1. This is an age of unprecedented contrasts. On the one hand there are people lapping up the wonders of technological progress, culture, the information revolution, the thrilling promises of the space age, etc. On the other, there are vast numbers leading lives of indigence, adversity and neglect. For one part of mankind, change is gathering pace; for the other, it is marking time or losing ground. This fateful decline lies at the root of the most disturbing knowledge in our possession: for what matters most is not that those who are progressing are few, or may be becoming fewer by the day, but that every day more people fall behind, and do so with terrifying speed.

2. What do we actually know about these people? How many are they? How and where do they live? Why is this army of the excluded growing? We certainly know very little about them and have tried to find out even less. They are a sector of the population that is scarcely ever included in statistics, and if it is, then usually in the form of overall estimates and likely percentages which are regularly understated. There is every indication of a tendency among many Governments to parade wealth, a tendency they capably combine with extreme miserliness on the subject of poverty.

3. Truth, however, is implacable, and the truth is that poverty knows no geographical boundaries but spreads over all continents and is present, albeit to differing extents, in both industrialized and developing countries. Worse, it is growing; the numbers of the poor are rising and are already well in excess of 1 billion. According to some, we shall soon reach 2 billion. But however we measure, we can be certain that of the world’s 5.7 billion inhabitants, 1.5 billion are desperately poor and their number is rising by at least 25 million a year. If current economic and demographic trends continue, UNICEF says the numbers of the poor will quadruple in a lifetime.

4. According to WHO, abject poverty is the world’s most efficient and pitiless murderer and executioner, as well as the main cause of suffering. It is sobering to observe how the gap between those in good health and the poor, and between the poor and the very poorest, is widening, not only from one region or country to the next but in individual countries. What is more,

the perverse logic driving this spiral of exclusion operates even within underprivileged groups, and particularly affects children, the elderly and millions of women whose main handicap is precisely their sex.

5. We now know that abject poverty has claimed more victims than the horrors of war. We should ask ourselves, nevertheless, how much poverty is caused by wars and how many wars result from poverty. Internal and international flows of migrants are known to be among the most disturbing phenomena of our times and poverty, especially in its most extreme forms, is among the main causes and aggravating factors. Anyone who has ever been driven into exile and has had the good fortune to be properly received and given legal protection by the country of asylum knows full well that this is not exactly the fate that nowadays awaits those fleeing from poverty: not because the spectre of abject poverty is less frightening than that of a clandestine jail, but because legal protection for the victims of political persecution is a triumph of human sensitivity, which has not yet extended the same status to poverty.

6. Beyond this moving and disturbing overview of what we might call the world map of poverty, this study seeks to delve into the experience of those who live in poverty. For this, the Special Rapporteur has had to rely on individuals and organizations who have maintained durable bonds of understanding and brotherhood with them for years. The purpose of the exercise is nothing less than to convey, through their experiences, a sense of the most telling, essential aspects of this very special universe; but besides describing what living in abject poverty is like, the aim is to hold up a mirror to reveal to ourselves the countless vices, prejudices and stigmas that prevent us from seeing what life is like for the very poorest and, at the same time, the extreme poverty of the reality that can engender, nourish or tolerate such a life.

7. What is poverty, legally speaking, but a string of misfortunes: poor living conditions, unhealthy housing, homelessness, failure - often - to appear on the welfare rolls, unemployment, ill health, inadequate education, marginalization, and an inability to enter into the life of society and assume responsibilities? The distinguishing feature is that these deprivations - hunger, overcrowding, disease, and illiteracy - are cumulative, each of them exacerbating the others to form a horizontal vicious circle of abject poverty.

8. Let this suffice to demonstrate how well extreme poverty mirrors the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights. Furthermore, evidence shown to the Special Rapporteur makes it plain how poverty is often passed down from generation to generation making it increasingly difficult to escape. The tendency for poverty to perpetuate itself creates a vertical vicious circle of poverty. The two circles form a kind of infernal mill that strips people of any real opportunity to exercise their human rights and take on responsibilities.

9. The inescapable question at this point is whether there are any points in common between the situation of a slave during the colonial era, someone who, until recently, was a victim of apartheid and someone now living in poverty. Obviously, there are many. The most blatant is the fact that all three are deprived of all their human rights. As for the differences, which are also legion, the most striking is undoubtedly the fact that slavery was bitterly disputed even when it was institutionalized. Apartheid was rejected and opposed by virtually all means available to mankind at the time. In contrast, poverty walks abroad to widespread indifference, or hides its emaciated multiplicity behind huge walls.

10. Ignored, relegated to isolated and distant settlements or huddled together in the suburbs of the modern world’s countless metropoli, millions upon millions of people eke out an existence in which every waking moment is a bitter struggle for survival. This daily strife and the generosity frequently encountered within this world of insecurity and misfortune are of such significance that they should help us to re evaluate the human condition. To do so, to order these experiences and derive benefit from them, we must change our view of poverty and, above all, of those who live in poverty. The only approach possible is to draw nearer to these people, forging lasting bonds of involvement. Both theory and practice indicate that nothing can be done for

people living in extreme poverty unless it is in association with them. The human beings behind the poverty scarred faces will fully emerge only if the poor recover the full exercise of all their rights.

11. Lastly, the document prepared at the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen vests Governments with responsibility for its application, and lucidly and boldly suggests a number of specific ways of successfully tackling the countless challenges faced by a world in constant change. For example, of the Summit’s three major objectives, the eradication of extreme poverty apparently represents an overriding imperative. The human rights dimension of absolute poverty, which was acknowledged in Copenhagen, ties in with the approach adopted in this study and is central to the recommendations made at the end of it. Some of the recommendations specifically concern extreme poverty, while others address it in connection with the fulfilment of the commitments made at the Summit.

12. Internationally, vigorous efforts are needed to harmonize the activities of the various United Nations organs and institutions (especially those with an economic or social brief linked to human rights) which have a direct or indirect impact on poverty. This is the subject of one of the proposals in this report, whose main aspiration is to seat at the same table those who could be figuratively described as the humanists, represented by the guardians of human rights active on the human rights bodies, and those who, in the name of the common welfare, administer most of the resources available to the system (UNDP, World Bank, IMF, etc.). The hope is that their humanism and realism will converge in a common vision of the major objectives of our time and agreement on specific strategies for turning back the advance of poverty and social exclusion and rapidly eradicating abject poverty. In a word, the aim is to harness efforts on behalf of a supremely simple idea: ensuring that rich and poor, travellers on the same planet, cease to move in opposite directions.

A. Origins of the study

13. In resolution 1990/15, the Commission on Human Rights requested the Sub Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to examine the question of extreme poverty and exclusion from society in greater depth and to carry out a specific study of this question. Two years later, in resolution 1992/11, the Commission requested the Sub Commission to undertake a study of this question, bearing in particular the aspects enumerated in the same resolution. The same year, in resolution 1992/27, the Sub Commission entrusted Mr. Leandro Despouy with this study, entitled "Human rights and extreme poverty". The Commission on Human Rights and the Economic and Social Council approved his appointment in resolutions 1993/13 and 1993/44 respectively.

B. The eradication of poverty: one of the founding ideals of theUnited Nations system

14. This report is the first study on extreme poverty undertaken by the United Nations from the viewpoint of human rights. Although it highlights a gap in the contemporary juridical literature, this in no way means that the links between poverty and human rights were overlooked by the founders of the Organization, or its predecessor, the League of Nations. Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles (1919), containing the Constitution of the International Labour Organization, stated that "universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice" and that the unrest produced among large numbers of people by injustice, hardship and privation imperil the peace and harmony of the world. Much later, on 10 May 1944, when the bases of the world’s new institutional organization were being discussed, the Philadelphia Declaration reaffirmed this orientation of ILO by stating that "poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere".

15. On 10 December 1948, in its preamble, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared that "the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people". The statement of this ideal was repeated in similar terms in the preambles to the two international human rights Covenants adopted in 1966, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which declare furthermore that this ideal "can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his civil and political rights, as well as his economic, social and cultural rights".

16. In 1969, the Declaration on Social Progress and Development affirmed that social progress and development require the full utilization of human resources, including in particular, the assurance to disadvantaged or marginal sectors of the population of equal opportunities for social and economic advancement.

C. Recent developments in the perception of extreme poverty within the United Nations system

17. Extreme poverty has long been perceived as an essentially economic phenomenon, which explains why, within the United Nations, it has been studied particularly in the context of economic and social problems, and why the Commission on Human Rights initially placed it under the question of the realization of economic, social and cultural rights. Mr. Asbjørn Eide’s study of the right to adequate food as a human right[1] and Mr. Danilo Türk’s study on the realization of economic, social and cultural rights[2] represent enormous progress in clarifying the relationship between the latter rights and civil and political rights, demonstrating the indivisible and interdependent nature of human rights. It may also be recalled that in 1987, Father Joseph Wresinki[3], in his statement to the Commission on Human Rights, asked for the question of extreme poverty to be considered as a violation of human rights overall. It was, however, only at the start of the present decade that consideration of the question of poverty and extreme poverty acquired momentum of its own within the United Nations system, and in particular in the human rights bodies.

18. The General Assembly for its part has adopted a series of resolutions concerning human rights and extreme poverty, welcoming the decision to make a specific study of the question and declaring that it would await the results. In 1992, resolution 47/196 declared 17 October the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Less than six months later, at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993[4], a consensus emerged that extreme poverty and social exclusion should be regarded as violations of human dignity which stood in the way of the full and effective enjoyment of human rights, and urgent steps should be taken to eradicate them. The States attending the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995[5], took a further step by committing themselves to introducing policies and strategies which would considerably reduce all forms of poverty, diminish inequalities and eradicate absolute poverty. Lastly, the General Assembly, in resolution 48/183, proclaimed 1996 International Year for the Eradication of Poverty and, in resolution 50/107, proclaimed the first United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (1997 2006).

D. The Special Rapporteur’s aim and mandate

19. This study, the completion of which coincides with the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty, is the culmination of preliminary reflections set out in the two interim reports[6]. Its purpose is to give an overall view of extreme poverty from the human rights standpoint, to encourage a genuine awareness of the seriousness of the phenomenon, to make it better known and, thus, to foster more suitable means to stamp it out.

20. According to the resolutions defining his mandate, the Special Rapporteur must basically concern himself with "the effects of extreme poverty on the enjoyment and exercise of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of those experiencing it". The Commission and the Sub-Commission have given the Special Rapporteur methodological directives for carrying out this task. Above all, he must:

- Take advantage of the experience and the thinking of the poorest and of those committed to their defence in order to make extreme poverty a better-known phenomenon;

- Bring to the public eye the efforts the very poor make in order to be able to exercise their rights and participate fully in the development of the society in which they live; and

- Enhance the conditions enabling such persons to become partners in the realization of human rights.

21. In view of the importance of family relationships in holding society together, the Special Rapporteur was also asked, during the International Year of the Family in 1994, to concentrate on the role of the family as a support for persons fighting to overcome poverty. Lastly, the Commission on Human Rights in resolution 1995/16 invited him to give attention to the declaration and programme of action to be adopted by the World Summit for Social Development, thus making this study an integral part of the strategies and efforts of all United Nations bodies and institutions to eradicate poverty.

22. On the basis of these recommendations, the Special Rapporteur intends to propose here a new method for getting to know and analysing extreme poverty. He hopes thus to contribute to the initiation of more suitable and therefore more effective activities, locally, nationally and internationally, the keynote of which will be respect for all human rights as embodied in the relevant international instruments.

E. Sources and information received

23. In order to carry out the mandate entrusted to him, the Special Rapporteur has since 1992, been seeking to gather information on the basis of a questionnaire addressed to States, intergovernmental organizations and non governmental organizations, particularly those that have long been working in the field with persons living in extreme poverty.

24. He wishes to thank Governments for the many replies he has received, which have displayed an encouraging interest in this study. He thanks the intergovernmental organizations, many of which have in recent years devoted considerable efforts to becoming familiar with analysing and implementing programmes to combat poverty. He also thanks the non governmental organizations, particularly those that have long been working in places where abject poverty is rife, for without them this study would have not been possible.

25. Lastly, he dedicates the study to those all round the world who confront abject poverty daily. They have taught him and enabled him to transmit something new, and to understand that what is at stake in their remorseless struggle against poverty is respect for human dignity - their own, but also everybody else’s, including those who ignore or tolerate it.

F. Methodology

26. The methodology adopted follows the guidelines referred to above. Extreme poverty is a poorly known issue which is difficult to target by the usual methods, particularly because of the difficulty of reaching persons living in it; the Special Rapporteur has therefore not only studied the replies to the questionnaires mentioned above and the main works on the question, but has also: (a) followed closely the experience of non governmental organizations with established commitments in the field; (b) taken part in encounters, open universities[7], seminars, etc. with persons from poverty-stricken areas; (c) used monographs tracing the lives of extremely poor families over several generations.

G. Terminology

27. Several terms are used to identify extreme poverty. As was mentioned in the previous report, terms such as "absolute poverty", "extreme poverty", "critical poverty", "acute poverty", "indigence", "deep poverty" and "want" are used to convey roughly the same meaning. The Special Rapporteur has also met the term "fourth world" which is used in several of the documents referred to below[8].

28. Whatever the terminology used, all studies which deal with the subject distinguish an extreme category within poverty. Thus the Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action distinguish between poverty or "general poverty" and "absolute poverty" or "extreme poverty". In United Nations human rights bodies, the most commonly adopted distinction is between poverty and extreme poverty. The Special Rapporteur, for his part, will therefore continue to use the term employed in the resolution establishing his mandate, i.e. extreme poverty.

29. The only purpose of standardizing terminology is to make it easier to pinpoint a phenomenon in respect of which a wide variety of approaches has been adopted. This in no way excludes the need for legal criteria to define extreme poverty from the human rights angle for the purposes of this study.

H. Plan of the study

30. After this introductory section, chapter I will consider the scale and seriousness of the scourge of poverty, and the inadequacies of statistics and indicators. Chapter II will deal with the activities of the main bodies of the United Nations system in this area and the exciting debate opened up by the search for new paradigms of development. In view of the amount of existing material, part of these activities will be dealt with in the annexes (see annex II). Chapter III will set out a legal approach to the impact of extreme poverty on human rights as a whole and identify some legal criteria for its definition. Chapter IV will touch upon the prejudices and discrimination to which the very poor are subjected and ways of reaching this little-known population. Finally, some recommendations will be made.

31. On account of the financial difficulties of the United Nations and limits on the length of reports, some topics discussed in the interim reports, such as the work of the international organizations, will be consigned to references for the most part, so as to leave more space for topics specific to this study.

  1. United Nations Human Rights Study Series, No. 1.
  2. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1992/16 (final report of the study).
  3. Father Joseph Wresinski is the founder of the international movement ATD Fourth World. Himself the child of a poor family, he founded the movement in the 1950s, with families living in a camp for homeless persons near Paris.
  4. See A/CONF.157/23
  5. See A/CONF.166/9.
  6. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/19 and E/CN.4/Sub.2/1995/15.
  7. The Special Rapporteur uses this term throughout the report to denote the Open Universities - Fourth World which bring together very poor people and others in learning how to dialogue. The teaching competence of the very poor is recognized and enriched by the know-how and experience of the other members of society, as a result of preparatory work of reflection, analysis of experience and training in speaking.
  8. The term "fourth world" was invented by Father Joseph Wresinski with a view to giving a positive social identity to persons living in extreme poverty everywhere in the world.

catégorie:United Nations

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