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HUMAN RIGHTS AND
EXTREME POVERTY

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that everyone is entitled to a standard of living adequate to provide for the health and well-being of oneself and one's family. Moreover, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenants recognize that freedom from fear and want - can be achieved only if everyone enjoys economic, social and cultural rights, in addition to civil and political rights. In this light, the Bahá'í International Community would like to offer a few thoughts about human rights and extreme poverty.

The increasing disparity between the rich and the poor is a major destabilizing influence in the world. It produces or exacerbates regional and national conflicts, environmental degradation, crime and violence, and the increasing use of illicit drugs. These consequences of extreme poverty affect all individuals and nations. Increasingly we are becoming aware that we are all members of a single human family. In a family the suffering of any member is felt by all, and until that suffering is alleviated, no member of the family can be fully happy or at ease. Few are able to look at starvation and extreme poverty without feeling a sense of failure.

The Bahá'í approach to the problem of extreme poverty is based on the belief that economic problems can be solved only through the application of spiritual principles. This approach suggests that to adjust the economic relationships of society, man's character must first be transformed. Until the actions of humankind promote justice above the satisfaction of greed and re-adjusts the world's economies accordingly, the gap between the rich and the poor will continue to widen, and the dream of sustainable economic growth, peace, and prosperity must remain elusive. Sensitizing mankind to the vital role of spirituality in solving economic problems including the realization of universal equitable access to wealth and opportunity will, we are convinced, create a new impetus for change.

A new economic order can be founded only on an unshakable conviction of the oneness of mankind. Discussions aimed at solving problems related to extreme poverty based on the premise that we are one human family rapidly expand beyond the current vocabulary of economics. They demand a wider context, one which anticipates the emergence of a global system of relationships resting on the principles of equity and justice.

Although it will resemble the present system in many ways, the evolving economic system which Bahá'ís envision will have significant points of distinction. Let us take as an example the Bahá'í view of income distribution, which allows for differences but would eliminate both extreme wealth and extreme poverty. The accumulation of excessive fortunes by a small number of individuals, while the masses are in need, is, according to Bahá'í teachings, an iniquity and an injustice. Moderation should, therefore, be established by means of laws and regulations that would hinder the accumulation of excessive fortunes by a few individuals and provide for the essential needs of the masses.

The Bahá'í writings anticipate the development of communities in which the well-being of every member is the concern of the community as a whole. The centre of such a community would include social service institutions which shall afford relief to the suffering, sustenance to the poor, shelter to the wayfarer, solace to the bereaved, and education to the ignorant.

In the New World Order envisaged by Bahá'u'lláh, rights are inseparable from responsibilities. A fundamental purpose of life is to contribute to the advancement of civilization. Idleness and begging are unacceptable in a well-functioning society, while work performed in the spirit of service is elevated to the station of worship. Thus the right to work, the right to contribute to society, takes on a spiritual dimension, and the responsibility to be productive applies to everyone. This attitude toward work profoundly influences the Bahá'í approach to social and economic development. Communities are encouraged to identify their own needs and initiate their own projects, many of which focus on alleviating poverty. Such locally initiated projects often receive support from national or international Bahá'í institutions.

The fostering of grassroots initiative is essential to the elimination of poverty; this concept has both moral and educational implications which demand profound study.

In his report to the Sub-Commission on the Protection of Minorities, Mr. Eduardo Suesun Monroy pointed out that extreme poverty is often compounded by the deprivation of a constellation of rights guaranteed by the Declaration of Human Rights. Not only are the extremely poor in many countries deprived of their right to an adequate standard of living (article 25), and the right to choose one's place of residence (article 13), but they are also often deprived of the right to work (article 23), the right to education (article 26), the right to social security (article 22), and the right to recourse in the courts (article 10).

The Bahá'í International Community welcomes the establishment, in 1992 by the 47th Session of the General Assembly, of an International Day for the Elimination of Poverty, designated in resolution 47-196 as October 17. We also support the request of the Commission on Human Rights, expressed in resolution 1992/11, that the Sub-Commission study the question of human rights and extreme poverty and report to the Commission at its forty-ninth session. Mr. Leandro Despouy, Special Rapporteur on this question, can count on the full cooperation of the Bahá'í International Community as he conducts his study.

Bahá'í International Community
statement to the
forty-ninth session of the
United Nations Commission on Human Rights
Geneva, 12th February 1993


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