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Amnesty International Head Irene Khan on “The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights”

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Saturday marks the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The poverty rate here in the United States has now risen to 13.2 percent, the highest level in eleven years. And around the world, two billion people, or a full third of humanity, are poor, living on less than $2 a day. One billion live in extreme poverty, earning less than $1 a day. The latest numbers from the United Nations indicate that over a billion people are also going hungry. Irene Khan argues that these harsh numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. Poverty, the book argues, must be recognized as the world’s worst human rights crisis. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Saturday marks the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The poverty rate here in the United States has now risen to 13.2 percent, the highest level in eleven years. And around the world, two billion people, or a full third of humanity, are poor, living on less than two dollars a day. One billion live in extreme poverty, earning less than a dollar a day. The latest numbers from the United Nations indicate that over a billion people are going hungry each day.

A new book from Amnesty International’s secretary general argues that these harsh numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. Economic solutions alone cannot fully address the deprivation, indignity, discrimination, insecurity, repression and violence of poverty. Poverty, the book argues, must be recognized as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Bangladesh-born Irene Khan has been the secretary general of Amnesty International for the past eight years — her book is called The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights — joining us here in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

Talk about the connection between poverty and human rights.

IRENE KHAN: Well, you know, if you ask the poor people, “What’s your condition?” what you hear from them is about discrimination. They can’t get to school because they are women. They can’t get jobs because they’re an ethnic minority. They’re excluded. You hear deprivation. You hear about discrimination, insecurity. Poor people live in fear, fear of losing their jobs, losing their homes, not knowing where their next meal is coming from, and sometimes living in war situations. War impoverishes people.

And so, you can make economic investment, and maybe a farmer can improve his crop yield, but that does not guarantee the security of land tenure that he needs. You can build a school. That’s one way of investing in the economy, but that doesn’t ensure that girls will get to school as much as boys. So what I’m saying is that if you want to really help poor people get out of poverty, then you have to respect their rights, and you have to empower them, because they will then demand their rights and, through this process of dignity, get out of poverty.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you argue in your book that the reigning approaches to eliminating poverty — foreign aid, technological development, trade, increased trade and investment — that these have failed. Why have they failed?

IRENE KHAN: Well, they have failed very often because the emphasis has been on enrichment rather than empowerment. And if you take Africa, for example, investing in countries like Chad or the Democratic Republic of Congo has only enriched the powerful. A lot of money has been siphoned off. No investment has been made. The local communities haven’t had their voices heard. So participation of people is absolutely essential. Freedom matters, if you’re going to tackle poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your book, Irene Khan, The Unheard Truth, with your own story. It’s in the chapter “The World’s Worst Human Rights Crisis.” Describe what you were.

IRENE KHAN: Well, what I was trying to figure out there was, you know, in the same year in my grandmother’s house, I was born, and there was a little boy born to my grandmother’s maid. And I have stayed in touch with him through this time. He went to school like me, but he was thrown out of school, dropped out, became a factory laborer, lost his job, became a rickshaw puller, now lives in a slum. And look at me. I was born in the same house. I went to school, got educated, went abroad. So what I enjoyed was access to certain resources that he didn’t have, like education, but it was also an issue of status. He was discriminated because he was poor. And I was given opportunities. So what I’m saying is that you have to create opportunities for the poor. And those opportunities are often — the barriers to those opportunities are not only economic.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You attempt also to put a human face on the statistics —-

IRENE KHAN: That’s right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- by going to various parts of the world and reporting on the conditions there — the maquila workers, the women maquila workers in Juárez, in China. Talk about some of those direct experiences and how they’ve informed your overall analysis.

IRENE KHAN: Well, if I talk about the women of Ciudad Juárez, now those women came from the poorest parts of Mexico, like Oaxaca and so on, and came to work in these maquiladoras to improve their economic condition. And, sure, they did, but those women were then killed in very brutal ways, and the authorities did nothing. For years, hundreds of women disappeared, and the authorities did nothing. And when I went to speak to the mothers of Ciudad Juárez, the one thing they kept telling me is “No one cares. No one listens to us. We don’t count.”

Now, I went back year after year to meet those mothers, and I have seen gradually how they’ve been able to organize themselves, how now they are actually allowed to go meet the governor to raise these cases. So, in a way, it wasn’t just their economic conditions, it wasn’t just having jobs. It was actually giving them the space to be able to organize themselves and to get a voice that began to have some impact, although even now, of course, women are being killed there.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by “winning the right to the city”?

IRENE KHAN: Well, in this chapter I’m focusing on slums. You know, there are a billion people in the world who live in slums, and that number will double in the next twenty years. And these are people who are coming, very often, to the city because of human rights violations, because they’ve been pushed off their land, because of poverty, but also because of economic opportunities. And yet, the city doesn’t acknowledge them. They live in illegal neighborhoods without resources.

I was in Kibera in Kenya in June, where Kibera is the — Africa’s largest slum. There are a million people living there. There are water pipes that go through Kibera to provide water to the rich neighborhoods, and yet the people of Kibera don’t have clean drinking water. You know, the narrow lanes become sewers when the rains come. So, that’s the way in which billions — a billion people are living in the world, feeding the economy, yet being ignored, with no rights, subject to police brutality, to crime, to violence. And what I’m saying is that this reflects the failure of decades of housing policy, and governments need to focus on the right to housing. Housing is a right under international law.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you mentioned housing. We recently, a few weeks ago, had on Democracy Now! some of the leaders of the [Shack] Dwellers Movement in South Africa, a country supposedly that has gone through a liberation process, and yet they are battling against the existing government removing people for the World Cup. And this issue of even progressive governments, supposedly, not dealing with these basic human needs of their population, what can be done, from your perspective, about that?

IRENE KHAN: Well, in my book, I talk about Cebu City in Philippines, where actually the government was investing, but they were not talking to the people. They were evicting people forcibly and then giving them alternative housing in areas where they didn’t want to live because they didn’t have access to their jobs there. So when — then a group came together and began sort of talking with the authorities, started training the judges that look at eviction cases, started training local authority officials, and began a whole sort of discussion. There was an association set up, where you had the local authorities, you had the local population, you had the judges and others who were dealing with these issues, and began to develop a housing policy that was responsive to people. So what I’m saying, that even where governments are willing to put resources in, sometimes they don’t listen to people, and that’s why many of the development policies fail.

AMY GOODMAN: Irene Khan, do you think healthcare is a human right?

IRENE KHAN: Healthcare is certainly a human right. I have a chapter in the book about maternal mortality. And, you know, half-a-million women die every year giving childbirth or for pregnancy-related reasons. And pregnancy is not a disease. What I’m saying there is that women have a right to safe motherhood. People have a right to healthcare. You cannot rely solely on the market to ensure equal opportunities for all. That is why governments have a responsibility, when it comes to human rights. And basic, basic issues, like health, education, security, they are human rights, because, without them, we wouldn’t have human dignity.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think, as you come to this country, of the debate around healthcare?

IRENE KHAN: Well, you know, it was — I think it was your President Franklin Roosevelt who talked about freedom from want, not just freedom from fear. And somewhere, I think, in those decades, the US has lost this emphasis on economic and social rights and sees them as not part of the debate of human rights. I hope very much that now, in the debate that’s taking place, there will be a recognition that freedom from fear, freedom from want go hand in hand. And the right to health — US is the world’s richest country, and there is no other country in the Western world, among developed countries, that do not provide healthcare to all its citizens. Forty million people without healthcare is shocking.

JUAN GONZALEZ: How do you assess the track record of the international organizations that are supposedly to deal with some of these issues — the World Health Organization, UNESCO, United Nations and others — in finding ways to solve the problems?

IRENE KHAN: Well, I use data and analysis from the World Bank in my book. And it’s interesting, when it comes to the World Bank, that their own research and their own analysis, when they go talk to the people who are benefiting from their projects, they hear those people tell them that we need freedom alongside investment. And yet, when you look at the poverty reduction strategies that the World Bank develops, they actually acknowledge that, yes, freedom is an issue here, human rights are an issue, but we don’t want to talk about it, because it’s controversial. And what I’m saying is, you know, if you don’t talk about it, you’re not actually getting the most out of your own projects.

AMY GOODMAN: You might have heard in our headlines, in Washington, the House of Representatives has voted to allow the government to bring Guantanamo prisoners to US soil. So I want to go back to your 2005 report on Guantanamo, which you called the “gulag of our times.” Several Bush administration officials, including the President, took offense at your characterization.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It’s just an absurd allegation. In terms of, you know, the detainees, we’ve had thousands of people detained. We’ve investigated every single complaint against the detainees. It seemed like to me, they based some of their decisions on the word of — and the allegations by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that have been trained, in some instances, to disassemble. That means not tell the truth. And so, it’s an absurd report.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Bush then. Irene Khan, your response today?

IRENE KHAN: Well, I don’t think people hate America. You know, people look to America for leadership. I read and I studied law in this country. This is where I learned about human rights and civil liberties. I think the closure of Guantanamo, the reapplication of the rule of law are fundamental core values of the US. It’s in the US Constitution. Yes, it’s also in international human rights standards. So I am very pleased to see the US reinstating its own moral authority to lead the world on these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of Amnesty today and the role of international law? You had a big opening for your book yesterday. You handed your book to Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General. The introduction of The Unheard Truth is written by the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. The international arena and how we see it here, how it’s seen in the United States?

IRENE KHAN: Well, you know, the US is a big country, so there is a tendency, of course, to look inside into your own country. And, of course, here, too, there are pockets of poverty. Even in New York, you compare one district to another, and you will see inequalities there.

But the US has a very important global role to play on the issue of poverty. The world has set what it calls the Millennium Development Goals. These are targets to be achieved, like halving poverty, reducing maternal mortality. The US has to take a strong leadership role on those issues. Investing in the world is actually investing in our future. And that’s the message for human rights. That’s the message also for climate change.

And, you know, the moral authority of the US, and particularly of President Obama now that he is a Nobel laureate, I think the expectations are very high of the world, and I hope that the US will realize, export value. Just as Bush’s — President Bush’s statement on the war on terror was picked up by dictators around the world to actually restrict human rights, I think a positive leadership from the US now on issues like poverty and climate change will have the same effect of world leaders saying, “Look, if the US is doing this, we’ve got to join that, too.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your native Bangladesh, certainly one of the largest countries in population, but also least reported in the world, how is the situation in terms of human rights and dealing with some of the problems of the most poor in your country progressing?

IRENE KHAN: Well, I talk in Bangladesh about the failure of the governments, successive governments, to respond to the needs of the poor. But at the same time, I have also seen in Bangladesh the importance of voice. You know, the poor are voiceless, but when they have voiced what they can do, there have been very successful movements in Bangladesh to address poverty. I think the world knows Professor Yunus and the Grameen Bank, but there are other organizations, like BRAC and GK and others, that have provided healthcare to the poor, that have helped the poor organize themselves, with microcredit but also with education, particularly in the area of women. We’ve seen remarkable progress, where maternal — fertility rates have come down, infant mortality has come down, the employment of women has gone up, the education of women has gone up. And those are very big achievements that have been made because of civil society, because ofpeople organizing themselves and demanding their rights.

AMY GOODMAN: In this country, your assessment of President Obama’s ten months? While he has decried torture, he has refused to release photographs, for example, has not said he would end extraordinary rendition. Your thoughts?

IRENE KHAN: Well, President Obama — I would say, on the positive side, President Obama has sent out a message of engagement to the world. He’s engaged with the world, and that is very, very positive. On the other side, I would like to encourage him to be stronger on accountability. I think there has to be an accountability for what went wrong in the past, so that we can learn and not repeat the mistakes of the past. Therefore, I would encourage him very much, and Amnesty International would encourage him very much, to open up [inaudible] investigation [inaudible] went wrong, because if we don’t do that, then we won’t know how to do it right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And his view that he wants to look forward [inaudible]?

IRENE KHAN: [inaudible] look forward, but you cannot look forward until you have closed the chapter behind you, and there are still too many loopholes. Human rights — I think what the war on terror showed was the fragility of human rights. You know, we all thought that the battle against torture had been won. We never imagined that Western democracies would begin to question the prohibition against torture, but that’s precisely what happened. And that’s why it’s very important that you have accountability for the past — justice — so that you can move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Irene Khan, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Irene Khan is secretary general of Amnesty International. She has just written the book The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights.

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