With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, human rights have become a cross cutting issue, at a time when respect for human rights is more and more regarded as a vital aspect of development – some even argue, that it is a necessary requirement for development sustainability.
However, in practice, there is divergence on the primacy of some human rights principles over others. For example, when advising governments and experts from the Global South, Western democracies tend to argue that freedom of expression, assembly and conscience are fundamental human rights. They underscore that such rights underpin most other rights and allow them to flourish.
Using the case of Rwanda and agreeing that individual freedom, or human rights in general, are an intrinsic aspect of development, I would argue that, since poverty is so widespread that it has seriously hindered the fulfillment and enjoyment of human rights in many parts of the world, reducing and eliminating it is a major element of human rights protection.
Amartya Sen’s work, which offers a succinct theoretical discussion of the relationship between development and human rights, presents development as the progressive expansion of individual freedoms, which includes the elimination of economic deprivation, as well as requiring an individual’s voice in the political decision-making process and in development itself.
In my view, that’s what human rights should be about. In other words, development is the realisation of basic freedoms, such as the choice to meet bodily requirements, escape preventable disease, access enabling opportunities, such as schooling, equality guarantees etc. From that perspective, human rights and human development share a preoccupation with necessary outcomes for improving people’s lives, but also with better processes.
Poverty eradication is central to those processes firstly because, being generally understood as the result of disempowerment and exclusion, poverty is not only a lack of material goods and opportunities, such as employment, ownership of productive assets and savings, but the lack of physical and social goods, such as health, physical integrity, freedom from fear and violence, social belonging, cultural identity, organisational capacity, the ability to exert political influence, and the ability to live a life with respect and dignity.
Human rights violations are both a cause and a consequence of poverty. Poverty limits the capacity of individuals to exercise their freedom, to enjoy their most fundamental rights, to live in dignity, and to take their place fully in society. How, for example, can one enjoy the right to free expression or the right to vote when one goes to bed on empty stomach, or can neither read nor write? How can one enjoy any rights when one is condemned to die before the age of five? How can one enjoy the right to shelter, to health, to work, etc., when one has no home?
Over the past two decades, the Government of Rwanda has been committed to a development concept that puts people’s rights to development first. Rwanda has endeavored to guarantee and improve people’s well-being, and developed a full range of social economic undertakings. These are in order to ensure that the results of development benefit all the people, helps those striving to escape poverty and improve the quality of their lives, and ensure that all enjoy the rights to equal participation.
The MDGs were adopted in 2000 while Rwanda was still battling the devastating effects of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, and trying to cope with an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and human deficit. In its Vision 2020, meeting the social, economic, and health needs of the people emerged as a major priority that would have a great impact on economic development and start to lift people out of poverty.
Rwanda’s poverty reduction actions are broad; they include building rural and agricultural infrastructure, helping increase the incomes of impoverished population, and providing public services such as social security and health care, education services and employment opportunities for youth, while safeguarding the economic, social and cultural rights of those living in poverty. These measures have created conditions for the protection of other human rights.
The just adopted transformational 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that places people at the centre is in line with Rwanda Vision 2020 and the new National Strategy for Transformation, which articulates key enablers that would drive social economic development. The overarching goal for the Social Transformation Pillar is to Develop Rwandans into a capable and skilled people with quality standards of living and a stable and secure society. This pillar has five broad objectives: Move towards a Poverty Free Rwanda, ensure a Quality Healthy Population, Develop a Competitive and Capable Rwandan Population, Ensure Quality of Education for All aiming at building a knowledge-based economy, Transition to a Modern Rwandan Household in urban and rural areas
Rwanda believes that empowering its people by maximising their capabilities gives them opportunities to become productive citizens and enables them to lead a dignified life, while participating in their own development. In light of the above, Rwanda has strengthened governance, political and economic systems that are grounded in the Human Rights framework, integrity and accountability in use of public resources and service delivery, as well as inclusiveness and investment in human development. In Part 2, I will outline some of the national programmes that are important to tackle inequities, and allow social development and human rights to thrive.
The writer is the Secretary General of the National Commission for Human Rights
The views expressed in this article are of the author.