamic law, directly affects the millions of Muslims around the world. Because of its moral and religious authority, it has great influence on the status of human rights for Muslim countries.”

Words for thought: are claims of human rights violations outside of Western countries based on the status of human beings as individuals or as a member of a community or group of people, because traditional cultures do not always view the individual as an autonomous being possessed of rights above society? – Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center

In addition, hunger and poverty also influence the concept and evolution of human rights. “The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that nearly 870 million people, or one in eight people in the world, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012. Almost all the hungry people, 852 million, live in developing countries, representing fifteen percent of the population of developing counties.” – World Hunger.org

If you were one of the almost one billion people around the world suffering from chronic undernourishment (starving), would you be sitting around debating freedom of expression, religion, democracy, and equal pay for men and women? If you have never experienced living in a so-called democracy, how can you be expected to understand what that’s like?

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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