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Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

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"Poverty and Human Rights"

Statement by Shri Inder Kumar Gujral, MP and Former Prime Minister of India at the symposium to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the universal declaration of human rights at Lille, France 14th November 1998.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for giving me the floor. I deem it a great privilege to address such a distinguished audience. We are gathered here to commemorate the Fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a landmark occasion and it is entirely appropriate that we should be meeting in France, the very cradle of democracy, and the birth place of human rights and representative government.

The French revolution brought to the world a simple yet powerful idea - that every human being, however, humble or weak he may appear to be, is born with an equal, essential and inviolate dignity that no one else, neither Church nor State, had the right to trample or alienate. This idea, once it took root, would propel the world forward, lifting it from the backwaters of feudalism to an enlightened age of democracy, the modern Republic and the nation state.

We in India have been keen students of the Revolution and the subsequent growth of democratic institutions in France. Our Parliamentary traditions bear the influence of the history and philosophy of France. When we established our constitutional system, our founding fathers took inspiration from your democratic traditions. We recognize that one of the greatest landmarks in the evolution of modern politics was the adoption by the French National Assembly, in August 1789, of the Declaration of Human and Citizens Rights. May I take this opportunity to solemnly pay tribute to the French people for their contribution to the political wisdom of the entire world?

The fifty years that have elapsed since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have seen the end of colonialism and the overthrow of segregation and apartheid. Racial discrimination has faded and democracy has found firm roots. The message of France of some 200 years ago is truly a part and parcel of every day life, throughout the world today.

India has been in the forefront of the human rights revolution. Those of you who are familiar with contemporary Indian history will know that India’s struggle against colonial domination was an integral part of a broader social reform movement aimed at providing dignity and social justice to India’s oppressed and dispossessed communities. Mahatama Gandhi who was the guiding light of the freedom movement, would ensure that this struggle was as much externally directed against alien rule, as it was an internally directed social reform movement aimed at ridding Indian society of its deep divisions and the inhuman treatment of its weaker members, in particular the oppression of its womenfolk and the so called ‘untouchable’ castes. To overthrow the external tyranny, all these internal tyrannies would have to be overthrown as well, Mahatma Gandhi truly believed. It was the power of this idealism that eventually prevailed and won India her freedom.

Given this history it was but natural that India fully joined in the spirit of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights which envisages the enjoyment by all peoples of civil and political liberties, hand in hand with social, cultural and economic rights. The Indian delegate at these deliberations was Dr. Hansa Mehta, a noted Gandhian who played a vital role in the formulation of the Declaration. The Constitution of Independent India was being drafted at the time the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, and it reflects most of the thirty rights recognized in the Declaration, either as justiciable fundamental rights or as Directive Principles of State policy.

India, as the largest democracy in the world, cannot but remain in the vanguard of the human rights movement. We have a proud record of affirmative action in favour of the depressed sections of society. Although we have the largest number of poverty afflicted people in the world, we have made steady strides in reducing the incidence of poverty which today is in the region of 35% - an all time low. Together with the poor, women too are being given their rightful recognition and due. The size of the Indian electorate today exceeds 500 million voters, or more than the entire population of Europe. At the grassroots level there are 250,000 democratically locally elected local bodies or Panchayats, manned by over 3 million elected representatives, one third of whom, by statutory provision, today are women, whose role in public life is being steadily enlarged through affirmative state action.

Mr. Chairman

Ladies and gentlemen,

The theme before us today relates to poverty and human rights. It is quite clear that poverty represents the negation of human rights as poverty is the denial of choice and opportunity in ones life. Poverty can directly infringe on basic human rights such as the right to life and liberty. Moreover, if human rights are vitally linked, as indeed they are, to a just and humane society, then poverty which constitutes a negation of human rights is indicative of injustice and social regression.

What I find to be a matter of great alarm is the manner in which poverty is spreading in areas that had supposedly conquered poverty. Just last month I had the opportunity to visit to East Asia and participate in the UNDP regional millennium meeting which focussed on the challenges of the coming century. As I travelled in the region I was distressed to see how the current economic recession - perhaps depression would be a better word - has sapped peoples morale and undermined the vitality of the region. The Asia of the growing middle classes and the noveau riche, had given way to the entirely new phenomenon of the ‘noveau poor’ and the Asian success story had been reduced to a vulnerable and endangered dream.

Korea, for example, had always been admired and envied around the world for its stunning economic performance which saw a hungry, war ravaged nation transform itself, in little over a generation, into a full fledged industrialized state. Few of us could believe that South Korea, just recently admitted into the OECD, with its huge GDP of US$ 480 billion, and matching foreign exchange reserves, would be vulnerable to any such economic collapse. But the sheer force of the economic contagion was such that in the closing months of 1997, the Government of Korea was compelled, much against its will, into becoming a ward of the IMF. The economic policies that Korea has since been forced to adopt have led to a deep recession that has practically destroyed the lives and livelihoods of many thousands of small businessmen, shopkeepers and skilled workers, throwing these people without any warning out of the security of middle class existence into the helplessness of poverty.

After Korea and Thailand, the virus spread to East and South East Asia with Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Phillipines most severely affected, by an unstoppable, domino like collapse. Fortunately, India and the South Asian region have remained relatively insulated from this malaise. On the other hand, the Indonesian economy is likely to contract by 16% this year - this is an unprecedented economic meltdown and one which will inevitably leave deep and unhappy scars on Indonesia’s socio economic fabric. It is only now, late in 1998, that the first welcome signs of stabilization on Asia’s economic front are seen, but even so, no significant economic recovery is visualized until the latter half of 1999 or the year 2000.

This economic collapse is most starkly symbolized by the reemergence of the first visible signs of hunger and malnutrition seen in Asia after a long time. One of the proudest of Asia’s achievements was the Green revolution that had abolished food shortages from all but the poorest and least developed of Asia’s regions. This year however pictures of gaunt and hungry faced rummaging through rubbish heaps, foraging for food have emerged even from middle income countries such as Korea and Indonesia. The prospect of Asia leading the world into the new millenium had even given way to talk of an Asia led, worldwide economic depression.

What I found most disturbing is that the downturn and the pessimism that it has generated has caused many in Asia to lose faith in themselves. In the panic of the moment, there is a stampede to sell off national assets and blindly embrace the standard, cure all prescriptions on offer by the world’s multilateral financing institutions. Policies and principles which had been held for decades are being discarded in a rush to adhere to the orthodoxy of the financial institutions, at a time when the prescriptions of these institutions is the subject of increasing debate and criticism in Western academic circles. Noted economists such Jeffrey Sachs, amongst others have consistently argued that the policies mechanically prescribed by the multilateral lending agencies in the face of this crisis have unduly favoured he lenders, while worsening the economic difficulties facing the borrower nation.

Why had all of this happened?

The answer I think has to do with the fact that we are losing sight of the ethical and moral aspect of development. The quest for human rights that originated in France some 200 years ago was not a technical demand for a particular type of social, legal or economic system. It was at its core a demand for a just and egalitarian society, free from all the burdens of rank and estate. The underlying roots of natural justice would nourish the revolution, giving it the strength and sustenance it needed for transforming the world. Today unfortunately we are losing sight of these roots, the basic raison d’etre of human motivation, which seeks justice and self fulfillment.

The economic crises that countries in Asia and elsewhere have had to face forced them to abandon long held national priorities and policies in order to blindly follow the orthodoxy handed down by the multilateral lending institutions. The Asian crisis, following upon the collapse of communism, has reinforced the perception that there is only one path of successful economic development which is the western liberal model as prescribed by the neo classical theoreticians of the Chicago school who tell you that a social optimum will be reached from market behaviour, and that individual selfishness, however, narrowly focussed on greedily obsessive it may appear to be will be guided by an invisible but fortunately benevolent hand to join the bountiful mainstream of the common good.

I, for one, do not subscribe to this orthodoxy for it is one that I have seen negated in the larger sweep of human history. There is never, as I have said earlier, just one path to salvation. Even in economics there are alternatives. We have on the one hand what one may call the Christian capitalism of caring, of compassion, of concern; a capitalism that treats its workers, customers and clients with dignity and co-opts them in a broad, cooperative endeavour. There is another capitalism that builds, not together with workers and customers, but upon them. It is this predatory capitalism of extortion, of exploitation, of expropriation that most Third world countries have been exposed to for centuries, and we have seen that it leads nowhere. It is this self devouring capitalism that the world as a whole may lose itself to, unless it finds the means to retaining its broad, inclusive vision and longer term orientation.

We have to build upon the foundation of human dignity to stress approaches that address the poorest, most marginalised sections of society and accommodate the last man. In this context, I would like to outline five principles which I think would be vital for the advancement of mankind in the coming millennium.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that most valuable resources of any society are its people. Natural resources, be they the gold and silver or the oil and iron that lies beneath its soil are not so relevant, but the skills and talents, the industry and enterprise of its people are vital for any society. Under development represents a colossal waste of human talents which diminishes the collective capability of mankind and impoverishes the world as a whole. Seen in this light, the poor and dispossessed of the world should be regarded not as a burden on the wider society but as an unutilised resource whose dormant energies can be released to invigorate the global economy as a whole.

Secondly, developing countries sorely require greater opportunity to promote human development through improved social services in sectors such as education, healthcare, vocational skills, higher education, etc. Prominent economists, including this year’s Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and the late Mahbub ul Haq have analyzed how this focus on human development offers both immediate and long term benefits. Such Human Development calls for more effective governmental intervention in the social sector which can be greatly assisted by a climate of international support and encouragement.

Thirdly, not enough has been done to break down the barriers that divide man from man and society from society. Trade is a powerful vehicle for the spread of knowledge, understanding and shared economic benefits. The United Nations Development Yearly Reports emphasize how "poor countries can leapfrog several decades of development if they combine their low wages, with basic education, technical skills and export-led growth, taking advantage of the rapidly opening global markets." I have no doubt that the developing countries would be more willing participants in the globalisation process if they were convinced that the process would be equitable and fair. This requires that the industrialised countries provide liberal access to the products of the developing world in their markets, particularly for textile and agricultural products, and facilitate technology transfer and exchanges.

Fourthly, the least developed countries need to be provided more assistance by way of aid and debt relief. Continued initiatives in this area are essential if we are to mitigate the worst effects of poverty, environmental degradation and health and epidemiological risks.

Finally, the concept of a democratic world community must be promoted at the level of all inter-governmental agencies and bodies. We will be failing in our task in promoting democracy and human rights at the national level if we overlook these aspects at the global level. There is, in this light great need to reform global structures and agencies such as United Nations Security Council, the World bank and the IMF to make them truly representative and responsive to the wider world community.

We are belatedly realizing that the most important challenge in the coming decades is to focus on the human development factors. Global economic approaches and thinking which ignores this factor risks its relevance. This year’s Nobel prize for Economics has gone to Dr. Amartya Sen who together with the late Mahboob-ul-Haq inspired the UNDP Human Development Reports. They have devoted their lives to argue that there is more to economic growth and change, than merely economic statistics at the macro level. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to these two stalwarts and to express the hope that their ideas will guide the emerging economic edifice of the 21st century.

In today’s world globalisation is accepted, and indeed it is a reality. But I do not believe that the world has yet fully understood how to cope with all the consequences of globalisation. The world may have shrunk to become a village for international financial players, but national priorities have not become uniform or homogenous. Consumption may have grown at an unprecedented pace in this century but, as the latest Human Development report says this growth has not yet yielded the needed benefits. I am tempted here to quote from this report for its simply stated truths.

"Poor people and poor countries need to accelerate the growth of their consumption, but they need not follow the path trodden by the rich and high-growth economies. Production techniques can be made more environmentally friendly. Environmental damage can be reversed. The global burden of reducing environmental damage and underdevelopment can be shared more equitably. And patterns of consumption that harm society and reinforce inequalities and poverty can be changed. Above all, we must make a determined effort to eradicate poverty and expand the consumption of the more than one billion desperately poor people who have been left out of the global growth in consumption."

There is also a problem created by the sheer mobility of finance. Trillions of dollars can move from one part of the globe to the another in the fraction of a minute. Volatile capital flows have indeed been held responsible for Asia’s current economic predicament. Several governments in this region are trying to find the needed mechanisms to cope with unprecedented degree of volatility generated by short term profit seeking sentiment. Somewhere amidst the hot house growth of global finance people tend to forget that they are dealing with real people, with real problems and varying priorities. We cannot have a situation where certain elites in the developing world continue to be globalised while large chunks of the population continue to remain marginalised.

I must admit, at the same time that our own default has been horrendous. We ourselves have failed to do what we should have done for our development. Many nations, India is one of them, fought for many years with their colonial masters to gain independence. But soon after achieving it, we have failed to devote the better part of our resources for developing the societies and the people. The models of development have been drafted in the rich countries for the poor countries. Sometime these models have been willingly accepted by the leaders of the poor countries. More often the leaders of the poor countries have been compelled to accept such models. What is tragic is that these compulsions have been created in most cases by the failures of the leaderships of the developing nations.

The leadership in most cases have opted for vertical rather than horizontal development. The rich have become richer, the poor poorer. What is astounding is that unequal and uneven development has received the stamp of approval of powerful nations and international institutions. The World Bank and the IMF have systematically discouraged investments in social sectors.

On our own part we must plead guilty for the massive poverty that haunts South Asia, the state of very slow and for decades negative growth in the continent of Africa, for the plight of millions in Latin America. Our failures have been in three areas – lack of enlightened leaderships, pervasive cronyism, equally pervasive corruption, the failure to build strong institutions in our political economies, and a poor will to encourage economic and political co-operation among ourselves.

The United Nations which has long stood as a symbol of ‘one world’, has however failed to give this symbolism any real shape or substance in times of hardship and governance. Perhaps the UN cannot be a world government until there is an all inclusive world community mature enough to feel the need for and will to work for a world government. Hopefully this will come in the 21st century when the world will be woven together more purposefully and more closely than it ever has in the past.

In conclusion, I can do little better than quoting from the statement issued after the UNDP Regional Millennium Meeting held in Seoul, Korea just two weeks ago. Participants from 30 countries identified the following principles and commitments as essential for the coming millennium:-

"There is a sense of urgency to shift to a new development paradigm at national, regional and global levels, which would overcome existing disparities in basic human development within and among countries and help countries to recover speedily from the current economic and social turmoil in the region.

The new paradigm would address gender, ethnic and other social inequalities faced by vulnerable sections of the population by promoting equal opportunities and responding to people’s aspirations.

To realise this vision, countries and people require new capacities and institutions, which build on social and cultural diversity."

I do hope that our meeting here in Lille, will contribute to these very worthwhile objectives.

Thank you

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Bio-Profile :
Mr. Inder Kr. Gujral

Bio-Profile :
Mrs. Shiela Gujral

Excerpts from the book "A Foreign Policy for India"

Selected Speeches

Latest Articles