Are We Violating the Human Rights of the World’ s Poor? Responses to Four Critics

by Thomas Pogge*


Stimulated by the challenging reactions of four critics, this essay clarifies and elaborates a view I had laid out in an earlier issue of this Journal. 1 I will begin with a brief summary account and defense of my main thesis and will then expand on various aspects of it by engaging my critics one by one.

The topic of my inquiry can be defined through three distinctions. The first distinction concerns the different ways in which individual and collective agents can be related to unfulfilled human rights. Here, first, a human rights deficit may lie beyond an agent‘s capacities. In such cases, the agent bears no responsibility for the deficit (insofar as it lies in the past) and has no responsibilities in regard to it (insofar as it lies in the future). Second, an agent may have the capacity to diminish a human rights deficit and may then bear some responsibility for it (by virtue of neglecting a positive duty to reduce it) or have a responsibility to alleviate it. Third, an agent may have a role in bringing about a human rights deficit and may then (by virtue of violating a negative duty not to harm) bear some responsibility for it or have a responsibility not to contribute to it in the future. I call all and only such active contributions to the nonfulfillment of human rights, when they are foreseeable and reasonably avoidable by the agent, human rights violations. And I focus on cases of this kind, in part because I share the common view that, holding fixed what is at stake for the agent and for others, negative duties not to violate human rights are more stringent than positive duties to alleviate human rights deficits.

Moving to the second distinction, both kinds of duties have both institutional and interactional applications. The fulfillment of human rights depends on institutional arrangements such as laws, rules, conventions, practices and procedures, and human agents therefore have institutional responsibilities to help ensure institutional arrangements under which human rights are fulfilled insofar as this is reasonably possible. Holding institutional arrangements fixed, the fulfillment of human rights also depends * Director of the Global Justice Program and Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University. 1. Thomas Pogge, Are We Violating the Human Rights of the World’s Poor? in 14:2 YALE HUM. RTS. & DEV. L.J. 1 (2011) .

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