Are Basic Survival Necessities Not Human Rights


Are Basic Survival Necessities Not Human Rights?

[Warning: This piece contains sensitive content.]

On March 26, 1993, Kevin Carter, a photojournalist, published a photo in the New York Times. The picture is of a small Sudanese child lying naked, on the ground. She was in the  middle of nowhere, you can feel her hunger just by noticing her ribcage, and not too far away, a vulture patiently waits for the child to die. The girl was “slowly making her way to the feeding center,” but she did not have enough energy Carter recounts. After witnessing such horror, the photographer committed suicide in “July of that year” (Smith 2009). [WARNING: Some may find this image disturbing.]   

This powerful image was taken during the 1993 famine in Sudan, and it brought uproar to the public as people argued about why the photographer didn’t help the little girl. More importantly, the image brought  global attention to social and economic (SE) rights, which are often thought as secondary to civil and political rights (CP). The photo of the starved Sudanese girl not only showed the world that there are citizens who don’t even have access to the most basic necessities, but also emphasized the importance of holding SE rights tantamount to, or even above, CP rights (Smith 2009). The right of being able to vote and hold assembly compared to the right to essential survival needs like food and shelter display different urgencies; the latter is a far more important human right to address.

In 1966, the international community came together and divided human rights into two categories: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Both are known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, western countries such as the United Kingdom, United States, and France “stressed the importance of civil and political right[s],” and given the amount of influence these states had (and still have) in the United Nations (UN), the ICCPR was (and is) always prioritized on the global stage. To further encourage UN members to comply with this covenant, the UN Human Rights Committee was charged with monitoring each state to assess whether civil and political rights were being implemented. In contrast, ES rights were shoved aside; in fact, ES rights are essentially not seen as human rights, but rather “goals” that the UN should aim to achieve, such the Millennium Development Goals of the UN to end extreme hunger and poverty (“The International Covenants”). Additionally, the fact that the United States, who plays an instrumental role in the UN, sees ES rights as secondary further reduced the importance of ES rights on the global stage. The hegemonic power saw CP rights as far more crucial and has used this principle in its foreign policy.  (“International Covenants”).

Let’s look at Afghanistan; after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, U.S. foreign policy focused on establishing a democracy in this country that was also in serious need of economic assistance. Afghans saw no hope for opportunity in a country ravaged by three decades of war. Democracy did bring voice to the people of to a diverse nation, but their basic human necessities were not being met. The lack of emphasis on SE rights led to brain drain in the country, as the educated and the young left the country—making it much more difficult for the nation to develop both economically and democratically (Hakim 2016). In the end, this shows that democracy and CP rights meant little to the Afghan citizens because they were far more worried about providing their family with shelter and food.

Social and economic rights are crucial to focus on in order for a state to grow; more importantly, developing SE rights necessary for a stable democracy to grow. If the U.S. wanted to establish an efficient democracy in Afghanistan, it would have invested far more in ES rights. This worked in Japan and Germany. After WWII both of these countries were devastated and a U.S. commitment was a crucial factor that helped these two states  grow. Constant financial support from the United States to their economic sector helped both Germany and Japan develop into strong democracies (Stanzel 2015). These states are two examples of how investing in SE rights is crucial for a stable democratic government to be established. Moreover, Japan and Germany show that perhaps SE rights are far more important than CP rights.

Although developing SE rights takes time and commitment, it is an essential long-term goal that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The United States is one of the biggest proponents of democracy, but focusing solely on CP rights is an ineffective method to achieve this goal. Through NGOs, IGOs and individual state governments, we are capable of meeting every human beings’ essential needs for survival; as the speaker Kathryn Sikkink stated in her lecture Are We Making Progress In Human Rights, when it comes to famine, “it is not the lack of food but the inability of getting food to those who need it.”  Human rights is a cause and often requires collective action to fulfill this moral obligation, and a more important thing is that we are capable of fulfilling this obligation. Perhaps by doing so, we can avoid creating  situations like the one in Kevin Carter’s picture.


Hamid, Shadi. “The Struggle for Middle East Democracy.” Brookings. N.p., 26 Apr. 2011. Web.24 Oct. 2016.

Hakim, Yalda. “President Ghani Calls for Afghans to Remain in Country.” BBC News. BBC, 31 Mar. 2016. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Smith, Roberta. “One Image of Agony Resonates in Two Lives.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Apr. 2009. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

“The International Covenants.” BBC World Service. BBC, n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

[Edited: 12/12/16, an earlier version of this piece incorrectly listed the ICCPR establishment year as 1996 instead of 1966.]