Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights


Professor Philip Alston © UN Photo/Jean-Marc FerréProfessor Philip Alston is the current Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the Human Rights Council and undertakes the following main tasks: (1) conducting research and analysis to be presented in separate thematic reports to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly; (2) undertaking country visits and reporting on the situation in those countries in relation to the concerns of the mandate; (3) sending letters to governments and other relevant entities in situations in which violations of human rights of people living in extreme poverty are alleged to have taken place.

The mandate on extreme poverty was first established in 1998 by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and was taken over by the Human Rights Council in June 2006.  It is one of a number of mandates that together form what is known as the United Nations system of special procedures.  For more information on those procedures see: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Welcomepage.aspx

Extreme Poverty and Human rights

Extreme poverty is a multidimensional phenomenon that encompasses much more than a lack of sufficient income alone. While many international actors still use measures based exclusively on income, such as the World Bank’s $1.25 a day definition, such approaches fail to capture the depth and complexity of extreme poverty and do not reflect the significant impact of poverty on the full enjoyment of human rights.  For the Special Rapporteur, extreme poverty involves a lack of income, a lack of access to basic services and social exclusion (A/HRC/7/15, para. 13).  This accords closely with the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) ‘Multidimensional Poverty Index’, which seeks to reflect multiple deprivations at the household level, including in health, schooling and living conditions. Using a multidimensional approach to poverty, the incidence of extreme poverty around the world is staggering. According to UNDP’s Human Development Report 2014, over 2.2 billion people, more than 15 per cent of the world’s population, “are either near or living in multidimensional poverty”.

Poverty is an urgent human rights concern. For those living in extreme poverty, many human rights are out of reach. Among many other deprivations, they often lack access to education, health services or safe drinking water and basic sanitation.  They are often excluded from participating meaningfully in the political process and seeking justice for violations of their human rights. Extreme poverty can be a cause of specific human rights violations, for instance because the poor are forced to work in environments that are unsafe and unhealthy. At the same time, poverty can also be a consequence of human rights violations, for instance when children are unable to escape poverty because the State does not provide adequate access to education.

The elimination of extreme poverty should thus not be seen as a question of charity, but as a pressing human rights issue. Its persistence in countries that can afford to eliminate it amounts to a clear violation of fundamental human rights.

Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

The mandate was established to give greater prominence to the plight of those living in extreme poverty and to highlight the human rights consequences of the systematic neglect to which they are all too often subjected. The expert is required by the Human Rights Council to examine and report back to member States on initiatives taken to promote and protect the rights of those living in extreme poverty, with a view to advancing the eradication of such poverty.

Objectives of the mandate

Through its resolutions 8/11 and 35/19, the Human Rights Council requests the Special Rapporteur to:

  • Identify approaches for removing all obstacles, including institutional ones, to the full enjoyment of human rights for people living in extreme poverty.
  • Identify, including in cooperation with international financial organizations, the most efficient measures taken at the national, regional and international levels to promote the full enjoyment of human rights of persons living in extreme poverty.
  • Make recommendations on how persons living in extreme poverty can participate in the process towards the full enjoyment of their human rights and the sustainable improvement of their quality of life, including through empowerment and resource mobilization at all levels.
  • Study the impact of discrimination and to pay particular attention to the situation of women, children and other vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities living in extreme poverty.
  • Develop cooperation with United Nations bodies dealing with the same subject and to continue participating in relevant international conferences on extreme poverty.        

Main activities

In the fulfilment of the mandate, the Special Rapporteur:

  • Undertakes country visits;
  • Responds to information received concerning the human rights situation of people living in extreme poverty;
  • Develops constructive dialogue with Governments, international organizations, civil society and other relevant actors with a view to identifying ways to remove all obstacles to the full enjoyment of human rights for people living in extreme poverty;
  • Submits annual reports to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly;
  • Communicates with States and other concerned parties with regard to alleged cases of violations of the human rights of people living in poverty and social exclusion (See Individual Complaints) and other issues related to the mandate.

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