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Statement by Professor Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

72nd session of the General Assembly - Third Committee, Item 68 (b&c)

23 October 2017
New York

Mr President, distinguished delegates,

The report that I am presenting today focuses on the enjoyment of civil and political rights by people who are living in poverty. The report seeks to demonstrate:

(a) that the poor experience violations both disproportionately and differently from others;

(b) that their civil and political rights are more or less systematically neglected by mainstream human rights and development actors;

(c) that the resulting situation crucially and very problematically undermines the principle of the indivisibility of all human rights; and

(d) that both the human rights and development communities need to make far-reaching changes in order to ensure that respect for and promotion of all of the human rights of those living in poverty are incorporated into their analytical frameworks, the methodologies they use and the programmes and policies they recommend.

In most cases, when the situation of people living in poverty is addressed in either the development or human rights frameworks, their civil and political rights are completely ignored, explicitly excluded from the analysis or mentioned only in passing. Attention then moves very rapidly to the problems linked to material deprivation and a lack of resources. As a result, the focus shifts to issues such as the need for welfare support, the provision of specific goods and services, the need for better targeted development assistance or the promotion of economic and social rights, depending on the overall frame of analysis. This tendency is reinforced by the emphasis, both in the international and the national contexts, on measurable definitions that focus either exclusively or largely on per capita income. Thus, in international settings, immense attention is paid to the famous benchmark of the World Bank of $1.25, or now $1.90, a day for determining whether someone is living in extreme poverty, and the solutions sought then aim to increase disposable income rather than to restore basic rights. At the national level, poverty lines are generally used to measure the disposable income available to poor individuals or households. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this general tendency, and they will be mentioned below, but they tend to manifest themselves much more in theory than in practice and they remain exceptions to the rule.

It might be expected that the human rights community would adopt a different approach from that used by mainstream development actors. In some contexts it does, but for the most part the reality is that human rights experts and groups do not focus in any detail, either in their fact-finding or their assessments, specifically on the situation of persons living in poverty. As a result, neither the diagnosis of situations nor the resulting policy recommendations are tailored to address the distinctive ways in which people living in poverty are affected by police brutality and gender-based sexual violence, left unprotected and open to property theft, deprived of their liberty in pretrial detention, confined in their freedom of movement by the criminalization of homelessness, or subjected to electoral fraud and manipulation, to mention just a few of the major violations.

There seem to be at least three different but related assumptions operating to justify or at least explain this neglect. The first is the assumption that poor people find themselves in essentially the same position as those with access to adequate resources, and that proposals to address any of the standard human rights violations will apply equally well regardless of income or socioeconomic class. But this is patently not the case in practice, as the Special Rapporteur seeks to demonstrate in the present report. The second assumption is that poverty is largely coterminous with forms of discrimination against particular groups, so that examining and reporting on issues such as discrimination against women, particular racial or ethnic groups or those living with disabilities will also succeed in addressing the specific situations of the poorest members of society. But again, this use of a surrogate lens is clearly inadequate for capturing either the diverse characteristics of those living in poverty in most societies or the very specific consequences of the varied forms of discrimination, oppression, stigmatization and violence experienced on a daily basis by many of them. The third assumption, held by both the development and the human rights communities, is that the other community will deal with the specific challenges that arise in relation to the enjoyment of civil and political rights by those living in poverty, whereas in practice neither does so specifically or adequately.

The availability of data is an important issue in this regard.  In investigating and documenting violations of civil and political rights, distinctions according to class or socioeconomic status often are not made, thus making it much more difficult to say with authority that those living in poverty are differentially and disproportionately affected by the relevant practices. The tendency both in social sciences and in human rights fact-finding is to disaggregate civil and political rights violations according to factors such as age, gender, race, ethnicity and perhaps sexual orientation, but not according to income percentiles or deciles or to other indicia relating to economic class. Thus, the precise ways in which income poverty, as opposed to multidimensional poverty, affects the nature and frequency of such violations is not captured. As a general rule, there appear to be little data gathered by States on the socioeconomic status of victims of civil and political rights violations. And any such data that are gathered, whether by State or non-State actors, are unlikely to be correlated in such a way as to expose the extent of the victimization of the poor. As a result, the prescriptions identified also ignore these dimensions. For example, it often seems to be assumed that women, people from specific ethnic groups or children will be the most affected and that focusing on them will be a good surrogate for addressing the poverty dimension.

The civil and political rights of those living in poverty can be violated in many ways. Policies may be adopted that explicitly seek to exclude the poor from access to or the enjoyment of specific civil and political rights. More subtly and more commonly, laws can be adopted that are neutral at face value but that have a distinctly negative impact on the poor and leave the better off largely untouched. Policies that should benefit all classes equally are adopted, but resource allocations ensure that they actually favour only the better off. And Governments can remain passive and unresponsive in situations in which it is clear that those living in poverty are effectively unable to exercise certain rights or to defend themselves against regular violations of those rights. In such situations, Governments fail to live up to their obligation to take steps to remedy significant and ongoing violations.

The report highlights some of the ways in which the civil and political rights of those living in poverty are denied, restricted or deprived of real significance.  It does this under several different categories:

(1) the failure to protect the poor from civil and political rights violations.  This phenomenon is illustrated by reference to the situation in many countries in relation to violations such as torture, the abuse of police power; abuses of the physical integrity and right to security of the person, violence against women and children, and violations of the privacy rights of the poor.

It might be responded that it is only logical that poor people, because of their predicament, are more exposed to violence. But such a dismissive approach ignores the fact that the State should be taking additional and tailored measures to address that added vulnerability, rather than dismissing the problem as being somehow inevitable.

(2) the differential criminalization of the poor.  This phenomenon is especially obvious in relation to the imposition of the death penalty, and the design and implementation of drug control policies

(3) a failure to promote access to justice for the poor.  This is apparent in relation to issues such as legal representation and legal aid; bail and pretrial detention; charges, court fees and deposits; and the impact on the rights of other family members.

(4) undermining the right to political participation of the poor

(5) restricting the access of the poor to public places.  Examples include the .criminalization of homelessness

What then are the conclusions that emerge from this report?

First, that there is very little systematic data on the socioeconomic background of victims of civil and political rights violations.

Second, and perhaps linked to this, is that there is surprisingly little academic work on the issue, although with a few notable exceptions.

Third, that where broad policy documents recognize the need to address civil and political rights in anti-poverty efforts, they often remain at a level of generality that renders them largely meaningless in practical policy terms.

Fourth, that persons living in poverty are often ignored as a vulnerable group, that the focus on discrimination and equality often overlook this “protected group” and that discrimination cases never relate to socioeconomic class.

Fifth, that human rights actors often seem uncomfortable with looking into causal and contextual factors that explain specific violations, because of a purported lack of expertise, but that this leads to the neglect of vital dimensions of the challenge.

There are many reasons why this neglect matters. It renders invisible in many contexts one of the major groups of victims of human rights violations. It fails to expose the fact that many civil and political rights violations are rooted in poverty, and that only by addressing that aspect can sustainable solutions be found. It overlooks the fact that where the poor are victimized, those violations may be of a different nature and require different solutions.

Several recommendations follow from this diagnosis of the challenge.

The human rights community has long recognized that an exclusive focus on civil and political rights as they affect specific individuals needs to be complemented by attention to the broader situation affecting vulnerable groups of the population, such as women, children, ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples. But very few human rights actors have given anything more than sporadic or passing attention to the civil and political rights of persons living in poverty. Since this is a group that is most likely to suffer severe and ongoing violations of their relevant rights, a new approach is called for.

How exactly this is best done is up to the various actors to determine for themselves. But an important starting point is for both governmental and non-governmental actors to start collecting relevant data so that they are able to identify the extent to which the poor are affected by different types of violations.

The next step is to adapt and adjust recommended solutions in order to take into account the factors that render the poor particularly vulnerable and to move beyond the often unwarranted assumption that generalized measures to address violations will necessarily assist that group.