Looking at the concept of freedom in this manner, the notion of rights takes the form of right to something. Freedom is not just freedom from something; it can also mean freedom to do something or freedom to have access to something. This ‘something’ in our case is basic human needs.
Now along with oppression, deprivation, (or rather, its lack), has also been made a part of the concept of human rights. This is especially true in the case of economic rights. Here deprivation can be used in two senses – first, some individuals may be deprived of something, may lack something all throughout; secondly, individuals may have had these things but have had these snatched away, taken away through exploitation or aggression. In this latter sense, deprivation becomes a part of oppression.
In the first sense of deprivation that we have used, in which individuals have never had the things or items germane to our discussion, where there has been a constant lack, there can be reasons other than oppression for this deprivation. The people may simply be very poor, for instance.
If the full potential of a person is not allowed to blossom, if the person fails to realise her latent capabilities, it is-deprivation in the sense of not being allowed entitlements or optimal human potential. With regard to oppression, the idea of human rights seeks to determine minimum levels or thresholds, so that if people are pushed below these levels, we can say that oppression and hence human rights violation has taken place.
How can these minimum threshold levels be determined? These thresholds can be determined by invoking the three principles of security, identity and participation. Security means personal security, an access to a secure livelihood, and a claim to privacy; identity implies one’s cultural and social identity is protected; and participation involves being allowed to participate in the economic and political life of one’s community, society or state.
The approach based on rights goes further than the basic needs approach in the sense that it injects an element of accountability to the whole process. The government is held to be responsible for providing and promoting the rights of people to these basic needs as well as ensuring that these rights are not infringed upon.
Like other human rights, economic rights are expressions of human dignity, which are common to all of humanity. Since we should look at all aspects of rights in totality, the approach to economic rights should be no different from that to other rights. Focusing on economic rights involves going beyond some entrenched ideas of “development”, since that term, if interpreted in a particular way, can lead thousands of people to a sorry plight, through disenfranchisement, dislocation and deprivation.
The development process has in some cases led to over- consumption of exhaustible resources, devastation of nature, and dislocation of marginal people. It has led to disparity in the standards of living of the countries of the North and those of the South, and within countries, especially of the South.
It is partly to address these issues that the concept of sustainable development was developed, but the concept of economic rights goes beyond this as well. Its aim is to help create an international political and legal framework to ensure that the path of sustainable development is followed and basic needs are met.
A basic point about economic rights needs to be always kept in mind. Normally, while talking about rights in general, we speak of human rights violation. In other words, people have rights, which are taken away; here the state should be in the dock. But in the case of economic rights, rights are in the sense of people being allowed to realise their capabilities.
The state should ensure people’s entitlement to various goods and services, which meet the basic needs. The state should provide these goods and services. Here the distinction between protective and promotional roles that we talked of earlier becomes important.
A related point is that experiences of the operation of markets in various countries has shown that there are certain groups in society which are vulnerable to ill-health, disease and general poverty and deprivation as the economy functions. In this regard, the state undertakes a certain set of actions that are described under the rubric of ‘social security’.