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Why have attempts to bring development aspirations to bear on international law over a period of 50 years come to far less than any reasonable person would hope? The early claims for a New International Economic Order and permanent sovereignty by developing countries over their natural resources, efforts to delineate a body of international development law, followed by the affirmation of a human right to development, were all attempts to have economic justice reflected in international law. Figures on world poverty and inequality suggest that international law accommodated no such restructuring. This article explores why it is international law has failed the poor of the world, and what interests it has served in their stead.
In the latter half of the twentieth century developing countries hitched their demands for economic justice to the potential of international law. Their efforts from the 1960s onwards sought to inaugurate a New International Economic Order (NIEO), to delineate a body of ‘international development law’, and to institute a human right to development with a far-reaching set of corresponding duties. However the economic reality of today indicates that international law has failed the poor of the world and begs the question as to what interests it has served in their stead.
In 1976 the developed market economy countries, with 20 per cent of the world population, enjoyed 66 per cent of total world income. By contrast, the developing countries – excluding China – with about 50 per cent of the world population, received 12.5 per cent of the total world income; with China included, 70 per cent of the world’s people accounted for only 30 per cent of world income. By the twenty-first century, 20 per cent of the world population is receiving approximately 85 per cent of income, with 6 per cent going to 60 per cent of the population. In absolute terms, 40 per cent of the world population is today living on incomes so low as to preclude fully participating in wealth creation. One in four people (1.4 billion) in the developing world live in extreme poverty, attempting to survive below the international poverty line of USD 1.25 a day. If world poverty has decreased since the early 1990s, it is largely due to poverty-reduction figures in a very small number of populous countries. As for global inequality, it is widening rapidly between states; inequality between countries weighted by population has shrunk since 1980 only when we factor in the fast growth in China and India, and inequality among households is probably increasing. Moreover, while the global gap between the richest and the poorest people has been expanding, there is little evidence of actual improvement in the absolute position of the poorest since the 1980s (when the latest wave of globalisation began). These dire figures unfold alongside the growth of international law dedicated to economic regulation and to the ascent of international human rights law in the area of socio-economic and development rights.
A concern with ensuring minimum standards of dignity for all and a doctrine based on the need to secure for everyone basic levels of rights have traditionally shaped the way in which international human rights law addresses poverty. Whether this minimalist, non-relational approach befits international law objectives in the area of world poverty begs consideration. This article offers three justifications as to why global material inequality – and not just poverty – should matter to international human rights law. The article then situates requirements regarding the improvement of living conditions, a system of equitable distribution in the case of hunger, and in particular obligations of international cooperation, within the post-1945 international effort at people-centred development. The contextual consideration of relevant tenets serves to demonstrate that positive international human rights law can be applied beyond efforts at poverty alleviation to accommodate a doctrine of fair global distribution.