What is the Relationship Between Human Needs and Human Rights?

In order for the human race to survive, we need access to food and water, air and shelter. Peter Brabeck, chairman and former CEO of Nestle argued that water is a grocery item, and therefore, should have a market value associated with it. Later, Brabeck amended his statement to specify access to 25 litres of water a day was in fact a ‘human right’ …however, water used to fill up a pool is not a human right and should not be free.

Unfortunately for Brabeck, experts at the United Nations have argued that water is a human right and is to be managed as a common good. When we categorise water as a commodity or, rather, a business opportunity the ones left behind will be our most vulnerable, and those unable to access or afford such goods. Having access to water, education, work, health and equal pay was identified within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as an inalienable Human Right.

What are Human Needs?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) defines basic human needs as food, water, air, and shelter; without these, humanity cannot survive. Whilst this particular definition narrows it down to our very basic needs, necessary for the human race to continue, we are not all living on space stations and there is a difference between surviving and thriving.

The difference between surviving and thriving is something that was theorised by Abraham Maslow, a Psychologist and Philosopher. Maslow developed the Hierarchy of Needs in the early 1940s which is now one of the most well-known theories of motivation.

A Hierarchy… of Needs?

Maslow hypothesised that our actions are motivated by both physiological and psychological needs progressing from basic to more complex.

Maslow considered our physiological needs to be the most important as all other needs become secondary to these needs. If we are unable to satisfy these needs, the human body is unable to function at an optimal level. It is only once our physiological needs such as air, food and water, shelter have been met that can we move to the next tier with Maslow suggesting that humans seek to establish a sense of predictability and order.

This is typically through accessing a stable income via employment, therefore resulting in access to resources, improved health outcomes and housing opportunities. Once these needs have been met, humans may seek social needs and feelings of belongingness. Belonging refers to the human need for close and interpersonal relationships, bonding and being part of a group.

Once we are part of a community, humans may seek recognition from peers, but also through practising self-respect for themselves. The final level, which Maslow believed was not truly sustainable for long periods of time, but rather, something that was experienced transiently through sporting achievements, childbirth and the like.

The hierarchy assumes that the lower needs are required to be met first and are prerequisites for the realisation of any higher needs.

So, then what are Human Rights?

Human Rights are inalienable, meaning they are something that we each inherently possess through our membership in the human race. Human rights do not need to be granted nor can they be taken away. Human rights are universal regardless of nationality, sex, ethnicity, colour, religion, language, disability, gender identity or sexual preference.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) stipulates that everyone is entitled to equal pay, to live a life free from discrimination of any kind, the right to work, education and the right to an adequate standard of living. The rights set out in the declaration range from the basics such as the right to life, but also include those that make life worth living such as rights to food, education, work health and autonomy.

Is it a Need, a Right or both?

When we consider the above definitions for both Human Rights and Human Needs, we can see that there is a clear relationship, in that in some instances there is a crossover. Having access to resources that are required to meet our basic physiological needs in order for humanity to survive is considered to be both a Human Right and a Human Need. For example, any human having access to fresh air, food and water and safe accommodation is considered both a Need and Right.

One could argue that Human Rights violations are directly caused by conflicts between Human Needs, between one type of need, for two different people. To demonstrate this we can utilise the above example with Peter Brabeck and the commodification of water. Brabeck, as someone who has financial security versus someone who is sleeping rough, and is therefore without financial security. Brabeck is very clearly in a much more comfortable position to purchase water as opposed to the other person, who cannot as they have less disposable income. Is Brabeck any more deserving than the other person, through having disposable income, secure accommodation and the ability to meet his own needs? And, is the individual sleeping rough, less deserving because they cannot meet their own basic needs? Both are humans and should have access to water as a Human Right and as a Human Need.

All humans inherently have the Right to equitable treatment, to resources, to equal pay and the right to live safe, and free from discrimination. Therefore, Human Needs are Human Rights, that is the relationship.

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