Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Thought About Human Rights

This morning members of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO were told that there had been a debate at UNESCO as to whether people had a right to water. Apparently there are some who oppose granting such a right since the costs of making water available in acceptable quantities to everyone would be significant, and would not be affordable to some countries and communities.

Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
This clearly implies that everyone has a right to an adequate amount of water to assure the health and well-being of himself and of his family, since we know that there are waterborne diseases, waterwashed diseases (that can be prevented by washing utensils or people), and that food production requires water.

But what then does it mean to say that people in rural sub-Saharan Africa have a right to potable water if their societies don't have the resources to provide everyone with potable water quickly, and if donors are unwilling to step in a fill the bill?

We were also told this morning that UNESCO is preparing to emphasize workforce preparation in education. For decades a right to basic education has been recognized. That right too raises the difficulty that some kids don't get basic education services, and that some countries feel that they can not afford universal basic education and can not obtain donor aid adequate to the provision of that education. Anyway, what is basic education, and is it the same for all societies? I don't know, but I doubt it.

It seems to me however that the emphasis of workforce preparation may lead to a deemphasis of the rights of the poor to basic education in favor of an allocation of resources to more advanced education for fields and specialties thought to be more conducive to the development of a workforce conducive to high rates of economic growth.

But if people have a right to medical care and social services, does that not mean that the society is required to prepare and employ the workforce capable of providing those services? If everyone has a right to food, does the society not have a responsibility to prepare and employ the workforce necessary to provide that food, and does that workforce not include a number of highly trained and professional agricultural workers?

The rights versus utilitarian approaches to decision making about education, health and water and other public services are not simple but the debate is informative.

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