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IS THERE A RIGHT NOT TO BE POOR?

Sigrun I. Skogly *

The link between poverty and human rights has been made with increased frequency
in the last few years.2 This attention to both the causal and normative aspects of this
link coincides with the deepening of human rights understanding in international
circles and the more consistent approach to all of the rights contained in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights3 (UDHR) since the mid-1980s. The United Nations has
carried out several studies, and passed a number of resolutions on this topic4, and
work towards a possible Declaration on (Extreme) Poverty and Human Rights has
been initiated in the last few years.5

1
2

Senior Lecturer in Law, Lancaster University Law School. Much of the content of this article
stems from work I did as a consultant and rapporteur for the Office of the High Commissioner
for Human Rights on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights in 2000-2001. I would in particular
like to thank Laurent Meillan, Stefanie Grant and Thomas Hammarberg for input in the
earlier work. The content of this article reflects my own views and not those of the Office
of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"The Politics of Human Rights," The Economist, 18 August 2001.
See for instance Alston, "No right to complain about being poor: The Need for an Optional
Protocol to the Economic Rights Covenant," in Eide and Helgesen (eds.) The Future of
Human Rights Protection in a Changing World: Fifty years since the Four Freedoms Address.
Essays in Honour of Torkel Opsahl (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1991).
Adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948. G.A. Res. 217A(III), G.A.OR,
3rd Sess., Part I, Resolutions, 71.
Among these documents are: (i) UN Commission on Human Rights: Resolution 2000/12 on
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, E/CN.4/RES/2000/12; Resolution 1999/26 on Human
Rights and Extreme Poverty, E/CN.4/RES/1999/26; Resolution 1998/25 on Human Rights
and Extreme Poverty, E/CN.4/RES/1998/25; Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, Report of
the independent expert, Ms.Lizin, E/CN.4/1999/48; Report of the Independent Expert, Ms.
Lizin, E/CN.4/2000/52; Report of the Workshop on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, E/
CN.4/2000/52/Add.l; Follow-up to the 4"1 World Conference on Women: Review of
mainstreaming in organisations of the UN System, E/CN.4/1998/22; (ii) UN Sub-Commission
on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights: Final Report on Human Rights and
Extreme Poverty, submitted by Special Rapporteur Mr. Leandro Despouy, E/CN.4/Sub.2/
1996/13; Resolution 2001/8 on Implementation of existing human rights norms and standards
in the context of the fight against poverty, E/CN.4/Sub.2/RES/2001/8; (iii) General Assembly:
Resolution on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, 8 March 1999, A/RES/53/146;
Implementation of the first United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (19972006), Report of the Secretary-General, 7 September 1999, A/54/316; (iv) UN Committee
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Statement on Poverty and the International Covenant
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted on 4 May 2001, E/C. 12/2001/10.
'Extreme' is here put in brackets, as it is not clear whether a distinction between 'poverty'
and 'extreme poverty' would be made in a possible future declaration or guiding principles on
human rights and poverty.

Human Rights Law Review - Volume 2, Number 1 - 2002

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"Does it help to think of poverty or inadequate health care as violations of


basic rights? "x

60 S.I. Skogly

THE UNITED NATIONS WORK ON POVERTY AND HUMAN


RIGHTS
In 1990, the Commission on Human Rights initiated work on a link between poverty
and human rights, and requested that the Sub-Commission on Prevention of
Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (now the Sub-Commission on the
Protection and Promotion of Human Rights) consider this issue.6 The Sub-Commission
subsequently appointed Mr. Leandro Despouy as Special Rapporteur on the issue,
and he produced his final report on human rights and extreme poverty in 1996.7
Following this work, and the proclamation of the United Nations Decade for the
Eradication of Poverty, the Commission on Human Rights appointed an independent
expert, Ms. A.-M. Lizin, on the question of extreme poverty and human rights.8 The
Independent Expert delivered two reports.9 In the Commission on Human Rights
Resolution 1998/25, she had been requested to make suggestions to the Commission
on Human Rights on a possible draft declaration on human rights and extreme poverty.
Following her interim report in which she recommended that a meeting be held in
order to draw up the basic elements of a preliminary draft declaration on human
rights and extreme poverty, the Commission on Human Rights asked the Office of the
6

UN Commission on Human Rights, Resolution 1990/15 on Human Rights and Extreme


Poverty, E.CN.4/RES/1990/15.
UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Final Report on
Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, submitted by Special Rapporteur Mr. Leandro Despouy,
supra note 4.
UN Commission on Human Rights, Resolution 1998/25 on Human Rights and Extreme
Poverty, supra note 4.
UN Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, Report of the
Independent Expert Ms. Lizin, supra note 4, and Report of the Independent Expert, Ms.
Lizin, supra note 4.

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The attention to this link also coincides with the UN's Decade on Poverty (19972006), and Secretary General Kofi Annan's call for mainstreaming human rights in all
of the activities of the United Nations and its agencies. Thus, a human rights approach
to development is now seen as a convergence with poverty eradication strategies.
There are several interesting questions to be asked in this context. What does
the link between poverty and human rights add to the work for poverty alleviation,
and to flip the coin - what does it add to the work to guarantee human rights? Is
there a value added to approach these two concepts simultaneously, or does it
distract attention from the serious core of human rights violations? Does the link
between human rights and poverty imply a right not to be poor?
In this article I will dwell on some of the topics that arise from the questions asked
above. I will start by briefly tracing the work that the human rights bodies of the
United Nations have carried out to clarify the link between poverty and human
rights. Secondly, I will discuss the existing normative framework for addressing
poverty through a human rights approach. Then, I will analyse whether indeed it can
be argued that there is a right not to be poor. Finally, I will address the possible
effects that a link between human rights and poverty may have on efforts for poverty
alleviation.

Is there a right not to be poor?

61

10

11

12

13
14
15

16
17

UN Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Workshop on Human Rights and Extreme
Poverty, supra note 4.
UN Commission on Human Rights, Resolution 2000/12 on Human Rights and Extreme
Poverty, supra note 4, at para. 8.
UN Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Expert Seminar on Human Rights and
Extreme Poverty, 7-10 February 2001, E/CN.4/2001/54/Add.l., at para. 16.
Ibid., at para. 33.
UN Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/2001/L.45, at para. 7(a).
UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Resolution 2001/
8 on Implementation of Existing Human Rights Norms and Standards in the Context of the
Fight Against Extreme Poverty, supra note 4, at para. 1.
Ibid., at para. 3.
UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Statement on Poverty and the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, supra note 4.

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High Commissioner to organize a workshop in 1999 with the Independent Expert on


Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, experts of the Sub-Commission and relevant
functional commissions of ECOSOC to consult on the main elements of such a draft
declaration. The usefulness of a declaration was unanimously confirmed by the
workshop.10 At its session in 2000, the Commission on Human Rights considered the
need for an expert meeting aimed at an in-depth analysis of the relationship between
human rights and extreme poverty. Therefore, in Resolution 2000/12 the Commission
on Human Rights requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
to 'organize, before the fifty-seventh session of the Commission on Human Rights,
a seminar to consider the need to develop a draft declaration on extreme poverty and,
if appropriate, to identify its specific points."1
On the basis of this resolution, the Office of the High Commissioner invited
government representatives and experts of the United Nations agencies, funds and
programmes, the Human Rights Commission and Sub-Commission, the international
financial institutions, and academic experts in the field and interested nongovernmental organisations to a seminar in Geneva from 7 - 9 February 2001. In this
seminar, the participants agreed that guiding principles on poverty and human rights
needed to be developed, either through a declaration or in some other form,12 and
'expressed their hope that the Commission on Human Rights would request the
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to continue the work to consider
the elements to be included in such guiding principles'.13 The Commission on Human
Rights passed a resolution in which it asked the Sub-Commission to consider the
need for guiding principles on the implementation of existing human rights norms
and standards in the context of the fight against extreme poverty.14 This request was
subsequently taken up by the Sub-Commission, which passed a resolution in August
2001, in which it reaffirmed that the existence of widespread extreme poverty inhibits
the full and effective enjoyment of human rights,15 and requested that a working
paper be undertaken, with the assistance of the secretariat, on the need to develop
guiding principles on the implementation of existing human rights norms and
standards in the context of the fight against extreme poverty.16 Finally, the UN
Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted a statement on Poverty
and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in
May 2001."

62 5./. Skogly

THE EXISTING HUMAN RIGHTS NORMATIVE FRAMEWORK


RELEVANT FOR THE ALLEVIATION OF POVERTY
In the documents that resulted from the above mentioned UN work, the philosophical
and practical connections between poverty and human rights have been made. It is
recognised that the lack of financial resources is only one of the characteristics of
life in poverty. The insecurity, the lack of ability to make use of services and
opportunities,21 the humiliation and social and economic exclusion,22 are other and
equally important characteristics. In his work, Development as Freedom, Amartya
Sen claims that 'poverty must be seen as the deprivation of basic capabilities rather
than merely a lowness of incomes, which is the standard criterion of identification of
poverty'.23 To focus on the size of income only is too simplistic and means that the
18

19

20

21

22

23

The UNDP has worked on the issues of poverty, development and human rights in a variety
of settings. For instance, the Human Development Report,2000 was subtitled: Human
Development and Human Rights. For further information, visit UNDP's website at http://
www.undp.org.
See in particular the work that has been undertaken by the Bank through the major study,
Voices of the Poor. See below for further discussion.
The IMF's poverty reductions strategies are expressed through the Poverty Reduction and
Growth Facility, which builds on the member states on Poverty Reduction Strategies. These
are expressed through the PRSP - Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, which member states
produce in order to obtain support from the IMF and the World Bank. For further information,
see http://www.imf.org and http://www.worldbank.org.
Final Report on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, submitted by Special Rapporteur Mr.
Leandro Despouy, supra note 4, at para. 125.
Sen explains that
the difficulties that some groups of people experience in 'taking part in the life of
the community' can be crucial for any study of 'social exclusion'. The need to take
part in the life of a community may induce demands for modern equipment (televisions,
videocassette recorders, automobiles and so on) in a country where such facilities are
more or less universal (unlike what would be needed in less affluent countries), and
this imposes a strain on a relatively poor person in a rich country even when that
person is at a much higher level of income compared with people in less opulent
countries: Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford: OUP, 1999) at 89-90.
Ibid., at 87.

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Thus, the work of the United Nations Human Rights bodies has been going on
for more than a decade, although the tangible results are not all that significant.
However, in spite of the lack of a declaration or firmer binding principles as a result of
the UN's efforts so far, recognition should be given to the impact of this work in
indirect ways. In spite of 'poverty' or 'poor' not being used in the language of any
of the major human rights instruments, the link is now explicitly being made, by the
High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Commission and others.
There has also been a debate about whether it is pertinent to distinguish between
'poverty' and 'extreme poverty' and commentators have become far more aware of
the difficulties in applying this distinction. Finally, in parallel with this work within
the UN Human Rights system, attention to poverty has increased in a number of
other contexts, not least through the activities of the UNDP,18 the World Bank,19 and
the IMF through the Poverty Reduction Strategies.20

Is there a right not to be poor?

63

important aspects of relative poverty for different people based on their ability to
function in society is lost. Thus, the capabilities refer to the functions that a person
is performing or is able to perform based on the resources available. The functions
may be elementary, such as being adequately nourished, or more complex, such as
being able to take part in 'the life of the community and having self-respect'.24 Sen
clarifies this by introducing the concept of 'freedom':

To introduce this thinking into our discussion on the relationship between poverty
and human rights, it is important to view human rights fulfilment as bringing
'capabilities' for people living in poverty. The conditions under which people in
extreme poverty live represent violations of human rights. Poverty is not a
'phenomenon'; it is instead an expression of human struggle and human misery. In
the words of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, poverty in
its true light, is 'a denial of a whole range of rights pertaining to the human being,
based on each individual's dignity and worth.'26 The poor are the subjects of poverty,
and the poor have rights that are systematically violated. If the human rights violations
experienced by poor people are to be addressed, poverty will need to be addressed
through the rights of the individual, the family and the social and economic setting
in which they live. Therightsof the poor and the violations thereof are more significant
and complex than what can be captured through statistics of poverty, and particularly
statistics based on income alone.
Ever since the early days of human rights development on an international level,
the need to address the plight of the poor has implicitly been made. Franklin D.
Roosevelt's famous 'Four Freedoms' speech from 1941 included the freedom from
want, alongside freedom of expression and speech, freedom to worship and freedom
from fear.27 The comprehensive approach taken in the inclusion of rights in the
UDHR expressed this understanding that human rights violations and oppression
can occur through material and non-material deprivation. Yet, poverty or poor people
are not directly addressed in any of the major human rights instruments, and the
special situations that people living in poverty experience are therefore not explicitly
taken into account in the current normative human rights regime.
Ibid., at 75.
Ibid. (Emphasis in original).
UN Commission on Human Rights, Summary Records, 41" meeting, "Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights," 1 May 2000, E/CN.4/2000/SR.41, at para. 2.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address to the Congress, 6 January 1941.

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Capability is thus a kind of freedom: the substantive freedom to achieve


alternative functioning combinations (or, less formally put, the freedom to
achieve various lifestyles). For example, an affluent person who fasts may
have the same functioning achievement in terms of eating or nourishment as
a destitute person who is forced to starve, but the first person does have a
different "capability set" than the second (the first can choose to eat well and
be well nourished in a way the second cannot).25

64 5./. Skogly

The ICESCR and the ICCPR were both adopted in 1966 and both entered into force in 1976.
Human dignity as a central element in human rights is confirmed in Article 1 of the Universal
Declaration on Human Rights, which reads: "All human beings are born free and equal in
dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one
another in a spirit of brotherhood.'
Narayan et al Voices of the Poor, Vol. I: Can Anyone Hear Us? Voices from 47 Countries
(Washington DC: World Bank, 1999), at 6 ('Voices of the Poor / ' ) ; Final Report on Human
Rights and Extreme Poverty, submitted by the Special Rapporteur Mr. Leandro Despouy,
supra note 4; Narayan et al Voices of the Poor: Crying out for Change (Washington DC:
World Bank, 2000) ('Voices of the Poor ir).
UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Statement on Poverty and the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, supra note 4, at para. 14.
Supra note 26, at para. 12.

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During the 55 years of the UN's existence, the development of a normative


framework for human rights has seen legal codification of large number of rights, and
provided terms of reference for both individual and collective rights, including within
the later category the rights to self-determination and development. Through the
adoption and entry into force of human rights instruments (in particular the two
International Covenants28), the legal framework for a rights-based protection of the
poor has implicitly been created. However, this creation of a framework has not
necessarily corresponded with a clear attention being paid to the plight of the poor
in the implementation and supervision of human rights guarantees.
Qualitatively, the current human rights regime provides the necessary rights to
address the structural impediments faced by people living in poverty. Or, in other
words, the respect, protection and fulfilment of these human rights would represent
a significant step towards the eradication of poverty. All human rights, civil, political,
economic, social and cultural, have grown out of a philosophy of ending oppression
by the state (or other actors) and of ensuring certain minimum standards for the
existence of human beings. It is both about human dignity and about human needs.
Human rights provide for the fulfilment of human needs through a respect for human
dignity.29 In many studies on poverty also, the element of human dignity comes
forward rather explicitly,30 often being one of the most common problems that poor
people mention. As human rights provide a framework for empowerment and for
entitlements31, the human dignity that results from their advance represents an integral
part in relieving the pain of poverty. But not only human dignity. The fact that
human rights are rights that every human being possesses by virtue of being born
human, the entitlement to the material content of the rights cannot be removed.
Thus a non-fulfilment of this material content will represent violations, rather than
non-existence of rights. This implies a qualitative difference from any provision
made through charity or other forms for basic needs assistance, not founded on a
rights-based approach. According to the High Commissioner, a rights-based
approach to poverty reduction goes further than promoting implicit human rights
enjoyment. Such an approach implies that the 'realization of human rights [is] the
primary goal of poverty reduction.'32

Is there a right not to be poor?

65

Specific rights affected

ICESCR Article 11 and UDHR Article 25. The Sub-Commission on the Protection and
Promotion of Human Rights specifically recalls this latter Article in Resolution 2001/8,
supra note 15.
Final Report on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, submitted by the Special Rapporteur
Mr. Leandro Despouy, supra note 4, at para. 125.
Declaration on the Right to Development, Adopted by the UN General Assembly, 10 December
1986.
Adopted 20 November 1989, entered into force 2 September 1990.
The Preamble to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights ("The Banjul Charter')
contains the following passage:
Convinced that it is henceforth essential to pay a particular attention to the right to
development and that civil and political rights cannot be dissociated from economic,
social and cultural rights in their conception as well as universality and that the
satisfaction of economic, social and cultural rights is a guarantee for the enjoyment
of civil and political rights.
The Banjul Charter was adopted in 1981 and entered into force in 1986.

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More concretely, poor people experience violations of a large range of rights, all of
which would - if they were respected, protected and fulfilled - contribute to moving
people out of poverty. Part of the problem is a lack of respect for the right to an
adequate standard of living,33 which results in an insecurity for people that implies
difficulties in benefiting from services that are being provided for them, or from
development projects aimed at improving their situation.34 In this sense, poverty is
a structural problem, the solution of which may lay in respect for and fulfilment of
human rights. The ability to exercise one's right to food, to housing, clothing,
medical care and education, through the exercise of arightto participation, expression
and other civil and political rights, is vital for individuals if they are to move away
from being poor, and for society to eradicate poverty. All of these rights are already
part of the normative framework of international human rights law, but need to be
focused upon in work with poor people.
As the poor are among the most vulnerable to deterioration in their living
conditions, the predictability and certainty that comes with respect for and fulfilment
of human rights are of utmost importance. Poor people experience nutritional low
standards, lack of access to education and to housing, lack of adequate medical
treatment, restrictions on their freedom of movement, etc. This implies that in order
to remedy the situation, a number of human rights need to be ensured, and a
comprehensive approach to this is merited. This comprehensive approach is to be
found in a number of human rights instruments, such as the Universal Declaration,
the Declaration on the Right to Development,35 the Convention on the Rights of the
Child,36 and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.37 In the following
section I will be discussing some of the rights that are crucial in terms of the lives of
the poor. This should not be taken as an exhaustive elaboration, but rather as
examples both in terms of issues and of rights.

66

S.I. Skogly

Right to adequate food


'Poverty for me is the fact that we bought some black flour with our last
money, some flour cheaper than the rest. When we baked the bread it was
not edible. We were speechless and ate it by force since we did not have
anything else.' 38

The right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health42
'We watch our children die because we cannot pay the high hospital bills'.43
The lack of adequate health care which is free of charge is often a direct cause of
poverty. 'For poor families who are already highly vulnerable, the costs of a sudden
illness can be devastating, both because of work income lost and the costs of

3g

Testimony from Macedonia 1998, in Voices of the Poor I, supra note 30, at 53.
Ibid.
UDHR Article 25, and ICESCR Article 11.
41
Article 11(2) reads:
The States parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone
to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the
measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:
(a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full
use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of
nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the
most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;
(b) Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries,
to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.
42
As guaranteed by UDHR Article 25, and ICESCR Article 12. For an in-depth analysis of the
39

right to health see Toebes, The Right to Health as a Human Right in International Law
(Antwerp: Intersentia/Hart, 1999).
43

Ghana 1995, Voices of the Poor I, supra note 30, at 87.

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In Voices of the Poor I, the authors claim that the lack of adequate food is the
'ultimate criterion of poverty' .39 Everyone'srightto adequate food is firmly established
in the relevant international human rights instruments.40 Article 11 (1) of the ICESCR
states that the States Parties to the Covenant 'recognize the right of everyone to an
adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food,...,'
and the right to be free from hunger is recognized in paragraph 2 of the same article.41
Due to lack of financial and material resources, poor people inevitably face real
difficulties in fulfilling theirrightto food. As food is a basic need for human survival,
the struggle to ensure even the very minimum availability of food will for poor people
overshadow their efforts to tackle other imminent problems such as health care,
housing and education. It will also prevent poor people from participating in
communal or other efforts to improve their situation - the struggle for the next meal
becomes the immediate and all-consuming activity.

Is there a right not to be poor?

67

treatment.' ** In its General Comment on the right to health, the UN Committee on


Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have specified, amongst others, the following
elements as part of the core obligations pertaining to the right to health:
To ensure the right of access to health facilities, goods and services on a
non-discriminatory basis, especially for vulnerable or marginalized groups;

(b)

To ensure access to the minimum essential food which is nutritionally


adequate and safe, to ensure freedom from hunger to everyone;

(c)

To ensure access to basic shelter, housing and sanitation, and an adequate


supply of safe and potable water;

(d)

To provide essential drugs, as from time to time defined under the WHO
Action Programme on Essential Drugs;

(e)

To ensure equitable distribution of all health facilities, goods and services;45

These elements of the right to health are supposed to be implemented immediately,


not progressively, as a 'minimum core obligation to ensure the satisfaction of, at the
very least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights is incumbent upon every
State party'.4* Nevertheless, these are rights that poor people regularly experience
violations of, both in terms of discrimination (access to health care facilities is often
quite unequal for men and women), and lack of access to safe drinking water, shelter,
housing and sanitation, and basic health care facilities even if they do exist. The
occurrence not only of costs to pay for health care, but also bribes required to
receive treatment and corruption is by many poor identified as a major hurdle in their
struggle to get access to health care.47
Therightto education48
'In Nigeria, if you are not educated, you cannot get a job, and no job
determines position in the society. Our parents did not go to school, and so
we are poor today. Education can change this'. 49
Poor people make distinctions between literacy, education, and acquiring skills.50
Lack of literacy and numeracy makes poor people vulnerable, and likely to be cheated
44
45

*
47
48
49

50

Ibid.
UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment no. 14 (the Right
to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health), 2000, 8 IHRR 1 (2001), at para. 43.
UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment no. 3 (State
Obligations), 1990, 1-1 IHRR 6 (1994), at para. 10.
Voices of the Poor I, supra note 30, at 87 ft".
UDHR Article 26, ICESCR Article 13.
Testimony from Participant, a group of youths, Dawaki, Nigeria, Voices of the Poor II, supra
note 30, at 240.
Ibid.

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(a)

68 5./. Skogly

The right to housing51


A common plight for poor people is that they almost always live in bad housing or
shelter, or without shelter altogether.52 This situation is precarious in terms of coping
on an everyday basis, and to secure the fulfilment of many other human rights, such
as the right to adequate food and to health.53 As was shown in the quote from the
Committee on Economic and Social Rights' General Comment on the right to health,54
access to adequate housing is seen as an integral part in the fulfilment of this right.
But housing is not only important for the practical application or enjoyment of these
rights. It is also essential in order to get access to social services, since the latter are
often only provided to those with a permanent address. People without housing will
therefore regularly fall 'outside' the system.
Access to justice55
An integral element of human rights guarantees is the entitlement and the ability to
bring claims if human rights are violated. This goes to the core of any notion of
rights - without the ability to hold obligation-holders accountable, the notion of
rights becomes elusive. Access to the justice system is often very expensive, and

UDHR Article 25, ICESCR Article 11. For an elaboration of the content of the right to
adequate housing, see UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General
Comment no. 4 (The Right to Adequate Housing), 1991. Reprinted in HRI/GEN/l/Rev.5 26
April 2001 and 1-1 MRR 9(1994). See also UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights, General Comment no. 7 (The Right to Adequate Housing: Forced Evictions), 1997.
Reprinted in HRI/GEN/l/Rev.5 26 April 2001 and 5 IHRR 1 (1998).
Voices of the Poor II, supra note 30, at 63. According to Miloon Kothari of Habitat
International Coalition, now UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing as a
Component of the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living, about 100 million people in the
world are homeless, with over one billion subjected to 'insecure and inadequate housing and
living conditions:' UN Commission on Human Rights, Summary Records, 4 1 " meeting,
"Economic, Social and Cultural Rights," supra note 26, at para. 36.
UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment no. 4, supra note
51, at paras. 7 and 9.
See supra note 45 and accompanying text.
UDHR Articles 6-11, ICCPR Articles 14-16.

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in their dealings. This has a direct effect on their immediate situation. Education and
the acquisition of skills are necessary for more long-term improvement in thensituation. The costs of schooling, both in terms of fees (in many places), but also
requirements of buying books, uniforms, etc., are for many poor a direct obstacle to
education. Furthermore, the lack of income from children's work while they are in
school is often an insurmountable hindrance. There is also a strong element of
discrimination, as men are more reluctant to send their daughters to school than their
sons. Thus, the right to education needs to be addressed in conjunction with the
rights to work, social security, and non-discrimination.

Is there a right not to be poor?

69

Participation
In human rights instruments, participation is often considered to be a separate right.
In the Universal Declaration it is stated that 'Everyone has the right to take part in
the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives',57
while the ICCPR states that 'Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity,
without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable
restrictions: (a) to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely
chosen representatives'.58 This right to take part in a national decision-making
process is, however, more far-reaching than it may appear, and it is dependent upon
the fulfilment of other rights.59 The right to participation is part of the current
normative framework of human rights, which is crucial for poor people's ability to
influence their own situation, including their right to be heard in 'poverty eradication
projects'. A rights-based approach to poverty eradication implies working with the
poor and developing strategies that support their context for the enjoyment of human
rights.60 Thus, poor people's participation in the identification of their problems, and
the design, implementation and evaluation of measures to be taken to solve these
problems is imperative. It is encouraging to note that the new strategy on poverty
reduction adopted by the World Bank and the IMF through the Poverty Reduction
Strategies Paper (PRSP), incorporate an element of participation by civil society.61 In
*

UDHR Articles 7 - 1 1 , ICCPR Articles 9-10.

57

UDHR Article 21.


ICCPR Article 25.
Rosas points out that:

58
59

Political rights in the narrow sense cannot thrive without the principle of equality
(Articles 1,2,4 and 7), and they presuppose civil rights and liberties, notably
liberty and security of person (e.g. articles 3, 5 and 9) and freedom of movement,
expression, assembly and association (articles 13, 19, 20). A minimum of social
and economic rights also seems crucial (articles 22-26).

60

61

See Rosas, "Article 21," in Eide and Alfredsson (eds.) The Universal Declaration of Human
Rights: A Common Standard of Achievement (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers,
1999), at 431.
UN Commission on Human Rights, Summary Records, 41" meeting, "Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights," supra note 26, at para. 17.
Key Features of IMF Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) Supported Programs:
http://www.imf.org/external/np/prgf/2000/eng/key.htm.

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the opportunities for poor people to assert their rights through legal means are
greatly hampered. The UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (ICCPR) contain a number of articles ensuring access to the legal system on
an equal basis.56 Without financial resources to consult and be represented by a
lawyer, the justice system is not available to people living in poverty. Therefore, the
establishment of a legal aid system that people in poverty can draw upon in order to
assert their rights is of utmost importance. This is necessary, not only in terms of
ensuring a fair trial, but in order to assert all rights civil, political, economic, social
and cultural - the violation of which directly hampers people's ability to move out of
poverty.

70 S.I. Skogly
Voices of the Poor II, the authors suggest the following:

The extent to which this approach will be incorporated into the PRSP process, and to
which the voices of the poor will be heard is still not established.
Non-discrimination
Non-discrimination is one of the most fundamental aspects of human rights. The
United Nations Charter provides for human rights protection without distinction as
to race, sex language or religion,63 and non-discrimination clauses are central in all
international human rights instruments.64 People in poverty not only experience
poverty, but commonly also suffer from discrimination based on their status. Poor
people are often discriminated against in terms of access to housing, education,
justice systems, etc. Additionally certain groups, such as minorities and indigenous
peoples, suffer from additional discrimination. Highly prevalent, however, is
discrimination against women in poverty. Such women face a particularly difficult
situation in two regards. First, they are often subject to abuse and oppression, and
will not get access to the few resources available.65 Secondly, women will more often
than men end up in poverty due to discriminatory structures in society - lack of
access to land, to credit, to inheritance, etc. This reality will often lead to poverty for
women and their dependent children. This reality implies that women are more
vulnerable in poverty, and that they suffer from more human rights violations than
other groups. The discriminatory aspects of poverty need to be addressed from a
human rights perspective, in order to alleviate the suffering of all vulnerable groups,
including children, indigenous peoples, religious minorities, women, etc.
Indivisibility of rights
This leads us to consider one fundamental part of the problem of poverty, namely the
indivisibility of rights. Poverty is often seen to be a material matter only - a lack of
financial resources - but, as the testimonies quoted earlier in the paper show,66
Voices of the Poor II, supra note 30, at 282-83.
UN Charter, Article 1(3).
UDHR Article 2, ICCPR Article 2 and ICESCR Article 2.
Voices of the Poor I, supra note 30, at 195.
See supra notes 38, 39, 43, 44 and 47.

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The framework for grassroots democracy, the right to participate, must be


enshrined in law. This has to include rules about public disclosure of
information; freedom of association, speech and the press; freedom to form
organizations; and devolution of authority and finances to the local level.
Institutional rules and incentives are needed to translate laws into effective
governance structures. The challenge is to create proper government
institutions accountable to the poor.62

Is there a right not to be poor?

71

poverty encompasses a large number of aspects of life, many of which involve rights
related to personal safety and integrity as well as economic and social safety and
well being. Poverty is more than a social or economic problem. Poverty leaves
people voiceless and powerless, distancing them from the people and institutions
making the decisions that affect their lives. In Voices of the Poor II, this problem is
clearly identified:

This powerlessness makes the poor, in turn, even more vulnerable to abuse and to
the cyclical patterns of poverty that could keep the poor and their children in the
same state for generations.68 Thus, one cannot look purely to economic and social
rights to address the problems of the poor. This is clearly illustrated in a recent report
by the Special Rapportuer on Torture in which he holds:
It is true that many of the more high-profile cases of torture that come to
international attention concern people involved in political activities of various
sorts. Such victims of torture may well be of a class or connected with
organizations that have international contacts. The experience of missions in
several parts of the world has led the Special Rapporteur to observe, however,
that the overwhelming majority of those subjected to torture and ill-treatment
are ordinary common criminals from the lowest strata of society. They are the
ones who cannot afford good lawyers, or who may have access only to less
than-diligent lawyers provided, in some instances, by the State, or who may
not have access to any lawyer at all; whose families do not have the
connections to be taken seriously by the police, prosecutors or judges, or
even the means of securing life-saving health care that may be obtained
outside the place of detention, or of providing food fit to eat when the detaining
authorities and institutions fail to make these available; and who do not have
any idea of what their rights are, even the right not to be tortured, or how
those rights may be secured. Indeed, they are often members of the lowest
level of an underclass that is disconnected from all opportunity of leading
decent lives as productive economic citizens.69
67
68

69

Voices of the Poor I, supra note 30, at 85.


UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in UN Commission on Human Rights, Summary
Records, 41" meeting, "Economic, Social and Cultural Rights," supra note 26, at para. 6.
UN General Assembly, Report by the Secretary General, incorporating Interim Report of the
Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the question of torture and other
cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment 11 August 2000, A/55/290, at para. 35.

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[The] review of poor peoples' encounters with state institutions is sobering.


Dysfunctional institutions do not just fail to deliver services. They
disempower - and even silence - the poor through patterns of humiliation,
exclusion, and corruption. The process is further compounded by legal and
other formal barriers that prevent the poor from trading or gaining access to
benefits or trading further compound the problem. Thus, those at society's
margins are further excluded and alienated.67

72 S.I. Skogly

70
71
72

Supra note 35.


Voices of the Poor I, supra note 30, at 225.
In Voices of the Poor II, it is described in great detail how many poor families need to decide
whether to eat properly or to send their children to school. Thus the availability of the
school is not the only obstacle to education. See Voices of the Poor II, supra note 30, at 209.

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Similarly, for people living in poverty it will be much harder to assert other rights,
including the rights to expression, to assembly, and association.
A comprehensive approach to human rights that reflects this indivisibility of
rights is contained in the UDHR, but most prominently in the Declaration on the
Right to Development70. In Article 1 of the latter Declaration, the 'right to development'
is defined as an 'inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and
all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social,
cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms
can be fully realized.' In these terms, the right to development is seen both as a
synthesis of all human rights, and also an exercise of these rights. The right to
development, as expressed through the declaration, is not a new right, but rather
something which establishes the individual's right to participate in the process which
will lead to the fulfilment of all rights - the aim of the right to development.
To eradicate poverty to enable poor people to move out of poverty - human
rights generally need to be respected, protected and fulfilled for all. This reflects the
responsibility of all those whose actions affect the living conditions of poor people:
governments, non-governmental organisations, intergovernmental organisations,
and private entities, such as transnational - and national - corporations. This does
not necessarily imply that states or other entities always need to make provisions for
poor people. Due to their difficult living conditions, poor people will often be highly
resourceful in terms of surviving.7' However, many poor people experience obstacles
to their own efforts to improve their situation, such as eviction from their homes, or
from land where they grow their food, the costs of school uniforms, or the corruption
of officials. Much could be done in order to respect poor people's human rights
without direct provisions for them, through scrutiny of other elements that affect
them in society, or through changes in regulation. Needless to say, however, for
people with so few material resources, government action involving monetary
expenditure may in many instances be necessary. The building of schools and the
provision of basic health care facilities are obvious examples. However, experience
shows that people living in poverty find themselves in a complex reality of human
rights violations, which, unless directly addressed, will imply that even if schools
and hospitals are built, they will not be able to take advantage of these new facilities.
The 'trickle-down' model does not work.72 Therefore, when planning and designing
these new facilities, the rights of the poor need to be addressed directly and
comprehensively. This should be done through careful analysis of the poor people's
situation from a rights based perspective. This would involve analysing where the
human rights violations are occurring, and remedying this situation in direct
consultation with the affected groups. For example, a rights-based approach to
improving the standard of living in the rural area of an African country would involve
a process in which the people themselves took an active part in identifying their

Is there a right not to be poor?

73

IS THERE A RIGHT TO BE POOR?


From the above discussion, two central points become clear. First, in the positivist
sense of international human rights law, the existing documents do not contain a
right not to be poor. Second, the current normative framework in international human
rights law contain crucial guarantees that, if fulfilled, would lift poor people out of
poverty.
These two central points seem to be somewhat contradictory, and it is of interest
to dwell on them briefly from a political/philosophical perspective, before discussing
the practical and legal implications of this situation. As to the first point, it was
mentioned above73 that some of the inspiration for the UDHR came from the 'Four
Freedoms' speech by President Roosevelt in 1941. One of the freedoms he was
advocating was 'freedom from want' - a much more all-embracing approach than
what became the result in specific articles in the Universal Declaration. The UDHR,
and the Covenants, do not refer to poverty or poor people in any of their articles or
in their Preambles. Moreover, the poor have been left out in the implementation of
these instruments. As the Special Rapporteur on Torture pointed out in his report
quoted above,74 the vast majority of tortured people are poor people, but their case
is not heard due to their lack of ability ('capability') to get the attention of the outside
world. Executive Director of FIAN International,75 Michael Windfuhr, stated in a
meeting in Geneva in February 200176 that one of the reasons why the United Nations
and the human rights community in general have neglected economic and social
human rights for so long is that it is poor people that by far most frequently experience
violations of these rights, and the poor lack the resources to bring attention to their
plight. This unfortunate situation needs to be addressed and could be improved by
enhanced participation by the poor in the supervision and implementation of human
rights both on a national and international level. Further, the special situation of
73
74
75

76

See supra note 27 and accompanying text.


See supra note 69 and accompanying text.
Food First Information and Action Network - A non-governmental human rights organisation
that works on the right to food (or rather 'the right to feed oneself).
Seminar on the Justiciability of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, organised by the Office
of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Geneva, 5-6 February 2001.

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problems, explaining why the children do not go to school (rather than outsiders
observing that the children do not go to school), why so many go hungry, why the
local produce is not sold at the regional market, etc. Based on this information, a
development scheme would assess the underlying causes of the inability of the
people to enjoy the right to education, right to food, and other human rights, and in
close cooperation with these people design development plans that address these
underlying causes with the express aim of implementing human rights. This may go
beyond traditional development work such as building the schools or hospitals, and
will also involve working with local and national authorities in improving legislation,
administrative practices, infrastructure and accountability.

74 5./. Skogly

77

78

79

80

This will be further elaborated in the section 'The linking of human rights and poverty
alleviation' below.
As of 1 February 2002, 145 states were parties to the ICESCR while the ICCPR had 147 states
parties.
The Human Rights Committee, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,
the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Committee on the
Rights of the Child, the Committee Against Torture, and the Committee on Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights.
Amnesty International has for a long time confined its work to torture, disappeared persons
and the fight against the death penalty. However, at the organisation's International Council
meeting in Dakar in August 2001, a new Mission statement was adopted which implies a
somewhat broader mandate:
1. Amnesty International's vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all
of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and
other international human rights standards.
In pursuit of this vision, Amnesty International's mission is to undertake research
and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical
and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from
discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights.
(http://www.amnesty.org)
Human Rights Watch confines it work to civil and political rights, but with a heavy emphasis
on political rights to participation, elections, due process, etc; Article 19 works only on
freedom of expression issues.

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people living in poverty needs to be set in focus by the implementation bodies, and
not remain a side-issue dependent upon a 'trickle-down' effect.77
The second point mentioned above was that that the instruments contain, albeit
implicitly, guarantees of human rights that, if fulfilled, would result in great
advancements towards lifting people out of poverty. In the section on the existing
normative framework, some examples were given indicating how the living conditions
experienced by the poor demonstrate violations of a large variety of human rights. If
the rights to participation and access to justice and (at least the minimum core
obligations of) the rights to food, education, housing, and health were fulfilled for all
people (which is what the governments are under a legal obligation to do as a result
of ratifying international human rights treaties78), a much smaller percentage of people
would live in conditions that could be characterised as poverty. Thus, although
technically there is no right not to be poor in current international human rights law,
these legal provisions contain guarantees that are imperative for people to move out
of poverty.
If this is the case, what needs to happen in order for poor people to have their
human rights realised? One of the main changes in approach on behalf of the
international human rights community that needs to happen is to move from a
fragmented to a comprehensive notion of human rights protection. Both NGOs and
intergovernmental organisations have for too long worked on a fragmented basis.
Not only does the United Nations have six different committees supervising the
implementation of its human rights treaties in individual states,79 but the nongovernmental community has also to a large extent focused on one or a handful of
rights that have been given their attention, rather than looking towards a
comprehensive approach. NGOs have almost exclusively focused on civil and political
rights, and within that field, on a few targeted rights.80 The few NGOs working on

Is there a right not to be poor?

75

THE LINKING OF HUMAN RIGHTS AND POVERTY


ALLEVIATION
Having established that there is no recognised right not to be poor per se, the
question becomes whether there would be any benefits to advance such a right, or
81

82

Habitat International Coalition (HIC) works on the right to housing, FIAN International on
the right to food.
One example is Rights and Humanity based in the United Kingdom, which focuses on all of
the rights in the Universal Declaration; another is the Center for Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights based in New York, which has a broad economic and social rights mandate.

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economic and social rights have again tended to focus on single or limited numbers
of issues.81 There are some organisations that have taken a more comprehensive
approach, but they remain small and relatively uninfluential.82 I am not questioning
the effectiveness of these organisations, nor their contribution to the advancement
of human rights. Amnesty International was the first mass membership NGO to
promote human rights throughout the world, and one should not denigrate or belittle
the important work that the organisation has done. But in order to reach and to
respond to the needs of people in poverty, a more comprehensive approach is needed.
Looking back at the capability approach advocated by Amartya Sen, it becomes
clear that to focus on one aspect of poor people's human rights violations will not
remedy their situation. In other words, most of the attention given to human rights
violations by governmental and non-governmental bodies has been to situations
where individual human rights have been violated, for example where somebody has
been subjected to torture or has had their correspondence interfered with. Even if
these are human rights violations that face the poor as well as others, the individual
cases receiving the attention from the human rights community tend to be those
faced by people with high levels of 'capabilities', people whose human rights are
generally respected, and the attention is drawn to the exceptional circumstances
where one single right has been violated. Poor people live in a different reality a
reality where most rights are violated most of the time. This complex situation
implies that it is impossible to improve the overall human rights situation by tackling
one violation at the time. The right to education can be promoted through the
building of schools, the hiring of teachers, and by making primary education
compulsory, but unless people have resources sufficient to not have their children
work, the right to education will remain elusive for people in poverty. Likewise, free
primary health care can be made available, but as long as women need to spend all
their time ensuring that the basic subsistence needs of their children are satisfied
(such as collecting potable water and growing the family's food) they will not be able
to make use of these facilities. Thus, the only way that the current international
human rights regime may claim to contain sufficient rights for people in poverty,
without adopting a specific right to not be poor, would be if a comprehensive
approach to human rights protection was adopted and implemented both by the
official national organs, the UN bodies, and also NGOs in the field.

76 S.I. Skogly

83

84
85

It should be noted that, on the regional level, the Revised European Social Charter [ETS No.
163; 3 IHRR 726 (1996). Adopted on 3 May 1996, entered into force on 1 August 1999]
includes the 'right to protection against social exclusion and poverty' in Article 30:
The Explanatory Report to the Revised Charter emphasizes that the intention of
states was not to repeat existing obligations to tackle poverty .... The obligation is
to adopt a coordinated approach involving measures of different kinds that together
will tackle the problem of exclusion or poverty: Harris, The European Social Charter,
2nd ed. (Ardsley, N.Y: Transnational Publishers, 2001), at 281.
See supra note 4 and accompanying text.
See the list of documents at supra note 4. The current discussions in the UN have been
inconclusive in terms of the exact form of a text. Some are in favour of a 'declaration';
others prefer 'guidelines' or 'guiding principles'.

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if an alternative approach would be better. What the above analysis has shown is
that not only is there a gap in the law in that the most vulnerable group among the
world's population - the poor - do not enjoy specific human rights protection, but
also that the implementation machinery largely neglects the special requirements of
the poor.83 Would this be remedied by adopting a new right - the right not to be
poor? There are certainly arguments both in favour and in opposition to this
proposition. An argument in favour would be that this would finally give the attention
to poverty and the situation of poor people that they deserve. On the other hand,
others would argue that there is already a large number of rights, both in hard law
and in soft law, and that to expand the number would diminish the importance and
respect that the current human rights regime enjoys, rather than benefit the intended
beneficiaries. I personally will not advocate the adoption of a new right. This would
run into the danger of diminishing the regard that the human rights system enjoys,
and risks using too much energy on getting something adopted, rather than using
the already existing structures that, if implemented, would make a real difference in
poverty alleviation. Thus, it is important to look at how these existing structures
could be used, and what the benefits would be. There are both material and
procedural improvements that can be made in order to ensure that the connection
between human rights and poverty moves from being implicit to explicit.
The first important step on the material side would be to get the link between
existing human rights and poverty explicitly accepted. The adoption of a declaratory
text that makes this connection but without creating a 'new right' would serve an
important function in this regard. As discussed above,84 work is already underway
within the United Nations for the drafting of a declaration or guiding principles on
human rights and poverty (or extreme poverty).85 Such a text would serve several
purposes. First, much of the work on poverty and human rights has been carried out
by the United Nations through the designated human rights bodies (the Charter and
Treaty-based bodies), and the Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights.
The danger of keeping this work on the current level of studies and resolutions is
that little attention is paid to it outside the institutions in Geneva. The Commission
on Human Rights rarely receives much attention (unfortunately) from outside actors,
such as the media, and even human rights NGOs. One of the reasons for starting
work on a text would be to increase public awareness of the problems of extreme

Is there a right not to be poor?

77

The reports that have come out from efforts of engaging the poor in consultation seem to be
very positive. See Report of Seminar held from 12-14 October 1994 at the UN Headquarters
in New York (in which 20 out of 40 participants were people living in extreme poverty); see
Voices of the Poor I, supra note 30, based on the 78 Participatory Poverty Assessment
reports, which are based on discussions with poor women and men. The importance of the
participatory approach to a declaration of guiding principles was also emphasised in the
report by the High Commissioner on Human Rights in her report from the Expert Seminar on
Poverty and Human Rights, E/CN.4/2000/95, at para. 36.
See discussion above under sub-heading 'Indivisibility of rights'.
Passage from the Declaration on the Right to Development, Article 1.
The World Bank World Development Report 2000/2001: Attacking Poverty (Oxford: OUP,
2001), at 9.

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poverty and how it links to human rights. Second, a process of drafting a declaration
or guiding principles would provide an opportunity to adopt a participatory approach,
whereby the poor may experience that they have a real voice.86
Third, a declaration or guiding principles on poverty and human rights would
highlight the complex interrelatedness of all human rights,87 and emphasise that
poverty is not only about lack of material well-being, but also an expression of the
deprivation of human dignity. The proposed text would add an important dimension
to the right to development as expressed through the 1986 Declaration on the Right
to Development because it would address the individual's situation, something that
is often lacking in a right to development discussion. Although the right to
development is considered both an individual and a collective right ('every human
person and all peoples'88) the individual aspect in the right to development discussion
is often lost. Similarly, poverty eradication programmes tend to address poverty in
its collectivity rather than the situation as faced by individuals.
Fourth, such a declaration or guiding principles would also provide a tool in the
advocacy work of those engaged in poverty eradication from the grass-roots level to
large international fora.
Finally, a text on poverty and human rights would provide an opportunity to
address and emphasise the responsibility of a variety of actors in poverty alleviation.
Emphasising the prime obligations of the state, such a text should consider the role
of other actors in society (national as well as international) and stress their shared
responsibility in fulfilling all human rights. The World Development Report highlights
the poors' bad treatment by state authorities and other segments of society, and
calls for 'action to improve the functioning of state and social institutions [which]
improves both growth and equity by reducing bureaucratic and social constraints to
economic action and upward mobility.'89
In these ways, by making a firm link between the current normative framework of
human rights and the real life experiences of the poor, a declaration or guiding
principles would provide clear added value to the already existing human right
instruments.
On the procedural side, an explicit link would have effect on the operation both of
human rights bodies and of institutions involved in poverty eradication. First, if a
text is adopted, this should be used as a tool to enhance the efficiency of the treaty-

78 5./. Skogly

the core obligations of economic, social and cultural rights have a crucial role
to play in national and international developmental policies, including antipoverty strategies. When grouped together, the core obligations establish
an international minimum threshold that all developmental policies should be
designed to respect. In accordance with General Comment No. 14, it is
particularly incumbent on all those who can assist, to help developing
countries respect this international minimum threshold. If a national or
international anti-poverty strategy does not reflect this minimum threshold, it
is inconsistent with the legally binding obligations of the State party.
For the avoidance of any misunderstanding, the Committee wishes to
emphasize three points. First, because core obligations are non-derogable,
they continue to exist in situations of conflict, emergency and natural disaster.
Second, because poverty is a global phenomenon, core obligations have
great relevance to some individuals and communities living in the richest
States. Third, after a State party has ensured the core obligations of economic,
social and cultural rights, it continues to have an obligation to move as
expeditiously and effectively as possible towards the full realization of all the
rights in the Covenant.93
Thus, in this way, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has shown
how the treaty bodies may approach the link between human rights and poverty, and
consciously apply it in their work. This approach could be adopted by the other
treaty bodies, and used when examining state reports in a comprehensive and
integrated manner. Likewise, human rights NGOs could re-examine their strategies
and working methods with a view to improving their work with poor people and
communities.
Finally, it is pertinent to address the effects that a firm and effective emphasis on
the connection between poverty and human rights would have outside the human
90

"
92
53

These are listed at supra note 79.


UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Statement on Poverty and the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, supra note 4.
Ibid., at para. 15.
Ibid., at paras. 17 and 18.

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based bodies.90 It should be used as a reference point in their examination of state


parties reports to ensure that the situation of the poor people of a state does not
remain untargeted. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has
already provided important contributions to this through its statement on Poverty
and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.91 In this
statement the Committee discusses how a poverty approach may be advanced with
a view to State Parties' obligations. Reference here is made to the core obligation to
'ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of the
rights'.92 The statement explains this 'core obligation' in relationship to poverty in
the following manner:

Is there a right not to be poor?

79

CONCLUSION
In the introduction, the question was raised whether a link between human rights
and poverty would make a difference both to the work for poverty alleviation and to
respect for human rights. Based on the above discussion, it would be fair to say that
the effect of such a link would be wide ranging. One important consequence would
be that a fundamental aspect of poverty would be highlighted, namely that, by virtue
of living in poverty, people face systematic and widespread violations of a large
number of human rights - violations that are rarely addressed due to the lack of
voice that the poor possess in national and international debates and decisionmaking. This fundamental aspect can only be addressed if poverty is understood in
terms of the violations of human rights that result from poverty. It is imperative
therefore for both the development and the human rights communities to understand
poverty in these terms and to act accordingly. A text - in the form of a declaration or
guiding principles - would add a comprehensive approach for the human rights
bodies and institutions, while it would add an individual and legal entitlement approach
for the development institutions.94
In reading Voices of the Poor, one of the striking features is the strength that
people living in poverty possess. The ability to survive in conditions as harsh as
those described in that report does not reflect weakness (or laziness - as some will
argue), but rather a tremendous strength and will to survive. A link between human
rights and poverty alleviation would empower poor people with the necessary rights,
and thus contribute to the elimination the capability deprivation from which people
in poverty suffer. This in turn would enable them to move out of poverty while
retaining their dignity as human beings. If conditions were conducive to their
capabilities, if their human rights were fulfilled, much of the poverty problem that the
world currently faces would be solved.

Individuals would be able to enforce their rights and to attain remedies for violations thereof.

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rights circles. Indeed, if the effect is only felt within the human rights circles, it could
be considered a failure. Thus, it is imperative that the work carried out will penetrate
the work done by other international actors involved in poverty alleviation. A text on
human rights and poverty should be used by the specialised agencies of the UN, the
UN Funds and programmes, as well as non-governmental development organisations
in their poverty alleviation strategies. It will be a tool to use in identifying problems
and proposing solutions in these strategies. And just like any other tool, if it is left
aside and not used, it will not fulfil its purpose. If a text is drafted on the connection
between poverty and human rights, this is only a first and preliminary step that
needs to be followed up by real implementation activities. The main aim of a
declaration or guiding principles would be to make all actors involved in human
rights and in poverty alleviation conscious about the connection, so that they will
approach the issues from a comprehensive approach.

80 S.I. Skogly

See supra note 1.

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Finally, in order to address the question asked by The Economist above95 does
it help to think of poverty as a violation of basic rights? - a rather clear conclusion
can be made. It is not a question of whether it helps. Poverty is by its nature a
violation of basic rights. It is not a violation of a right not to be poor, but it is a
violation of human dignity, and of basic human rights such as the right to equality, to
participation, and to food, health, housing and education. A first step towards
improving the situation of the poor is to make a conscious recognition of this fact.
Only then will we be able to address the problems from the approach of rights, rather
than charity, from dignity rather than pity.