Friday Sermon: Why Are Some Essential Items Considered Human Rights And Others Not?

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Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services”. It is starkly noticeable that water is missing as a human right.

In part one of these series, we stated that change no longer needs to take centuries. The coronavirus is evidence from Allah (swt) to us that if we want to refashion society for the better, we can do so immediately.

In part two we proposed three principles from the Qur’an: Not to go backwards from what has been achieved; national growth must not be primarily measured by material achievements nor value people on a cost basis; and that our resources are not owned by governments or corporations but for all of us equally.

In this next part, we will look at how essential items are declassified from a human right to only a ‘need’ and how this ultimately impacts whether some people have access or not, or at what cost. We also need to reflect on who influences us to think about our rights as commodities and whether we want to continue organising our world in such a way.

Why doesn’t the UK have enough ventilators and PPE to fight Covid-19?

In our previous part, we stated that the UK and other governments have chosen to stockpile tens of thousands of weapons for the ability to kill people, but not protective clothing in order to save people.

According to armscontrol.org, the U.K. spent $8.7 billion in 2019 on its nuclear weapons. That could have paid for 100,000 ICU beds, 30,00 ventilators, and the salaries of 50,000 British nurses and 40,000 British doctors.

What makes a government or its people consider this to be an acceptable preference? Arguably both respond to the ‘right to protect life’; one does so by having a superior arsenal and ‘protects’ from war whilst the other by having a healthcare system capable of protecting us from a pandemic. But what makes it so normal to accede to one but not the other? Simply put, if we said ‘we’re not stockpiling weapons in case of war’ why would there be outrage but not if we said the same about protective clothing for doctors?

Why is water or healthcare not considered a human right by some?

It is well known that the central tenet of Bernie Sander’s political career has been ‘healthcare is a human right, not a commodity.’ Why is it that so many grow up thinking that healthcare should be provided by a private insurer, who sets the terms to its benefit?

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (it should be called ‘A Declaration of Rights’) reads, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services”.

It is starkly noticeable that water is missing as a human right. Compare this to the Qur’an which provides four essential rights since the beginning of human existence: food, water, clothing, and shelter. The Qur’an states:

And [mention] when We said to the angels, ‘Prostrate to Adam,’ and they prostrated, except Iblees; he refused. So We said, ‘O Adam, indeed this is an enemy to you and to your wife. Then let him not remove you from Paradise so you would suffer. Indeed, it is for you not to be hungry therein or be unclothed. And indeed, you will not be thirsty therein or be hot from the sun’”.

(Sarah TaHa verses 116-119)

Not everybody believes water is a human right. In a documentary Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, former CEO of the Nestle Group, the world’s largest producer of food-stuffs, stated NGOs “bang on about declaring water a public right. That means as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution. The other view says that water is a foodstuff and should have a value.” Under such influences, the World Water Forum downgraded water from a right to a “need” (Muir, 2013).

As a result, utilities, more often in the hands of corporations than governments, act as providers with the latter as regulators, appears to disenfranchise many millions from basic human services. The government is no longer the provider, but the regulator; and the regulations are set by the corporations and their sponsoring (bribing) politicians.

What people don’t realise is, when they buy water from Nestle – a company on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions list for their service to the illegal state of ‘Israel’ – they are not actually buying water, as that is their right, but buying the plastic bottle and packaging.

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This corporatisation of Rights and Essential items reached another shocking level when last week a franchise of Subway the sandwich retailer advertised the following:

“Free medical mask to protect you and your kids!
Buy any two regular sandwiches and get one mask free!”

When this exploitation, mocking, and framing of people’s needs is so normal it becomes an advert, it is no wonder we allow the stockpiling of weapons over protective clothing for our doctors.

The central tenet of an Islamic Economic system is to remove inequity and injustice

So long as the form of distribution disenfranchises an individual or a people from access to a right, such a form is invalid in Islamic thought, as it stands in contradistinction to the principle of social justice. This appears consistent with a Qur’anic reading of “Allah has it that you love faith and made it adorned in your hearts. And [Allah] has made hateful to you denial of Truth, iniquity and sin. Those are the truly guided ones” (Sarah al-Hujaraat verse 7):

.وَلَٰكِنَّ اللَّهَ حَبَّبَ إِلَيْكُمُ الْإِيمَانَ وَزَيَّنَهُ فِي قُلُوبِكُمْ وَكَرَّهَ إِلَيْكُمُ الْكُفْرَ وَالْفُسُوقَ وَالْعِصْيَانَ أُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الرَّاشِدُونَ

Thus if utilities, however they are defined, truly are rights, they must (i) be equally accessible to all humans and (ii) available, including when unaffordable or the cost to supplier sharply increases and (iii) stockpiled and replenished for all foreseeable circumstances.

How should we measure society and its progress?

In the previous sermon we evidenced from the Qur’an that Allah (swt) does not measure the success of a society by its trade or luxuries; compare this to how nations often cite GDP as its primary measurement.

There are other forms of measurement, including Gross National Happiness. This measures the following to denote a successful community: living standards; a clean environment; psychological wellbeing; health; time use; education; cultural diversity; good governance; ecological diversity; and community vitality.

If you take into consideration the Bernie Sander’s model, he proposes an ‘Economic Bill of Rights’: affordable housing; healthcare; living wage; and secure retirement.

If we want this to be our reality, now is a better and easier time to fight for it than at any other, whilst we are in the midst of remodelling society.


Muir, P. (2013) The human rights and wrongs of Nestlé and water for all. Available here.

Subway’s advert for free face masks found here.

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