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Statement by the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights at the 23rd session of the Human Rights Council

28 May 2013

Mr. President, Distinguished members of the Human Rights Council, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today I am honoured to present my sixth report to the Council as well as the reports on my official missions to Namibia (A/HRC/23/36.Add1) and Mongolia (A/HRC/23/36.Add2). I wish to thank the Governments of both States for inviting me and for extending their welcome and cooperation during my visits.

Allow me to initiate my presentation by briefly highlighting the main activities of the mandate during this past year. Since my previous annual report to this Council, I submitted a report to the General Assembly (A/67/278) on the measures that States must take to tackle the obstacles that persons living in poverty face in accessing justice and seeking remedy for the crimes, abuses and human rights violations they suffer.

During the last year, I have participated in numerous events and held working meetings with representatives of Governments, United Nations agencies and funds, United Nations treaty bodies, the World Bank, donor countries, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, academic institutions, non-governmental organizations and representatives of people living in poverty. For information and transparency, I have made available a list of the key activities that I have undertaken in my capacity as Special Rapporteur on the website of the mandate.

I am proud to note that last year an important component of the mandate’s work was finalised successfully when in September the Human Rights Council adopted by consensus the Guiding Principles on extreme poverty and human rights (A/HRC/21/39). I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate States for the adoption of this landmark standard-setting document which explicitly recognises extreme poverty as an urgent human rights concern

The Guiding Principles were contained in a report that I submitted last September to the Council and in December, they were also endorsed by the General Assembly in New York which noted them “with appreciation”. The adoption and endorsement of the Guiding Principles finalised more than a decade of consultation with States, civil society and people living in poverty. Now, it is time for their implementation. States must ensure that the Guiding Principles are used as they were intended: as a practical tool for policy-makers to ensure that public policies reach the poorest members of society, and protect and uphold their rights.

Mr. President, I will now present my thematic report to this Council.

Poverty is not only characterised by lack of income, but by lack of capabilities, choices, security and power. Lack of power is a universal characteristic of poverty that manifests itself in many ways, at its core being the inability to participate in or influence decisions that profoundly affect one’s life.

While the lack of meaningful and effective participation by people living in poverty is a major barrier to the enjoyment of their human rights, we must recognise that how enabling the participation of the poorest segments of society is a major challenge for many policy makers. Accordingly, the Human Rights Council through its resolutions 8/11 and 17/13 requested me to, inter alia, make recommendations on how persons living in extreme poverty can participate in the definition of measures affecting them.

In response to these requests by the Council, the report I present today focuses on how the right to participation of people living in poverty should be understood and realised from a human rights perspective. It examines the key human rights principles and standards that determine the content of the right to participation with regard to the poorest and most marginalised members of society and presents concrete recommendations to States and other key actors on how to operationalise the normative framework so as to ensure meaningful and empowering participation.

Distinguished delegates,

Participation has been prominent in the development and poverty reduction discourse for some time, yet often participatory processes put in place by States, donors, international financial institutions, UN agencies or even NGOs are tokenistic, cursory consultations, conducted to give a veneer of legitimacy to an already-decided policy.

To be in line with human rights obligations, participation should challenge existing power relations that restrict people’s agency and enable free, informed and meaningful input, with real influence over the final decision or outcome.

Even where participatory mechanisms do exist, people living in poverty face serious constraints in accessing or exerting influence through them. Factors such as lack of income, lack of information, low levels of education or literacy, discrimination and stigma, mistrust and fear of authorities, corruption and even the threat of reprisal or violence all limit the possibilities and incentives for people living in poverty to participate.

Very practical impediments - such as the lack of money to pay for transportation to reach a meeting venue, lack of childcare support, the impossibility of taking time off work because it would mean sacrificing an hourly wage payment, or not speaking the official language - often imply that the poorest are in reality excluded from any participatory process.

Social or cultural norms, or gulfs in power, particularly in patriarchal or very hierarchical communities, may also prevent people living in poverty, particularly women or minorities, from actively participating in meetings if they are not positively enabled to do so.

Mr. President,

Taking into account these obstacles, the report provides concrete recommendations on how to undertake participatory processes that comply with human rights obligations and are truly inclusive and transformative. It focuses on participation as an inherent right, a precondition for the enjoyment of other rights and essential element for respecting the dignity and autonomy of people living in poverty.

While participation is always embedded in a specific socio-cultural context, the international human rights framework provides guidance to States on how to take proactive and concrete measures to enable people living in poverty to overcome barriers to their participation.

The report shows how human rights norms and standards, and moreover the fundamental human rights principles - respect for dignity, autonomy and agency; non-discrimination and equality; transparency and access to information; accountability; and empowerment - can all be translated into concrete actions to support and facilitate meaningful participation for people living in poverty. Allow me to give some brief examples, taken from the detailed recommendations of the report.

To comply with the principle of equality and non-discrimination, when designing and implementing participatory processes policy makers should take into account the power dynamics at the societal and community level, and put in place specific strategies to ensure that those who suffer from any form of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, disability, gender, age, or other grounds, are enabled to participate as a matter of priority.

Measures must be taken to ensure that conditions for participation do not unfairly exclude certain categories of peoples for example, those without identity documents or with mobility restrictions. To ensure that women living in poverty actively participate, in some circumstances it may be necessary to provide onsite childcare or create women-only participatory spaces.

Equally, the principles of transparency and access to information also guide the actions that States must take to enable people living in poverty to exercise their right to participation. For example, complete, up-to-date and comprehensible information must be provided well in advance and throughout the participatory process, so individuals can make informed choices at each stage. This information must be accessible to the poorest taking into account constraints such as illiteracy and language barriers. The purposes and scope of the process, and the degree of influence that can be expected, must be made clear to participants from the beginning.

Distinguished Delegates,

There is no doubt that facilitating the participation of people living in poverty requires political commitment, time and resources. However, experience shows that it is a challenge worth seizing.

Participation can have various important benefits, to individuals, communities and to wider society. Evidence shows that in many cases participatory processes have positive impacts in terms of making policies more sustainable, tackling poverty and social exclusion, building organization and capacity and improving public service delivery.

Most importantly, participation is a fundamental human right. Participation is not a simple policy option that States can choose not to implement. The right to take part and exert influence in decision-making processes that affect one’s life is inextricably linked to the most fundamental understanding of being human and the exercise of agency and autonomy.

As a fundamental human right, States are obliged to respect, protect and fulfil the right to participation without discrimination of any kind. This means, that under international human rights law, States have a legal obligation to implement inclusive, meaningful and non-discriminatory participatory processes and mechanisms, and to engage constructively with the outcomes.

The report presented today provides concrete recommendations to guide States in complying with these obligations.

Mr. President,

Participation, when undertaken with a rights foundation, provides an opportunity for people living in poverty to be active agents in their own destiny; to build skills, self-confidence and connections, and speak out against injustice, discrimination and stigma.

Ultimately, the enjoyment of the right to participation can benefit society as a whole, building trust, improving solidarity and social cohesion. Ensuring participation can contribute to building more inclusive and pluralistic societies, and bring new issues and voices into the public arena.

We will not be able to win the battle against extreme poverty and inequality if the voices of the poor are not heard. This is challenge that all societies must address as a matter of urgency. The Human Rights Council should assume a leadership role in ensuring that States put in place participatory processes in line with their human rights obligations.Distinguished members of the Human Rights Council,

I have the honour of presenting the report on my mission to Namibia, which I undertook in October last year. I wish to extend my gratitude to the Government of Namibia for the support and cooperation provided.

Since independence in 1990, Namibia has enjoyed political stability and steady economic growth, achieving the status of a middle-income country. Despite a considerable increase in GDP, the poorest sectors of Namibian society have not benefited equally. Namibia remains one of the most unequal countries in the world.

The report acknowledges the complex challenges faced by Namibia however, it stresses the areas in which more should be done to comply with human rights obligations in respect of economic, social and cultural rights. I am particularly concerned that despite significant budgetary investment in public services, quality public services, such as health facilities and schools, are not accessible to a large portion of the population. This is particularly problematic for those living in rural areas and those belonging to marginalized groups.

I welcome the efforts made by the Government to develop strategies to tackle poverty particularly the “Vision 2030” and the Fourth National Development Plan. However, I am concerned that the Government’s implementation of these strategies is not succeeding in reversing the ever widening gap between rich and poor. In my report I have identified implementation gaps in almost all poverty reduction and development strategies.

Despite a positive institutional and legal framework, in Namibia, poverty wears a woman’s face. Women continue to be economically and socially marginalized and they are also disproportionately affected by unemployment, HIV/AIDS and lack of access to land. Unequal access to health services as well as the HIV/AIDS pandemic have played a part in the near doubling of maternal mortality. I believe this to be a tragic and preventable reality and urge the State to take immediate action to ensure that women have access to good quality and affordable health care services, particularly in rural areas.

Limited access to education, health and justice also make women more vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation. I was particularly alarmed at the practice of forced sterilisation of women who are HIV positive and call on the State to take a strong public stand against this practice and enact concrete measures to actively prevent and protect women against it.

In addition to women, children, persons with disabilities and sex workers are all extremely vulnerable to poverty and face significant challenges in realizing their basic rights. My report highlights the difficulties they face and provides recommendations as to how their situation could be improved.

Education for example, should be a vehicle for empowerment, but in Namibia the unequal distribution of wealth and income is mirrored in educational opportunities and outcomes.

I am also concerned that the recent economic growth is not translating into job opportunities for the majority of the population. The impact of unemployment is also very unequal, disproportionately affecting women, youth and persons with disabilities. I would urge the State to expand opportunities for persons living in poverty to find decent work in the formal labour market, including through vocational guidance and training and skills development opportunities.

In conclusion, I commend the steps taken by the State to date to tackle poverty, and I recognise the compounded challenges it faces in dealing with the legacy of colonial rule. However, I believe that tackling inequality in the country is the key to combating poverty, and in this regard progress since independence has not been quick enough. Unacceptable levels of inequality persist, along the lines of gender, race, region, ethnicity and class. With political will, better policy implementation and coordination along with robust anti-discrimination measures Namibia can achieve these goals.

Mr. President, distinguished delegates,

I have the honour of presenting my report following a country visit to Mongolia in December 2012. I extend my gratitude to the Government of Mongolia for its support and cooperation during the visit.

In recent years Mongolia has rapidly risen to lower middle income country status, with its national economy expected to triple by 2020.. Despite the significant growth rate, economic prosperity has not been inclusive. It has failed to reach the most vulnerable in society and has not been translated into a significant reduction in poverty.

I recognize the significant challenges facing the Government in its endeavours to eradicate poverty and I welcome the positive commitment it has already made during its short time in office in identifying the fight against poverty as one of its key focus areas going forward.

I am concerned however that implementation gaps in almost all social policies, combined with a lack of consistency at the policy making level, have hindered progress in poverty reduction. It is essential that a coordinated multi-sectoral strategy is developed to address these weaknesses, along with mechanisms to monitor progress and ensure accountability.

People living in poverty in Mongolia face many challenges in the realization of their rights, including limited access to justice, housing and land, as well as social security.

My report highlights several gaps in the current social protection system. I welcome the Government’s overall intention to strengthen the human rights approach to its social protection programmes, and the efforts made so far to depoliticize it. However I would urge the State to develop a comprehensive system to ensure that the poorest of the poor are reached as a matter of priority, with the aim of progressively achieving universal coverage for all those in need.

It is essential to establish equal access to services without discrimination and take positive actions to enable access by those who suffer from structural discrimination such as women, persons with disabilities and ethnic minorities.

Given that corruption can seriously undermine the capacity of the State to fulfill its responsibilities towards people living in poverty, tackling corruption must be a priority. This is of particular relevance today due to the large investment projects in the country, especially in the mining sector. I commend the steps taken so far, and would encourage Mongolia to improve local government legislation, establish a zero tolerance policy against corruption and ensure accountability at all levels.

Poverty in Mongolia has had a disproportionate effect on women, particularly those belonging to female headed households. I acknowledge the establishment of a solid legal framework and implementation strategy on gender equality, however I am concerned that the deep-rooted stereotypes relating to the roles and responsibilities of women and men in the family and society has prevented many women from equally participating in economic and political life. Domestic violence is also an issue of considerable concern.

A lack of sustainable investment in children’s rights has meant that in practice many good policy provisions are not sufficiently enforced. I commend the significant progress made in providing free and compulsory education, however I am concerned by reports that children from poor families are less likely to receive education higher than primary or lower secondary level. Children from herder households living in remote areas of the country and children from families who have migrated to the city are particularly vulnerable to violations of their right to education, as are children with disabilities. Violence against children, child labour and the use of children as jockeys are also issues of concern that impede children from enjoying their basic human rights in Mongolia.

In conclusion, I take this opportunity to commend the steps already taken by the new Government to tackle inequality; increase employment generation and improve the effectiveness of poverty reduction measures. I call on the State to redouble its efforts to reduce poverty, and to ensure that the current economic growth is sustainable and will benefit the poorest and the most vulnerable in society. I believe that with continued political will and the coordinated implementation of a robust poverty reduction strategy Mongolia can tackle the current challenges and make impressive strides in the fight against poverty in the near future.

Mr. President,

I am committed to continuing the positive dialogue with the Governments of Namibia and Mongolia and I hope that the findings and recommendations of these reports will assist the Governments in improving the enjoyment of all human rights, especially of the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of their populations.

Again, I look forward to engaging with the Council in a dialogue on the three reports presented today.

Thank you.