Poverty Is a Human Rights Issue

Devisha Vythelingum

Poverty is a microcosmic representation of a State’s treatment of its citizens. Being a transnational problem, it does not discriminate between what the international community sees as ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries, but exists everywhere, with varying degree of severity across States. Poverty is also not disconnected from human rights. It impacts on the civil and political rights of every individual. This article will first address the current situation in the UK in terms of poverty and human rights; then analyse the interrelationship between both concepts; and, finally, consider the sovereignty of States and their responsibility in the observance of their obligations.  It will conclude with a reflection upon the need to address poverty and human rights in such a way which recognises its uniformity in every country regardless of its financial status.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston, recently published his statement on poverty in the United Kingdom after an investigative visit across several areas in the country. The UK is one amongst the most influential and wealthiest countries in the world. Sitting as a permanent member in the Security Council as a result of being one of the five allied victors of World War II, it is also one of the founding members of the United Nations. Against this background, it is therefore alarming to note that a country with such global impact transgresses the basic human rights of its citizens.

The UK is a signatory to several UN treaties which impose human rights obligations on the State, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (many of the rights contained in the Covenant are also contained in the European Convention on Human Rights), the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities amongst others. However, the persistent presence of poverty in the UK results in a continuous breach of these UN human rights agreements.

14 million people, a fifth of the UK population, live in poverty today, with 1.5 million of them not able to afford basic necessities. However, the problem of poverty is not new to the UK. Indeed, the country has been continuously criticised by the UN for turning a blind eye and for implementing so-called welfare reforms which are in reality misogynistic and maintains poverty. The Government has sustained denial to the extent of the problem and on rare occasions where it had acknowledged it, had sought to remedy to it by highlighting the creation of employment opportunities. However, this only reinforces the problem of viewing poverty as a situation resulting from a lack of money, instead of seeing it as a threat to other civil and political rights, which employment cannot enforce or remedy to when there have been violations. If poverty is seen as a human rights issue (which it is often not perceived to be), the interrelationship of poverty and human rights, and how the former negatively paints the latter, will be the starting foundation towards implementing effective domestic policy which provide adequate solutions.

Indeed, poverty does not exist and prevail in a self-contained box. It has an impact on the right to seek legal remedy, to access education, to ensure physical and mental integrity, life and safety, the right to participate in a civil society and to vote, amongst others. Poverty hits women, children, ethnic minorities and the disabled the most, the consequences of which result in prostitution, an affiliation with gangs, violence and drugs, with women who suffer from domestic abuse, having no access to economic resources and their economic status driven by gender-powered dynamics.

The question is, then, why is it still prevalent? Poverty is a political choice. It is a man-made problem which can only be solved with a man-made solution, in this case, political will. However, the willingness of a State to remedy to its human rights violations is an acute obstacle faced by the UN, mainly because most States are unwilling to acknowledge their human rights issues, and even if they do, the violations which happen within their borders. Indeed, previous visits by the UN Special Rapporteur have led to criticisms even though he had been invited in those countries. After Professor Alston’s research in the US and him leading to the conclusion that about 40 million of people there were living in poverty, with 18.5 million in extreme poverty and 5.3 million living in Third World conditions of absolute poverty, the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, called the report politically motivated.

Under Article 2 of the UN Charter, States are sovereign entities. As in the case of the US’s reaction to the UN report, States have used their sovereignty as a reason to nullify international interference in domestic matters. International interference has often been seen as an external eye which does not comprehend the local context and reality of a particular country where States often have to balance their priorities in solving issues, that balance sometimes leading to them not observing their human rights obligations. Another argument in support of this is the main purpose of the UN. The UN was created to fill the loopholes in the League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, by setting up a monitoring body over the use of force between States through the Security Council. Article 1 (1) of the UN Charter reflects this purpose. The promotion and respect of human rights are not mentioned until Article 1 (3), being the third concern amongst the purposes of the Charter. As such, the enforceability of human rights was never at the forefront of the founding members of the UN. The prevention of war was. It is therefore of no surprise that when reports about human rights issues are communicated to States from the UN, the level of concern from them is not as high as one would expect, not only because they think that domestic problems are within their sovereignty but also because UN reports are not binding on them. Indeed, these reports merely resonate to the public, and are only relevant to domestic policy debates and reforms to the extent States want them to be.

However, human rights is a form of accountability which is external to the State. Indeed, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a commitment which was endorsed by all the member states of the UN at the 2005 World Summit. The principle is founded on the belief that sovereignty amounts to a responsibility from each State to protect its citizens from human rights violations arising from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. The bubble of sovereignty ceases to exist when a State commits such crimes to an extent that interference from the international community is necessary. Certainly, the R2P principle applies to the most serious international crimes and does not apply in cases of poverty in any State. However, the principle of responsibility derived from sovereignty still persists. A State remains accountable to its citizens.

Moreover, the financial status of a country is certainly not reflective of its observance of human rights. Whether a country is rich or not does not mean that human rights issues are not prevalent there. However, this is often used as an excuse to shift the focus to ‘other’ countries. Indeed, after Professor Alston’s report, the US Ambassador to the UN deemed the whole investigation as a waste of the UN’s resources and time. She advised the UN Special Rapporteur to focus his research on African countries where human rights violations prevail, not in America, which is the ‘wealthiest and freest’ country in the world.

Holding the excuse that the amount of people living in poverty is less in a developed country than it is in a developing country, is not relevant. It merely provides a leeway for some States to shift the blame and focus on other countries, and reinforce the division between what the international community should see as ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries. Indeed, poverty has been seen (as the US Ambassador to the UN has shown) to affect only certain types of people, certain ethnicities, certain countries. However, the comparison is not against the severity of other States in not observing their human rights obligations, but rather against a State’s own duty and responsibility towards its own citizens. It is not when the UN focuses on other countries such as those in Africa that it will use its time and resources more effectively but will waste them when investigating in countries such as the US or the UK.

Poverty is a transnational problem which crosses borders irrespective of whether a State is wealthy or not. Basic necessities must be seen not as means accessible only to people with money, but rather as our entitlement which is at the core of what it means to be human beings. Perhaps the problem is with the narrative used in human rights cases. Indeed, human rights have been stigmatised as a concept which is meant only for vulnerable groups, when it belongs to each individual. However, even people who have five jobs in the UK today are still victims of poverty. Moreover, with the impending decision about Brexit, access to the European Court of Human Rights by UK citizens will be limited, if not inexistent. What human rights mean for these individuals is as significant as what they mean for vulnerable ones.

There is, therefore, a need to rehabilitate the concept of human rights and what its importance is for each ordinary person, not just the vulnerable. It is this uniformity in understanding which can make it better to portray poverty and human rights issues to every country, rich or not. Tailoring each approach to each State and its specific circumstances is certainly important. When observing a State’s upholding of its human rights obligations, one may argue that rights may not be the most important priority in that State at that particular time. Other issues might need more attention first. In other words, if a country does not observe its obligations under a human rights Treaty it has signed, it might not be an appropriate time for it to prioritise it. One certainly cannot fight every battle. But doesn’t every battle today engage our most basic rights?


Featured image photo credits: The Guardian

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