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C h a p t e r 2 The Powerlessness of Extreme Poverty: Human Rights and Social Justice Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. —Nelson Mandela, BBC News, February 3, 2005 People used to say that it is awful, regrettable, or troubling that so many children go to bed hungry. . . . Today . . . we can now picture the poor not as shrunken wretches begging for our help, but as persons with dignity who are claiming what is theirs by right. —Thomas Pogge, Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right Around the world, it is the poor who suffer the vast majority of civil and political rights violations, including torture, in both public and private spheres. In the years I lived in Mexico, far more of the clients I worked with were like Gabriela, with limited choices and struggling to make ends meet—and not like Rosa, who was decidedly middle class. There was the teenager who was playing soccer with friends, who must have irritated the wrong police officer on the wrong day because he ended up tortured to death in a local jail for simply urinating in public. Or the campesino (peasant farmer) who was mercilessly harassed and finally murdered with impunity by drug traffickers 50 Starting Points when he wouldn’t relinquish the land his family had received from “The Great One”—Lázaro Cárdenas—after the Mexican Revolution.1 Or the young woman who got caught up in helping a drug dealer for money, was subjected to a Kafkaesque trial, and was then sexually assaulted by a guard in prison. Or a dozen other people for whom severe poverty itself was a prison of despair. Profound poverty makes people hostages to their fates, and entire futures dissolve because of petty bureaucratic decisions or arbitrary abuses of power. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo writes of Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai, India, saying that for the very poor, good fortune “derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.”2 People who are not just of modest means but who live in extreme poverty are constantly faced with “Sophie’s choices” about which child goes to school, which will get health care, who will get to eat that day.3 When poverty takes away such basic power over one’s life, it makes self-governance and therefore dignity impossible , and it represents violations of a series of human rights, including health and other economic and social rights, under international law. I was still doing conventional civil and political rights work in Mexico when I participated in a fact-finding delegation to Baborigame, a small village in the southern part of the Sierra Tarahumara in the state of Chihuahua . Baborigame would be a short flight to Tucson, Arizona, where some of the most sophisticated medical care in the world is available. But the Sierra Tarahumara is a mountainous area, and in the early 1990s it had extremely poor infrastructure. The terrain and difficulty of access made the Sierra Tarahumara ideal for cultivating opium poppies, and drug lords forced many of the indigenous campesinos who owned small tracts of land in the area to do just that. As I have described elsewhere, in 1992, the Mexican military burned down much of the village of Baborigame, took away men to torture them, stole and killed livestock, and displaced the entire population.4 Allegedly the military was eradicating opium poppies, but it is entirely possible that the eradication merely reflected a transfer of control between the cartels, on whose payrolls were many of the Mexican officials engaged in the so-called “drug war.” Along with a small group that included both Mexican and international human rights activists, I went to investigate the events that had occurred in Baborigame.5 One morning, the helicopter going to survey the eradicated The Powerlessness of Extreme Poverty 51 crops from the air was full and I stayed behind with the missionary nuns, who did what they could to attend to...


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