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Statement by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights at the 29th session of the Human Rights Council

22 June 2015

Mr President, distinguished delegates, representatives of civil society,

Perhaps the biggest societal change to take place in recent decades has been the dramatic increase in levels of inequality, not just between the rich and the poor, but between the super-rich and the rest. It is cause for shame that the wealth of the world’s eighty richest people is roughly the same as that of the poorest 3.5 billion people. At the same time, the lowest 40% in terms of income distribution have benefited little, and in many cases have gone backwards. This is the world that our existing policy choices have created, and these trends are continuing to increase dramatically.

The resulting extreme inequality has been denounced by most of the major international economic policy organizations, although it is in many respects their consistent policy prescriptions over past decades that have facilitated precisely these outcomes. But now, in a rather surprising development, the IMF, the World Bank and the OECD, among others, are warning of dire consequences if the trend is not halted.

The question for this Council is where human rights fit into the equation. The answer to date has been resoundingly clear: human rights have so far had almost no place in this debate.

On the part of the international economic institutions, concerns are now being expressed about the fraying of the social fabric, the weakening of trust in institutions, the threat to justice, macroeconomic instability, suboptimal use of human resources, and even the risks of capture of the economic and political systems. But such statements rarely ever mention human rights specifically and when surrogate references are made to concerns such as those I just mentioned, it is to point to the potential negative consequences of extreme inequality for economic growth. Their analyses never lead to the suggestion that greater respect for human rights might be a crucial part of the solution.

What then can this Council do? First, we need to recognize that the concern is not solely with income inequality, but with a range of extreme inequalities in relation to wealth, access to education, health care, housing and so on. Second, our response should be motivated not only by these deep threats to economic, social and cultural rights, but also by the fact that the enjoyment of the full range of civil and political rights is undermined by extreme inequality. Third, while a great many steps will need to be taken if extreme inequality is to be halted, the Council needs to do more than just adopt fine words. For over 25 years, independent experts have been submitting reports warning of the consequences of inequality, but nothing has been done in response.

If concern about extreme inequality is to be transformed into human rights policies, action will be required on a broad range of fronts.

In my comments today, however, I want to focus on just one particular way in which fundamental change can be achieved. The most tangible way of affirming that we have a normative commitment to limiting the consequences of extreme inequality is to guarantee a minimum level of respect for economic and social rights for every person. In brief, these fundamental rights need to be taken seriously at the national and international levels. They need to be treated as human rights, they need to be integrally linked to the provision of Social Protection Floors and universal healthcare coverage, and they need to be protected by appropriate institutional arrangements applying a human rights framework to monitor and provide redress.

Some will respond to this suggestion that a great many states already have such arrangements in place, but in fact this is not really the case. I am under no illusion that this step alone will tame rampant inequality, but it is one of the few tangible steps that human rights proponents can take which will have a guaranteed impact on the overall situation.

We need to ask what this Council and its various stakeholders and partners have achieved over the years to change the reality on the ground in terms of genuine acceptance by governments, manifested in legislation and explicit policies, of the importance of economic and social rights in general, and universal social protection in particular. I suspect that the scientific answer is rather little, although it has to be said that it is not for want of trying. There is a huge gap between the rhetorical embrace of economic and social rights in this Council and elsewhere and the reality on the ground. As stakeholders in the Council we all need to ask ourselves why such a gap persists and what we can do about it.

The starting point is to acknowledge that there has been great progress in the past two or three decades in taking economic and social rights seriously, at least in terms of the United Nations’ internal institutional indicators. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was created in 1987, Special Procedures mandates on economic, social and cultural rights were created, an Optional Protocol was adopted, and the “indivisibility, interdependence and inter-relatedness” of the two sets of rights have repeatedly been reaffirmed. Vast numbers of reports have been generated, resolutions adopted, and speeches delivered.

But it is instructive to move beyond the situation in these halls and look at what has been happening in the outside world. It would be revealing to undertake a systematic stocktaking of the real status of economic and social rights as human rights at the national level, but that is an exercise which must wait for another day.

What I want to focus on now is the extent to which contexts which we would assume would have seen the embrace of economic and social rights, continue to resist them. The World Bank takes the position that, because its Articles of Agreement prohibit it from taking account of political considerations, human rights can play no part in its work. It thus steadfastly refuses to use the language of economic and social rights and to go far out of its way to avoid, for example, references to the right to education or the human rights of women. The IMF, for all of its enlightened concern about the consequences of inequality is every bit as resistant as the Bank to taking any account of human rights in its work. These organizations see themselves as essentially human rights-free zones. The OECD also has a long history of aversion to the language and framework of human rights.

Then there is an exercise of the utmost importance that is much closer to home: the drafting of the post-2015 sustainable development goals. In previous drafts, human rights were almost entirely absent. The latest draft is a significant step forward, but it is noteworthy that not a single one of the 17 goals is expressed in explicit human rights terms and that no single right, apart from the right to development, is acknowledged in the entire draft. Those relating to poverty elimination, food security, well-being for all, education, and gender equality, could all have been expressed, at least in part, in human rights terms, but Member States rejected all such proposals.

This is not the whole story, of course, since the ILO has made a huge breakthrough in premising its work on Social Protection Floors on the right to social security and related social rights, and the WHO is beginning to make more systematic use of the right to health in terms of its work on universal healthcare coverage.

But the simple point I want to make is that in the work of the leading international organizations focusing on poverty elimination, development, economic growth, and sustainability, recognition of the importance of both sets of human rights is either marginalized or entirely absent. Leaving aside civil and political rights for just a moment, one would have assumed that the language and framework of economic and social rights would be relatively uncontroversial and readily acceptable in contexts in which they are clearly of central and direct relevance. But this has not been the case.

We can, of course, blame the relevant institutions for their short-sightedness, but some of the fault must surely lie also with us. The Governments that make the decisions in those other contexts are represented here. What can be done?

In the report that I am presenting today I call on the Council to recognize explicitly that there are limits to the levels of inequality that can be considered to be compatible with respect for human rights. I call for it to encourage States to make formal commitments to reducing extreme inequality. I urge the implementation of fiscal policies aimed specifically at reducing inequality. I call for human rights bodies generally to give new life to aspects of the commitment to equality in human rights law. And I urge both inter-governmental bodies and non-governmental organizations to put questions of resources and redistribution back into the human rights equation, in which they are currently ignored or marginalized.

Visit to Guinea-Bissau

My predecessor, Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, visited Guinea-Bissau in February 2014. Since independence in 1973, Guinea-Bissau has witnessed recurring high-level political assassinations, coups d’état, political persecution and forced departures from office by officials. The resulting climate of political instability, coupled with rampant corruption and impunity, has prevented this resource-rich country from realizing its enormous potential. Public investment in critical social services, such as health care and education, consistently declined and the country’s natural resources are at risk of depletion due to extensive illegal fishing and logging, which has serious repercussions on the enjoyment of a range of human rights. Women and girls, in particular, face considerable challenges in lifting themselves out of poverty. Deepening gender inequality is manifested by the fact that, by comparison with men, women have worse access to health services, a higher incidence of HIV/AIDS, lower levels of school enrolment and literacy, lower incomes, and higher rates of unemployment.

Presidential elections in April 2014, however, have opened a window for change. It is to be hoped that President Jose Mário Vaz can ensure adequate resources are allocated to social services, particularly health care and education, and to fight the root causes of poverty, such as corruption, impunity and gender inequality. I encourage the Government of Guinea-Bissau to consider implementing the recommendations made by Ms. Sepúlveda Carmona.

Visit to Chile

From 16-24 March 2015, I visited Chile. I received excellent cooperation from the Government, and met with many officials from President Bachelet on down. I also met with many people living in extreme poverty and held meetings with the representatives of key groups, including the indigenous peoples.

Under the three most recent administrations, Chile has turned itself from a widely condemned authoritarian state during most of the 1970’s and all of the 1980s into a much-admired model for other states in terms of its economic growth, the rejuvenation and consolidation of its democracy, and the concerted efforts it has made in relation to human rights. Nevertheless, troubling rates of poverty and extreme poverty persist, and inequality levels are very high. The Government of Chile is aware that they are neither sustainable nor acceptable in a society that prides itself upon a strong and deep commitment to respecting human rights for all of its peoples. In my final report I shall develop the various recommendations for addressing these concerns that I put forward publicly at the conclusion of my visit.