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Human Rights Violation And Structural Violence

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Published: 20th Apr 2017 in Politics

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In order to verify any hypothesis in regards to the question, definition of structural violence defined by theorists must imperatively be illustrated. There, I will explain the notion of structuralism conveyed by Taylor Landman. As oppose to rationalism, structuralism maintains that states/individuals do not make decisions based on rationality. Rather, states/individuals implanted in relational structures that affect their interests thus their actions. These vague descriptions of the term structuralism bring out the two missing pieces. First, the identification of the exact extent of any constrains that international institutions have it in the individual states. Moreover, a level of restraint that these structures paired with internal establishment has it on a person in any state nation.

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Gultang’s theory of structural violence answers these two questions. The theory of structural violence to his report provides interpretation of violence that any structures cause from the higher level all the way down to the personal level. This is done through the study of how structures contain an actor. After having demonstrated and explained these notions more clearly, the paper will conclude that structural violence is the avoidable inequality “between the potential ability to meet basic needs and their true fulfillment” [see 7]. The theory recognizes the imbalanced division of power in which will ultimately determine the wealth distribution. This imbalanced share of power is the fundamental cause of these structural disparities.

Understanding structural violence in those senses will provide an awareness of how structural violence violates human rights. In this effort, Thomas Pogge and Amrtya Sen’s theories of poverty will be used. Their notions of poverty coupled with human rights theory will ultimately clear and confirm the notion that “when agent/agency is restrained to the extent that basic human rights cannot be attained, structural violence violates human rights” [see 25]. Finally, the study will try to find and indicate any other alternative conceptions, and then by using Chapman’s violations approach works to propose a solution, the effort will come to an end.

In order to understand the concept of structural violence [ii], it is necessary to take, as a starting point, a structuralism’s concept. As oppose to rationalism [iii], structuralism maintains that states and individuals do not make decisions based on rationality. Alternatively, individual agents are neither entirely free nor capable of influencing any specific outcomes. Instead, “individuals are embedded in relational structures that influence their interests and interactions” [5]. A ‘nuclear debate’, which includes two Korean states, provides a splendid example to the hypothesis.

Two Korean states since the outbreak of 6-25 war have been under the form of ‘resting war’. During these later times, two Korean nations focused much of their resources on building effective weapons [iv] [6]. These trends will continue until recently. However, after North Koreans declaration of possessing a nuclear capability, little cold war between North and South Korea faces new triumph; the race for an ultimate weapon.

The South Korean nuclear talks are as clear as water. On one hand, realist rationalizes that the south should posses a warhead. On the other hand, liberalists will contend that only peace can attain proper unification. These talks are inappropriate for these South Koreans, however, as these two debates are not valid. This is because external forces that influence South Koreans decision are already greater in terms of nuclear debate equation. These forces are specifically United States of America and the UN. These two forces jointly prevent South Koreans to contemplate about obtaining this technology. While it is pervasively believed that the world is not structured solely of structures without rational agents who make choices based on rationality, this example illustrates that this theory too can be contested.

These vague descriptions of the term structuralism bring the two missing pieces. First, the identification of the exact extent of any constrains that international institutions have it in the individual states. Moreover, a level of constraint that these structures paired with domestic institution has it on a person in any state nation.

These two questions raised by structuralism on the subject of constrained agency/agent are crucial to structural violence theorists. This is because first, the entire theory of structural violence have been pioneered assuming that the structuralism is relevant. Second theory of structural violence takes much to answer these two questions throughout her literatures. Briefly, the theory of structural violence to its account provides reasoning of ferocity that any structures cause from the higher level all the way down to the personal level.

Galtung was the first man to use the term ‘structural Violence’. However, in order to understand this terminology following steps are required. In the beginning, he defined structural violence as an “avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs” [7], or impairment of human life. The most accentuated term here is the ‘avoidable’. Galtung believed that if a person dies from tuberculosis during the 18th century, then it was not a case of any type of violence. Rather death was inevitability. On the other hand if a person dies from it today, despite the massive availability of cure throughout the world then it is an act of violence [8]. During the 18th century, potential level of death caused by tuberculosis and the actual levels of death matched. At the present, potential level of death caused by this disease is higher than the actual. However, this record seems only valid in a particular area, where medical technology is to the fullest standers.

However, this elaborated design of structural violence in terms of “accessibility measurements and the estimating a gap between possibility and actuality” [9] could be disputable. Mainly because, first defining these potentialities is difficult. Second, determining any certainty when something is ‘avoidable’ is not an exact science; much of these could only be a speculation.

When there are problems, there are solutions. Galtung, having recognized these problems, further explicated the term structural violence by constructing typology of violence framed by three different classes. First stop is the personal violence. The personal violence is the direct violence where actors and objects of violence are promptly identifiable. An example of this can be found in any types of criminal violence to any traditional types of warfare, and indeed mass massacre. Dissimilarly, structural violence is an indirect violence where a source directly afflicts harms toward another person or population by means of structure [10].

“I see no changes wake up in the morning and I ask myself is life worth living should I blast myself? I’m tired of bein’ porr & even worse I’m black my stomach hurts so I’m looking for a purse to snatch Cops give a damn about a negro pull the trigger kill a nigga he’s a hero -” Excerpts from Tupac’s Lyric ‘Changes’.

As the rate of criminals, usage of drugs, gang violence and poverty rose in the late 20th century especially among the minorities in the US, a musical genre ‘rap’ becomes popular during that time. There were two main men responsible for this increase in popularity; Biggy, and Tupac. The reasons behind this rapid growth were unsophisticated; they told things that no one else has before. As can be seen in the mentioned lyrics, they spoke about economical and racial inequalities that gave birth to devastating results. Unfortunately for many of these minor Americans, they could relate to those lyrics that were being conveyed. Those minorities found themselves in a similar circumstances; unemployed, occupying the lowest class of life, experiencing hunger also social discrimination. The message that these artists were attempting to get across the nation were sincere. “We live in a neve’ ending’ violence in our own communities, against our own, and our selves… there are no peace within our community” [11]. With these once uprising movement, what has been unspoken for many years since the slavery era such as discrimination based on race, income and sex in the US finally are talked about it once again.

This story fits the mere definition of structural violence. As written, there was no person directly harming those minorities and inflicting those sufferings on to them. However, those sufferings among those groups of people were exceedingly transparent. African American researchers may claim that those are the result of a structural racial inequality derived from the past (slavery era), creating unequal life chances, education, medical care, justice, and access to a stable and secured jobs.

The extent of truth to those claims can be contested. However by looking at the recent establishments of acts being handled by the US government illustrates that those claims were not far too much off from the truth. The claim that the US minorities suffer from the lack of affordable health care services can be valid by assessing the current presidential administration while it attempts to tackle the problem of health care policy in the US. The unequal education, in which ultimately leads to unequal opportunities to a better and stable job, was an issue for the past present George W Bush as he passed the act called No Child Left behind Act. This act was introduced in the first session of the 107th Congress in the year of 2001 [12]. The act authorized federal programs to improve the general standards of the secondary including primary schools.

Thus, assuming that those claims are true, racial discrimination coupled with poverty, in the fore mentioned example, was what those minorities experienced. This in turn, could be translated in to a social structure that hinders the actual satisfaction of one’s basic need, such as; rights to be educated and health cared as written in the bill of rights, where herein potential level of fulfillments are outlined by the availability of mentioned enjoyed by the general US citizens.

Differentiating different typologies of violence structural violence furthered the understanding of the term structural violence. However, one problem yet remains. That is to say, the question of how structure of any kind could have an effect to an individual. A man who answers this question is not Galtung, it is a man name Paul Farmer.

As an anthropologist, his work contributes much to this research in his own field. However, he further elaborates on the work of Galtung in this context. Paul Farmer in his work seems to agree with Gultang in regards to the definition. However, differences between two men are that Farmer establishes hypothesis to reason what cause this violence to occur. When defining the term structural violence he suggests that “it may not directly implicate the actor of violence exposes a clear logic” [see 13] logic here means the systemic nature of the distribution of violence. He further claims that the structural violence is “not the result of accidents or a force majeure”; however, a consequence generated by humanly created agency. These humanly instituted agencies are ‘implicated through structures that reflect an unequal distribution of power’ [13].

Therefore, to Farmer, the main concept of structural violence is exploitation. This simply means that a greater power ends up with much more through interactions of any kind when compared to a smaller power and their own transaction in the current structural regime throughout the society. This, in the economical literature, is the unequal distribution of wealth or power. The world in this context systematically disfavors those who do not hold any relative power. The multiple proportions of structural violence are then constructed upon this “fundamental inequality” and manifests socially and economically [14].

Structural violence aims to provide a refined structuralism thinkers view of the relationship between structures and agents. Accumulating these concepts, it can be clearly seen that these structures results in an unequal distribution and constrain any agents in the process. Hence, in this context, the nature of structures asserts that power disparities are constructed within the system resulting in violence.

This essay so far has explained the structural violence in terms of definition. It is now a turn to covey of the real world applications in this context. In this effort, Thomas Pogge’s theories of poverty will be used. Moreover, this notion of poverty will ultimately satisfy and establish the hypothesis that when “agent/agency is restrained to the extent that basic human rights cannot be attained, structural violence violates human rights” [15].

Poverty does exist. “Nearly a fifth of all human beings alive today”, that is approximately 1,200 million people, “live below 1$ a day” [16]. Moreover, recent 2006 world institute for development reported that “the richest 1 % owns 40% of the global assets and that the richest 10 % are responsible for 85% of the world total (assets)” [17]. The study of dependency theory [v] contributes much of understanding of this unequal distribution of wealth. The theory conveys of the world that is divided by the two linear paths. First one is the core industrialized countries latter being developing countries. These developing countries are confronted with disadvantages in terms of distribution of wealth especially foreign trade, accessibility of foreign goods, and ability to maximize their economical resources. [18]. One could argue that there are treaties, law and negotiations that prevent this and attempts to aid developing countries. However, developed countries often times are not even “considered when international negotiation takes place to represent their sole interests” these negotiations often represent interests of the higher power agents economically, socially and politically [19]. This evidence illustrates a world where distribution power is held by the hands of a few.

The notion of structural violence is therefore, relevant. It is because first, as this evidence suggests, the power to decide allocation of any resources throughout our world is clearly uneven. Second, as dependency theory suggests, once equipped with greater power, these agents will always seek to benefit from any transactions. Third, by having larger power to influence any outcomes stronger will inevitably benefit from any interactions. Understanding of the world operating through these structures could only lead to one thing; that is to say poverty. Lastly these inequalities which leads to a state of poverty, creates a condition where the actual ability to meet one’s potentials in her life are occluded, especially in the developing countries.

There are clear indicants, which effectively establish and identify the violence, during the process of disparity between possible and actual abilities to meet one’s potentials in those circumstances. Herein are few examples. Roughly, 815 million are undernourished. Moreover, 1.1 billion are prohibited from the healthy water, whereas more than 880 million does not have guaranteed adequate health services. One third of all human deaths, some 50,000 a day, are due to poverty-related causes, which could have been easily preventable with better nutrition, safe drinking water, vaccines, and cheap rehydration packs and of course antibiotics [20].

Therefore, it is possible to draw a connection between poverty and structural violence. While this must be evident, brining in the concept of human rights discourses is a matter of a different subject. In this attempt, in concordance to Kathleen Ho’s research, Amartya Sen’s approach will be used. Briefly, his theory answers to the question of how structural violence in this case poverty violates human rights.

Amartya Sen’s work agreed and furthered the Thomas Pogg’s work of poverty. His view indicates of poverty not only as a case of differentiated income of wealth, rather, inadequate control over the economical resources, which ultimately ends up being a factor, that works to dissatisfy the basic human rights [21]. In his conception, he argues that in order to conceive poverty, concentrating on the opportunity of an individual to pursue her own objectives is a must. This coupled with the fact that the different set of value in which different individuals may desire results in a following hypothesis; I as a student may require more or less of a dissimilar sets of basic needs then an average working man to be able to achieve or execute things that I may value. If then, poverty is a “failure of capabilities to reach certain minimally acceptable level”. Herein capabilities may be referring to the freedom such as, ability to avoid hunger, illiteracy, to a basic health care. Thus, in order to achieve true freedom, i.e capabilities, he contends that removal of an institution which constrain and results in economical and political inequalities, individuals can secure their basic rights [22].

Gultung and Farmer’s definition of structural violence was, as indicated, ‘ability to avoid’; this idea thus can be applicable to the discourse of human rights when conceiving poverty in this way. As Sen argued of the disparity between the measurements of actual, and possibility gap, this when implied to a context of human rights discourses becomes a gap between dejure rights and defecto rights. Herein de facto rights represent actual, whereas de jure rights represent potential [v] [23]. In this context, violence, in Gutung’s right is present when right of de facto is less than de jure right.

In this sense, conversion from structural violence to violation of human right is conceiving that structural relationship induces constrained agency. As mentioned, structural violence clearly indicates the relations between differentials in agents in terms of power to influence an individual’s decision, thus outcomes. When applied, in the context of human right discourses than, this becomes Structural violence that causes human rights violation when constrained agent suffers from the gap between de facto rights and dejure rights [24]

Therefore, structural violence, in this case poverty, is a violation of human rights. As formulated by Sen, poverty is a systematic or structural denial of basic ‘freedom’, resulting in constrained agency to a degree that these individuals are incapable of reaching their full potential capabilities of meeting the required basic rights to a life. This is a problem not only because of the poverty itself but denial of one basic rights result in the domino effect of denial of other rights, resulting in the mass human rights violation of other disciplines such as affordable health care, education (higher), and so forth. This is because poverty, in the common wealth nations does not only mean lack of resources; it is denying access to any other necessary basic things to live. This illuminates the experiences of poor as denial of de facto rights relatively to a wealthier or actual. This results for them to have less access to a possibility of continuation with their general lives [25].

The question raised by Ho here is “why the poor must bear this burden of violations” [see Bibliography Kathleen Ho pg. 8]. This question is answered by Farmer. He asserts that violation of human rights is not a random result of the means of disordered distribution; it is not an accident. However, these violations are indicants of much more profound power relations in terms of distribution. These coupled by the linkage of these to a social condition determines the outcome of the winner, those who will be able to avoid the violence, and losers who will end up suffering from this heartfelt violence. [26] While poverty works as a prime example of human rights violation, fore indicated example of social factor such as racism, also illustrate as an additional instance of structural violence that encumber an agent, which ultimately also leads to a human rights violation. Structural theorist’s conceptions discourse that there are inequalities socially.

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However, unlike the case of poverty, those (social) often times are not visible. Supporters of this hypothesis are Bourgois and Scheper, as they debated that social structures have instituted structural violence, thus much of violence is invisible. However, this does not mean the existence of violence is not there. However, as they have contended, social structural violence is the precise part of elements, which compose one’s basic or social and political life. Thus, these social issues are generally hidden from our sheer eyes because it is part of everyday life. In another words, it (structure which cause various constrains) has been already been accepted as a part of a social norm [27].

The main theme here for the social structural violence, thus is the class, gender, and race inequalities, which determines the location of the individual socially, which in this case [position of their social location] makes them constrained from their potentials. This makes them vulnerable to human rights violation in every day of their lives.

So far, this essay discussed human rights violation in the context of structuralism. The alternative conceptions of violation of human rights, in this context however, focus on an individual who are responsible for producing structural violence thus violation. In this effort, and mass killing theory written by Benjamin Valentino will be used.

Their work begins by criticizing academics of structuralism of having to spend time on wrong factor. Instead, they argue that the role of culprits who advocate these structures must be at the center of structural violence research [28]. Thus, instead of band wagon[ing] to a structural research, they take realists understanding of the world, where an agent is the focus of their work. They believe in the world where it is maintained by hands of selected few. However, they too understood the importance of structure in relation to the human rights violation.Valentino and Michell concluded that a person or a selected few group of persons perhaps are responsible for a human rights violation through structural violence. However, created structure violates human rights not the people or a person (then it would rather be a direct violence) [29]. Thus, it can be said that realists take structuralistic approach importantly to their account.

Although Asian values debate [vii] and universality of human right has been neglected from this essay, the one another perceptive include culturalistic illustration for human rights violations. Briefly, there are two contestants to this theory. On one hand culture is defined by these theorists is a practice of culture that may systematically discriminate against any non specific. As an example, cultural practices especially in Muslim countries or East Asian countries discriminate against women from right to vote, domestic abuse, and exclude them from opportunities to work. On the other hand, there is the faction of different cultures. The main problem for this study is that these non common wealth cultures (mostly non western or non democratic view of human rights) deny even the notion of basic human rights, such as shelter, food and clothe and so forth. However, due to the belief that human rights can and are translated differently to a different culture, this culturalristical problem indicates that these basic human violations (from our perspectives however) could be justifiable under different culture and circumstances. The problem worsens as these cultures may believe that there are universal human rights. Human rights to their account are no predetermined however, culture specific [30]. Although this perception of the human right violation was left out entirely from the essay, for what is worth Gultang himself also discussed and answered how culture in this context contributes much to understanding of structural violence thus violations [31].

This paper however, took structuralism as the main source of the argument which is different from realist and culturistic views. It is because realists blame individuals, and culturists point their fingers to the role of cultural influences that may alter or constrain an agent, whereas structural view takes structural relations into their main account. Structuralism does receive criticism for being entirely free from the role of individuals and cultures. Thus, structural violence may be insignificant or even false in the role that it plays in the human rights violation studies. However, as this paper indicated study of structures in this sense provide exceptionally convincing explanations for constrains. Consequently, these constrains, as argued, results in human rights violation. In any cases, realists’ point of view and culture theorists does pose as prominent figures in the scope for the further study.


At the center of structural violence and human rights violation discourse, there lies Farmer’s theory. Human rights should be declared universal. However, having one’s right violated or even the risk of it is not universal [32]. Structure causes human rights violations and places it on one specific and unfortunate population. As this essay illustrated this disparity traces back to the uneven distribution of power to foresee a transaction. When these manifest socially and economically, results in a gap between potential and actual ability to meet basic needs of human. When in an instance where social and especially economical structure causes constrain, in terms of meeting the ability for an agent to reach potential needs, structural violence becomes human rights violation. This essay used poverty to prove this hypothesis.

Where there seem to be no solution for this problem, Chapman’s violation approach maybe is a way to start solving the ultimate problem. Briefly, he contends that this problem could be solved by joining forces (through cooperation) to adjust financial institutions internationally also through international aids [33]. However, the problem lies with the bigger powers in the equation of distribution. There are no incentives for these agents to stop abusing these structures to their benefit. This is because by doing so they will too end up being a victim of structural violence.


This view can be contested: The concept of Human Rights theory has existed ever since the era of Ancient Greece some believe. Where others would disagree basing their arguments on the fact that they had system of slavery, brutal sacrifices to gods, and game of gladiators.

Structural Violence: Structural violence is a term first used in the 1960s commonly ascribed to Johan Galtung. It refers to a form of violence based on the systematic ways in which a given social structure or social institution “kills people” by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.’ Examples: Elitism, ethnocentrism, classism, racism, sexism, adultism, nationalism [1].

Rationalism: Rationality of a state dictates its action. Main examples of rationalists are realists who believe the anarchy system of the world where everyone is for themselves. Thus it is rational to take their interest in to an account [2].

Capable arms: Herein capable arms generally describe any weapons used in the violent engagements.

De facto rights, De jure rights :

De facto: means practice (actual) but not ordained, or non official law.

De jure: Actual law. Matter of a law or Governance [3].

Asian Value Debates: “The debate on Asian values has taken place both within and outside Asia, Asian values having been contrasted to “Western values”, and its relevance is clearly evident in terms of the broader issue of the respective duties of States and individuals to one another. It thus also has a bearing on the protection of the individual and States’ obligations in that regard. No matter how the issues surrounding Asian values are characterized, it is clear that those values are, or have become, relevant to the broader discussions on human rights concepts and international human rights law. As such, it must be asked what relation they bear t o international humanitarian law, to the protection that law provides for the individual in the context of armed conflict and to the duties it imposes on States” [4]. Extraction (without changing a word)


Kathleen Ho.: Structural Violence as a Human Rights Violation Essex Human Rights Review Vol. 4 No. 2 September 2007

Farmer: Pathologies of Power (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005)

Chapman Audrey: ‘A “Violations Approach” for Monitoring the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ (1996) 18.1 Human Rights Quarterly

Pogg /Sen : Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983)

Gultang Johan:

“Violence, Peace, Peace Research” Jounrnal of Peace Research 6.3, no. (1993)

Kulturelle Gewalt” Der Burger im Staat 43, no. (1993)

‘Violence, War and their impact’ 2004 Polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 5

Available at: http://them.polylog.org/5/fgj-en.htm.

Landman : Studying Human Rights (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006)


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