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Structural Violence as a Human Rights Violation

Author(s): KATHLEEN HO

Journal: Essex Human Rights Review
ISSN 1756-1957

Volume: 4;
Issue: 2;
Date: 2007;
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Human rights literature up to this point has not adequately addressed what it means to havestructural violations of human rights. This essay uses the theory of structural violence to illuminatehow structural inequalities that systematically deny some people their basic human needs constitute astructural violation of human rights. In making this argument, structural violence theorists defineviolence as the avoidable disparity between the potential ability to fulfill basic needs and their actualfulfillment. The theory further locates the unequal share of power to decide over the distribution ofresources as the pivotal causal factor of these avoidable structural inequalities. Recognizing thatstructural causes are responsible for constrained agency is pivotal in making the transition fromstructural violence to structural violations of human rights. It is the effect of structures on individualagency that results in this gap between potential and actual fulfillment of rights. This essay usesThomas Pogge and Amartya Sen’s work on poverty to substantiate this claim that when agency isconstrained to the extent that fundamental human needs cannot be attained, structural violencebecomes a structural violation of human rights. Applying structural violence to the human rightsdiscourse, there emerges a clear emphasis on the need for special protection of social and economicrights that have for too long been marginalized in favor of civil and political rights. Moreover, theright to development directly addresses concerns raised by the structural violence theory. Specifically,this right recognizes how the unequal distribution of power in global financial institutions and traderegimes results in global inequality and therefore insists on international assistance and cooperationto remedy this glaring injustice. Finally, Audrey Chapman’s ‘violations approach’ is examined as apossible alternative to the current monitoring mechanism for social and economic rights; howeverthis approach falls short in holding the international community responsible for rights violations.
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