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The Economic Nature of Basic Human Rights: Economic Explanations of Cross-National Variations in Governmental Basic Human Rights Performance

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This paper examines economic explanations of governmental basic human rights performance in more than one hundred nations. Following Henry Shue's conceptualization of basic rights, I analyze a set of key economic variables (level of development, income distribution, rate of growth, foreign trade, and foreign investment) in terms of their impact on basic socioeconomic and political rights (defined here are subsistence and security rights).

Drawing on criticisms of the existing literature, the paper calls for a new empirical approach to cross-regional comparative human rights studies. The article first conceptualizes and operationalizes the concept of basic rights. It then provides a critical review of the relevant literature on economic explanations of rights. Analyzing both individual and combined effects by using correlations analysis, cross-tabulations, bivariate and multiple regression techniques, I interpret my findings as follows: Basic human rights performance is much more varied across nations of comparable economic background than indicated by most other studies of a similar nature. While economic conditions have a significant impact on all basic rights, there are, nevertheless, important differences with respect to the type of basic right and the specific economic variable concerned. Security rights tend to be less affected by economic factors than subsistence rights. Below the threshold of about $1,000 Gross National Product (GNP)/capita income countries are generally unable to guarantee even a modicum of subsistence rights. While level of development can explain close to 50% of the variation in basic human rights performance, income distribution becomes more crucial the more developed nations are. Other findings show foreign trade to have a significantly negative impact on security rights while being somewhat positively related with subsistence rights.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

Publication date: July 1, 1998

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