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Report No. 223

Need for Ameliorating the lot of the Have nots

Chapter 1

Extreme Poverty: Denial of Human Rights

1.1 The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights defines poverty as a human condition characterized by sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. Poverty has been and remains a constructed social and economic reality.

The poor are not poor simply because they are less human or because they are physiologically or mentally inferior to others whose conditions are better off. On the contrary, their poverty is often a direct or indirect consequence of society's failure to establish equity and fairness as the basis of its social and economic relations.1

1.2 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims2 that everyone is entitled to a standard of living adequate to provide for the health and well-being of oneself and one's family. Moreover, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenants recognize that freedom from fear and want can be achieved only if everyone enjoys economic, social and cultural rights, in addition to civil and political rights. The increasing disparity between the rich and the poor is a major destabilizing influence in the world.

It produces or exacerbates regional and national conflicts, environmental degradation, crime and violence, and the increasing use of illicit drugs. These consequences of extreme poverty affect all individuals and nations. Increasingly we are becoming aware that we are all members of a single human family. In a family the suffering of any member is felt by all, and until that suffering is alleviated, no member of the family can be fully happy or at ease. Few are able to look at starvation and extreme poverty without feeling a sense of failure.

1. Voice of Justice by Dr Justice AR. Lakshmanan, Universal Law Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd., Delhi (2006), p. 121.

2. Statement to the 49th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights

1.3 Every man and woman has the human right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, to food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services. These fundamental human rights are defined in our Constitution. On 10 December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations". Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads thus:

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in spirit of brotherhood."

1.4 The human right to live in dignity, free from want, is itself a fundamental right, and is also essential to the realization of all other human rights - rights that are universal, indivisible, interconnected and interdependent. The right to be free from poverty includes the human right to an adequate standard of living. Poverty is a human rights violation. The right to be free from poverty includes:

The human right to an adequate standard of living;

The human right to work and receive wages that contribute to an adequate standard of living;

The human right to a healthy and safe environment;

The human right to live in adequate housing;

The human right to be free from hunger;

The human right to safe drinking water;

The human right to primary health care and medical attention in case of illness;

The human right to access to basic social services;

The human right to education;

The human right to be free from gender or racial discrimination;

The human right to participate in shaping decisions which affect oneself and one's community.1

Voice o Justice by Dr. Justice AR. Laksmanan, Universal Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd., Delhi (2006), pp. 121-122.

1.5 The human right for children includes their development in an environment appropriate for their physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.1

1. Voice o Justice by Dr. Justice AR. Laksmanan, Universal Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd., Delhi (2006), pp. 121-122.

1.6 Very little attention has been paid to poverty and the extreme poverty in the logic of human rights; the explanation for this is unhappily simple. A poor person hardly exists and can only lay claim, modestly, to 'poor' rights. We have gradually become accustomed to consider the poor person as having exhausted his entitlements. As for the extremely poor, they do not exist at all, at best they may benefit from charity. Even the help they receive is, in most cases, an additional token of exclusion from a society that makes them feel guilty. The public authorities ignore them.

1.7 Poverty and extreme poverty are not peripheral phenomena confined to this country alone. They are universal. Poverty is increasing everywhere. The phenomenon occurs on a more massive scale in the Least Developed Countries and in countries undergoing rapid structural transformation, but it has equally serious consequences for the victims in rich countries. As we said earlier, poverty is increasing everywhere:

Increasing wealth is accompanied by increasing poverty. Poverty renders all human rights inoperative. The violation of right to a reasonable standard of living entails the violation of all the other human rights, since their observance are simply made materially and structurally impossible. Poverty aggravates discrimination since it particularly affects women, the elderly and the disabled.

Moreover, the very poor are, in most cases, unable even to discover their own rights and this violation not only affects individuals through and within their precarious day-to-day existence, but it entraps their entire social world over several generations in a spiral from which it is virtually impossible to escape. Poverty is, undoubtedly, a general phenomenon, a social relation, which as such is subject to law, and whose overall logic needs to be understood. Poverty is a situation of uncertainty, whereas extreme poverty is a spiral of different kinds of uncertainty with each kind aggravating the effects of the others in a circular process that hems the individual completely.

1.8 Fundamentally, a human rights approach to poverty is about the empowerment of the poor, extending their freedom of choice and action to structure their own lives. The international normative framework empowers the poor by granting them human rights and imposing the legal obligations on others. Rights and obligations are required to be supported by a system of accountability, or else they become no more than window dressing.

Accordingly, the human rights approach to poverty reduction emphasizes obligations and requires that all duty-holders, including States and intergovernmental organizations, be held to account for their conduct in relation to international human rights. The enjoyment of the right to participate is deeply dependent on the realization of other human rights.

If the poor are to participate meaningfully, they must be free to organize without restriction (right to association), to meet without impediment (right to assembly) and to say what they want without intimidation (freedom of expression), they must know the relative facts (right to information) and they must enjoy an elementary level of economic security and the well-being (right to a reasonable standard of living and associated rights).

It is less openly recognized that the poor also suffer from a lack of information. Over and over again poor people mention their isolation from information, information about the programmes of assistance, their rights, contacts about work that affect their lives directly.

1.9 Poverty is indisputably the most potent violation of all human rights, and constitutes a threat to the survival of the greatest numbers of the human population. As poverty has intensified in both rich and poor nations alike, the view of poverty as a human rights and social justice issue has gained increased recognition.

The United Nations General Assembly has resolved that extreme poverty and exclusion from society constitute a violation of human dignity (General Assembly Resolution 53/146 on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty adopted December 18 1992). The existence of widespread extreme poverty inhibits the full and effective enjoyment of human rights and might, in some situations, constitute a threat to the right to life. A human rights-based approach to poverty views the poor as holding inalienable fundamental rights that must be respected, protected and fulfilled.

1.10 If injustices and discriminations in society are the main reasons for poverty, then as an effective operational mechanism, the human rights-based approach to development demands:

  • Participation and transparency in decision-making - this implies making participation throughout the development process a right and the obligation of the State and other actors to create an enabling environment for participation of all stakeholders;
  • Non-discrimination - this implies that equity and equality cut across all rights and are the key ingredients for development and poverty reduction;
  • Empowerment - this implies empowering people to exercise their human rights through the use of tools such as legal and political action to make progress in more conventional development areas;
  • Accountability of actors - this implies accountability of public and private institutions and actors to promote, protect and fulfill human rights and to be held accountable if these are not enforced.


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