Subject: Can Human Rights Approach Help Eliminate Poverty in Timor-Leste?

Suara Timor Lorosae



Can Human Rights Approach Help Eliminate Poverty in Timor-Leste?

For the last few years, human rights approach has become a new paradigm for poverty reduction.

It has become one the important steps for international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the human rights community in their efforts to fight poverty. In the mid-1990s the human rights community began to promote the human rights issue as right-based approaches to poverty reduction. Nevertheless, it was not until Kofi Annan directed all UN agencies in 1997 to take into account the human rights issue in their development programs. Former World Bank President, James Wolfensohn and Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in their speeches at the opening of a Conference of Human Rights and Development held at New York University on March 1, 2004, both acknowledged that human rights framework can provide value to the development process which led to high achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, despite the very considerable progress made in recent years formal commitments of the important of human rights approach to poverty reduction there remains a great deal to be done. The human rights approach has not actually become into practice on the ground in many countries including Timor-Leste. The World Bank and the UN themselves, for instance, still have not introduced the new approach in their work in Timor-Leste. Indeed, it has become evident that the human rights approach could help a country to achieve an adequate standard of living of its population. The right to have access to economic, political and social needs is fundamental for people to improve their living standards. Amartya Sen in his book, Development as Freedom, argues that people are poor because they have little access and opportunity in the economic, social and political rights. People are poor not only because they do not have enough income but also because of lack of opportunities, empowerment and security. Therefore, promoting human rights approach can help a country to eliminate poverty. This article will argue whether the new approach can help Timor-Leste in its efforts to fight against poverty.

Timor-Leste is a new nation that gained independence in 1999, following 25 years of occupation and conflict under the Indonesian rule. However, the social and economic conditions of the country are still far behind other countries. The challenges for Timor-Leste are how to build a strong nation and to reduce poverty.

It can be argued that the existence of poverty in Timor-Leste cannot be separated from the role of colonialism. During the Portuguese time, most Timorese were ignored in terms of development. Poor infrastructure, lack of access to health and education, lack of clean water and sanitation and also human resources were the main sources for poverty in Timor-Leste.

A similar situation could be seen under Indonesian rule. Timor-Leste was lagged behind other Indonesian provinces in terms of economic development. This includes health, education, and other human development indicators. People were faced with problems of lack of empowerment and opportunity to participate in the development process.

Since the independence, the Government has acknowledged that poverty exists in the country. In May 2002 the Government through broad consultations with the World Bank, donors and other development partners adopted a National Development Plan (NDP) which builds on and incorporates a Development Vision through 2020. However, despite the country has done remarkable well, progress remains fragile. Many people still do not have access to education, lack of primary health services, and unemployment rate is still very high. Based on the World Bank Country Assistance Strategy FY06-08, urban youth unemployment was 43 percent in 2001 and it has probably increased since then. Since May 2006, after several increasingly unstable months, Timor-Leste slid into a complex political, social, and security crisis. The proximate cause of the crisis was the dismissal of about 600 soldiers from the Falintil- Forças de Defesa de Timor Leste (F-FDTL). The ongoing crisis has led to an increase in the level of poverty. Many people including children and women have lost their rights on civil, political, economic and social rights. These kind of deprivations are actually related to human rights issue. It is the right of the Timorese to have access to security, empowerment and other basic needs. Poverty will not be eliminated simply by designing strategies. The strategies must be based on human rights laws that can enforce everyone when they come into the implementation. For instance, discrimination against women in social and economic status should be seen as human rights violation. Another example is that parents who prevent their children and especially girls from schools are against children’s rights. Studies have shown that putting children into education would have huge aggregate development benefits.

There are several reasons that underline the need for the adoption of human rights approach to poverty alleviation in Timor-Leste. First, it will help the country to design a strategy for poverty reduction that is based on the norms and values of international human rights. International human rights approach provides a normative framework for the formulation of the international and national policies, including poverty reduction strategy (Brice Dickson 1999, in ‘The horizontal application of human rights law’). This is because the international human rights law is universally recognized and the norms and values help to shape policies and institutions. A poverty strategy that is based on the international human rights law will enable the poor to access basic needs such as health services and education which helped them to escape from poverty. Human rights approach gives choices and opportunities to individuals to enhance and express their capacities.

Second, Human rights approach will promote empowerment and enhance participation of the poor in the development process. Empowerment and participation are essential parts of poverty reduction. When the rights of people are protected, they will feel more empowered which help them to participate in the decision-making processes (World Bank 2004, in ‘Making Services Work for Poor People’). There are some reasons why participation is very important for the effectiveness of poverty reduction strategies. With participation, the poor will help government and policy makers to understand poverty and its causes. In addition, greater participation also enables people to gain access to public services and to the benefits of the development process. Finally, participation of the poor will ensure the success of the implementation of poverty reduction strategies by contributing their ingenuity, skills and other untapped resources.

Third, human rights approach will promote good governance which can lead to poverty alleviation. Human rights approach to poverty reduction requires “transparency and accountability from a functioning state with institutions that are capable of adopting and implementing appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures towards the full realization of human rights” (Judge and Nankani, 2005 in ‘Human rights and poverty reduction strategies: moving towards convergence’). This means that through government, people, especially the poor, are able to express their views and access to sectors such as the economic and political that can improve their living standards. Good governance is the central element for creating and sustaining an environment that promotes strong and equitable development (World Bank 1992, in ‘Governance and Development’). It can be argued that countries which maintain good governance with good policy will achieve better results in poverty reduction compared to those who perform badly.

Finally, human rights approach will help a country to be more democratic. It has been shown that, under a democratic government the poor are empowered, which tends to lead to greater participation in the decision-making processes. Christina Biebesheimer in her article ‘The impact of human rights principles on justice reform in the Inter-American Development Bank’ argues that: governance is democratic when a series of requirements are met in respect to how authority should be exercised and under what socio-economic conditions. This includes: free elections; respect for citizen rights and liberties; and effectiveness and efficiency controls on arbitrariness. This means that a democratic government requires fully acknowledgement and protection of human rights. The poor will become poorer if their economic, social, cultural and political rights are violated.

These are just a small sampling of some of the arguments of the important of human rights issues in helping eliminate poverty. It is important to notice that human rights issue is not only about providing justice for victims of war or other criminal actions but it is also about non-physical destructions such as preventing people from having access to health, education, and other basic needs. Although there has been progress made on some fronts, it is clear that much work still needs to be done. Poverty should be seen as a violation of human rights and therefore it needs to be abolished. Therefore, it is essential for East Timor as one of the poorest country in the world to adopt the new approach in its poverty reduction strategy. In contrast, ignoring human rights issue in the development process will result in an increase in the level of poverty.

Author is currently studying at the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra.

Luis de Sousa Sequeira 

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