By Celeste Kauffman*
The website and meme “first world problems” serves to belittle the “problems” associated with living in a wealthy, industrialized nations, as compared to legitimate problems it is assumed those in “third world” countries face. But in addition to providing a skewed and disparaging view of life in both “first” and “third” worlds, what we consider third world problems are alive and well in the Global North. To overcome them, we need solutions from the Global South. Recently, South-South strategies to human rights problems have been gaining traction. However, it is time for the North to learn from the South to tackle its human rights violations.
Consider the United States by way of example. A little publicized fact about the country is its high rates of poverty. Nearly 22 percent of children live in poverty in the U.S. Those trapped in poverty are often funneled into the criminal justice system, which is notorious for failing to respect basic human rights. The US imprisons more people than any other country in the world, based on harsh and racist sentencing laws that result in the imprisonment of one third of all black men during their lives. Prisoners suffer inhumane treatment in the form of overcrowding, lack of medical attention, abuse of solitary confinement. For those who escape the prison industrial complex, labor protections in the U.S. are minimal, especially for hourly paid workers, which result in precarious employment situations. Additionally, the U.S. is one of only three countries in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave to women. The U.S. routinely fails to respect rights considered basic in most countries. In addition to being one of the only high-income countries in the world without universal healthcare, the UN recently reprimanded the country after the city of Detroit cut off water for months to destitute residents who could not afford to pay their bills.
The result of this is rampant violations of the rights to health, education, employment, water, food, and life, among others. In order to start remedying such violations, I propose we look to strategies and solutions developed in the South. Although the South suffers more than its share of “third world problems,” it has an advantage over the U.S. in solving them by merely recognizing these “problems” as rights violations. If the U.S. hopes to remedy them, rights activists must learn from the rights discourse from the South human rights movement and begin to see such issues not as individual problems, but as human rights violations. Many constitutions and courts in the South recognize economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) as rights on par with civil and political rights, and we need activists from the South to teach the U.S. how to accomplish such a feat.
At a practical level, beyond a fundamental paradigm shift regarding ESCR rights vs. individual problems, activists can look to strategies activists from the South employed to claim ESCR rights before courts recognized their justiciability. For example, many human rights lawyers argued that certain rights (to food, shelter, healthcare) were necessary components to the right to life. Thus, countries such as Colombia have recognized a right to a minimum standard of living, which includes considerations of healthcare, housing, and food in an expanded concept of the right to a dignified life.
In a groundbreaking Indian case regarding the right to food, activists publicized the importance of this right to children, pregnant women, and the elderly, which even in the U.S. have traditionally been more politically palatable beneficiaries of public spending. The civil society groups behind that case also undertook massive publicity campaigns in order to drum up public support for recognizing the right to food.
Many Latin American countries have amparo proceedings that allow citizens to file simple complaint alleging any violation of their constitutional rights, which courts must generally resolve in a few days. In Latin America, amparo proceedings have been used to challenge the unjustifiable denial of access to benefit programs and healthcare, discrimination, and other rights violations. Such a tool would be incredibly useful in the US, where individuals are often left with no recourse (or are faced with a length, expensive process) when a case worker denies food stamps, or an insurance company refuses to cover a necessary medical procedure.
* Celeste Kauffman is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society.
Photo credit: MSeattle