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Oral Statement by Mr. Philip Alston Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights at the 35th session of the Human Rights Council

Geneva, 7 June 2017

Mr President, distinguished delegates, representatives of civil society,

In reporting to the Council this year I have the pleasure of presenting a thematic report on the subject of ‘universal basic income’ and reports on missions I have undertaken to Mauritania, China, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

Before providing details of those activities, permit me to note that I have of course also been engaged in a variety of outreach and other activities in order to promote an awareness of the many links that exist between human rights and extreme poverty.  Just yesterday, for example, I attended a conference in Bonn on the Sustainable Development Goals and Human Rights.  This is an area of immense importance and will increasingly be a focus of this mandate.  

Thematic report on universal basic income
The mandate on extreme poverty and human rights is a pre-eminently cross-cutting mandate.  Prescriptions for eliminating extreme poverty must inevitably engage with broader matters of economic and social policy in our societies.  As we are all aware, the basic values of the international human rights system are under attack in new and diverse ways in 2017, and one important part of the explanation is that there is a rapidly growing sense of economic insecurity afflicting large segments of many societies. People feel exposed, vulnerable, overwhelmed, and helpless, and some are being systematically marginalized, both economically and socially. Forms of employment are ever more precarious; global supply chains and outsourcing are making traditional forms of labour market regulation increasingly less relevant; vast swathes of the existing workforce will be made redundant by increasing automation and robotization; and income and wealth inequalities are growing exponentially, accompanied by the ever greater concentration of wealth in the hands of the tech elites and the owners of capital.

But the human rights community has barely engaged with the resulting phenomenon of deep economic insecurity.  It is noteworthy that this Council, like other human rights bodies, rarely addresses the key human rights to an adequate standard of living, to work, and to social security. 

In the world of economics and even in development policy one of the most vibrant debates centres around proposals to replace or supplement existing social protection systems with a universal basic income.  This involves payments that are not partial, but guarantee a floor; instead of being episodic, they are regular; rather than being needs-based, they are paid as a flat rate to all; they come in cash, rather than messy in-kind support; they accrue to every individual rather than only to needy households; rather than requiring that various conditions be met, they are unconditional; rather than excluding the well-off, they are universal; and instead of being based on lifetime contributions, they are funded primarily from taxation. And simplicity of design promises minimal bureaucracy and low administrative costs.

My report examines the pros and cons of this proposal in terms of its potential impact on poverty and situates the idea in relation to international human rights law. While there are many objections relating to affordability in particular, the concept should not be rejected out of hand on the grounds that it is utopian. In today’s world of severe economic insecurity, creativity in social policy is necessary. In many respects, basic income offers a bold and imaginative solution to pressing problems that are about to become far more intractable as a result of the directions in which the global economy appears inexorably to be heading.

The report calls for the rights to work, social security, and an adequate standard of living to be accorded prominence on the human rights agenda. Linked to this is the need to acknowledge the central role of the state, of fair, and progressive fiscal policies, and of redistributive justice. Most importantly, the debates over social protection floors and basic income need to be brought together.  They have thus far been kept largely separate in a counter-productive and ultimately self-defeating way.  For those interested in this set of issues, there is a side event from 4.30 to 6.00pm tomorrow involving the world’s two leading proponents of UBI, Philippe van Parijs and Guy Standing, as well as representatives of the International Trade Union Confederation and ATD/Quart Monde. 

In many respects, Mauritania is a wealthy country as it is rich in minerals, fish, cattle and agricultural land in the Senegal River Valley.  In 2014, 31% of the population lived in poverty and 16.6% in extreme poverty, according to the Government, but the benchmark it uses is well below the international standard.

UNDP estimates that Mauritania has a multidimensional poverty rate of 55.6% of the population, with an additional 16.8% of households at risk of such poverty. By this standard, almost three quarters of the population is living in or near multidimensional poverty.  One specific statistic must suffice. Because of a total absence of prenatal and postnatal care, Mauritania has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates.  And tragically the mortality rate for children under 5 years of age was 84.7 per 1,000.

In my presentation today, I do not intend to summarize the many issues raised in my report.  I would draw attention only to the challenge to which I attach the greatest importance.  As I note in the report:

There is a systematic absence from almost all positions of real power and a continuing exclusion from many aspects of economic and social life of Haratines (Black Moors) and Afro-Mauritanians. These groups make up over two thirds of the population of Mauritania, but various policies serve to render their needs and rights invisible. As a matter of policy, the Government does not collect statistics on the number of Haratines and Afro-Mauritanians living in Mauritania, nor does it disaggregate data in areas such as health and education to see how certain groups in society are faring vis-à-vis others.

The Government has expressed its strong disagreement with this assessment.  That of course is its prerogative.  I have indicated that I would welcome any statistics or other studies that can shed light on the reality of the situation.  I do not believe, however, that the debate can proceed solely on the basis of denial and the recitation of some isolated data points taken out of context.

Permit me to conclude in relation to Mauritania by saying that the Government’s decision to invite me, and its full cooperation with my visit, are to be very warmly welcomed.  I deeply appreciate its willingness to engage in a dialogue with me. 

My report on China is devoted primarily to recognizing the extraordinary achievement of the Chinese Government in having lifted perhaps as many as 700 million people out of rural poverty in the course of the past thirty years.  It has often been said to me that the Communist Party has done this only to enable it to stay in power.  But all governments want to stay in power, and depressingly few of them have chosen to make poverty elimination a genuine and meaningful priority.  China has also made remarkable progress in providing access to health care and to expanded educational opportunities for its citizens, and in strengthening its basic system of social protection.

None of this is to say that there are no problems in China.  My report points to many challenges that need to be addressed. 

  • A broader focus on multidimensional poverty will be required in the years ahead.
  • Inequality is high and is rising.  Between 1978 and 2015 the income share of the wealthiest 10% went from 27% to 41% of national income, while the share of the lower 50% dropped from 27% to 15%.
  • Urban poverty, especially among the tens of millions of so-called migrant workers, is not adequately acknowledged or addressed because of the political complexities of the hukou system.
  • The dibao, or basic national welfare benefits scheme, relies on locally set benchmarks, as a result of which the minimum payments in some regions are clearly inadequate.
  • Data is often not collected, not made available, or is unreliable. 
  • The specific situation of women living in poverty is neglected and this neglect is facilitated by the Government’s decision not to publish gender-disaggregated data.
  • The effective expropriation of rural land is often undertaken entirely for commercial purposes but the compensation offered is wholly inadequate.

The good news is that the Government of China is aware of all of these challenges and some of them are being studied and will hopefully be addressed.

Two other issues need also to be mentioned.  One concerns the misunderstanding between the Government and the Special Rapporteur as to the terms on which Special Procedures missions take place.  In my report, I have stated very clearly my views on this matter and I believe it is important for the system as a whole and for China as a key member of this Council to ensure that the same rules apply to China as to all other countries.  The other issue is the concern explained in detail in my report about the very rapidly shrinking space for the expression of views that differ from those of the Party, for the meaningful use of the courts to defend rights, and for established complaints mechanisms to be utilized.  In his campaign against official corruption, President Xi Jinping has emphasized the importance of ensuring the accountability of Party and Government officials.  This accountability needs to extend also to situations in which human rights are violated by those same officials.

It would also be remiss of me not to make a special plea to the Government to release human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, with whom I met in Beijing.  Charges of subverting state power, which are extremely serious, are the equivalent of a legal sledgehammer and should have no place in such contexts.  The continued detention of the other human rights lawyers who have been arrested as part of the so-called ‘709’ crackdown also violates the Government’s human rights obligations and commitments.

The Chinese Government has made it clear to me that it would prefer me not to pursue these issues, but my obligation as an independent expert is to present a balanced overall view and these problems need to be acknowledged even in a report which celebrates extraordinary achievements in relation to poverty elimination. 

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

My visit to Saudi Arabia in January this year took place at an important time because of the large-scale economic, social and cultural transformation that is currently underway in the Kingdom. Vision 2030, the National Transformation Program 2020, and the Fiscal Balance Program, all reflect an ambitious and deeply transformative agenda, driven by a combination of economic necessity, social evolution, and political leadership.  The implications for human rights are many and varied, and poverty elimination and social protection are an important part of the new strategy.

The Government cooperated fully with my mission and subsequent exchanges have also been constructive.  The report on my mission goes into considerable detail on a range of complex and controversial issues.  I do not intend to try to summarize those issues in this presentation.

Permit me, however, to identify briefly some of my main concerns.  There remains insufficient recognition of the fact that poverty actually exists in the Kingdom.  Information is not publicly available to assist this realization.  Women in particular are afflicted by significant levels of poverty, and non-Saudi citizens, many of whom have been living in the country for decades, are all but ignored in discussions of living standards and the need for official assistance.  The Government should make public its plans for defining and measuring poverty, should consult much more widely and transparently, and should recognize the right to social protection in meaningful ways.

Two particular concerns deserve to be highlighted.  The first is the relevance of human rights in the reform process. As I note in the report:

Public support and participation are not easy to achieve in a country in which there are no political parties, no national elections and significant restrictions on free speech, especially in relation to criticism of government policies. The Special Rapporteur’s interlocutors either sought to justify the limitations imposed on the grounds of national security and the need to avoid the chaos engulfing some neighbouring countries, or to point out that important initiatives have been taken in recent years to promote and facilitate broader consultation. They pointed to the role of the Shura Council, the municipal elections and various other consultative bodies.

While the latter developments are a step in the right direction, they stop far short of ensuring meaningful public participation in decision-making.  The most positive development is the rise of social media as a forum for less constrained public debate. One third of the Saudi population are active social media users, with Whatsapp being used by 27 per cent, Facebook by 25 per cent and Twitter by 20 per cent. Social media have proved to be a potent tool and an important reminder to the Government of the need to listen to public opinion, especially in relation to social and economic policies and reform. However, the Government monitors social media very closely and has brutally repressed certain manifestations of opinion.  The Government needs to accept increased political participation by the Saudi public as a matter of human rights as well as good policy and ensure that existing platforms for participation are protected and new channels allowed to open.

Finally, my report deals at some length both with the status of women in Saudi Arabia and with the treatment of female domestic migrant workers.  Major reforms are urgently needed in both these domains and my report provides detailed analysis and recommendations.