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Access to justice for all including the poorest, urges UN expert on extreme poverty

NEW YORK (5 November 2012) – “Access to justice is a human right in itself, and essential for tackling the root causes of poverty” said today the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Magdalena Sepúlveda, in her report to the UN General Assembly*. “Without access to justice, people living in poverty are unable to claim their rights, or challenge crimes, abuses or violations committed against them, trapping them in a vicious circle of impunity, deprivation and exclusion.”

The UN expert emphasized the many obstacles faced by those living in poverty in seeking legal redress through the formal judicial system. They include a lack of financial resources and awareness of legal rights; fear of reprisal or further stigmatization; and inadequate capacity of the judicial system (often resulting in under-prioritization of cases and the imposition of unaffordable fees). These obstacles are compounded by deeply entrenched societal prejudices and stereotypes against the poor.

“There are a number of worrying trends impeding those living in poverty from enjoying the same rights as others in accessing justice” said Ms. Sepúlveda. In her report she highlights the particular problems faced by women in seeking formal redress. “Inadequate legal frameworks fail to recognise the financial impediments they often suffer as well as social and cultural constraints which may prevent them from speaking out against abuses or seeking justice” said the UN expert.

She also notes that “the provision of free and competent legal advice and assistance to those who are otherwise unable to afford it is a fundamental prerequisite for ensuring that all individuals have fair and equal access to judicial and adjudicatory mechanisms”. Ms. Sepúlveda highlighted the need for States “to ensure that free legal aid is provided in both civil and criminal cases where the rights and interests of persons living in poverty are at stake”.

While the world continues to suffer the consequences of the global financial crisis, with persons living in poverty enduring the most devastating impacts, the Special Rapporteur opened her statement today by welcoming the adoption of the Guiding Principles on extreme poverty and human rights (see below) by the UN Human Rights Council in September 2012.

“This is a small but significant step forward,” the expert said. These Principles could play a key role in protecting and empowering those who are hit hardest by the global economic crisis, by tackling obstacles which obstruct their enjoyment of rights, including access to justice.”

“The Guiding Principles provide the first global policy guidelines applying States’ human rights obligations to the specific situation of people living in poverty,” said Ms. Sepúlveda. “This is a practical tool for policy-makers to ensure that public policies (including poverty eradication efforts) reach persons living in poverty and respect and uphold all their rights.”

The independent human rights expert called upon the UN General Assembly to endorse the Principles and take concrete measures to ensure their widest dissemination and implementation at the domestic level.

Magdalena Sepúlveda (Chile) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in May 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. She is independent from any government or organization. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Poverty/Pages/SRExtremePovertyIndex.aspx

(*) Check the full report: http://documents-dds.ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N12/458/06/pdf/N1245806.pdf?OpenElement or http://www.un.org/en/ga/third/67/documentslist.shtml

Check the Guiding Principles on extreme poverty and human rights: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session21/A-HRC-21-50_en.pdf

The Guiding Principles are also available in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Poverty/Pages/AnnualReports.aspx

For more information and media requests please contact:
In New York: Fred Kirungi (+1 917 367 3431 / kirungi@un.org)
In Geneva: Orlagh McCann (+ 41 22 917 9695 / omccann@ohchr.org) or write to srextremepoverty@ohchr.org.

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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