New report: property rights are human rights – IRR

10 November 2021 - Property rights are human rights and need to be respected for that. They not only give people a legal and social recognition of their assets, but are an intrinsic part of maintaining a free society. This is the case globally and in Africa.

Property rights are human rights and need to be respected for that. They not only give people a legal and social recognition of their assets, but are an intrinsic part of maintaining a free society. This is the case globally and in Africa.

This is the thrust of the latest report from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR),  A True ‘Human Right’: Why Property Rights are Indispensable, published today.

The report notes that the right of people to own and use property is recognised by multiple philosophical, religious and cultural traditions. Influential countervailing arguments, however, have held that property rights can and do operate as a means to perpetuate economic injustice – seen thus, property rights would be a hindrance to the realisation of other rights.

Debates between these positions have existed for hundreds of years, not least among the various delegations during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The same arguments were held in South Africa in the drafting of the 1996 Constitution.

As one scholar put it: ‘That the human right to own property is still not deeply entrenched in international human rights law is perhaps because many people see it as a right of the rich.’

The IRR’s report, however, defends the understanding of property rights (or the right of people to hold property) as a human right, no less than any other. Looking specifically at the African context, we see a fairly robust statistical relationship between property rights and civil and political liberties in the continent’s countries – although it is not entirely clear what the nature of any cause-and-effect relationship is.

The report presents a number of case studies, with a focus on Africa – including South Africa, Zimbabwe, the erstwhile Zaire, Uganda and Egypt – to demonstrate how repression and human rights abuses often targeted the property rights of victims.

It also examines the thorny issue of what should be done to enhance property rights and the ability of people to accumulate property itself. This is not always a straightforward matter, in the context of weak administrative systems. The report looks at some possible solutions to this.

Moreover, authoritarian governments have recognised that property rights have a certain functional purpose, and have attempted to appropriate a limited understanding of it: enhancing the protection of private property – to an extent – while delinking it from the broader questions of civil and political freedom.

The report calls for recognition of property rights as a human right, whose violation is a serious matter. The words of Canadian social scientist Rhoda Howard-Hassmann are worth quoting: ‘My own preliminary defense of the human right to own property is grounded in the strategic and intrinsic values of the right. Strategically, the right to own property helps people to realize their economic human rights, such as freedom from hunger, and also assists in development. Intrinsically, everyone needs the right to own property in order to preserve their human dignity.’

Read the full report at: https://irr.org.za/reports/occasional-reports/a-true-human-right-why-property-rights-are-indispensable

Media contact: Terence Corrigan, IRR Project Manager – 066 470 4456; terence@sairr.org.za

Media enquiries: Michael Morris – 066 302 1968; michael@irr.org.za

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