Despouy part 3

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98. International human rights law recognizes that each and every human right belongs to all persons without discrimination of any kind. Declaring discrimination unacceptable de jure and de facto, articles 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the two International Covenants explicitly condemn discrimination based on social origin or property. Despite this, when people living in extreme poverty are told about human rights, they say: "That is not for us!" In the case of people living in extreme poverty, the problem is thus the realization and exercise of these rights in their totality.

99. Following the methodology he was requested to adopt, the Special Rapporteur will rely in this chapter on information supplied by non governmental organizations with long-standing experience of work in poverty-stricken areas in various parts of the world, the work of the seminar on extreme poverty and the denial of human rights,[1] monographs relating to extremely poor families[2] and meetings with very poor persons in open universities.

100. On the basis of these various contributions, the Special Rapporteur finds that the circumstances in which very poor people and families are forced to live have given them a keen sense of justice and dignity. "Is it right that I am denied housing? It is true that I cannot read, but is it right that the school does not want to hear my views on my children? Is it right that I was placed in an orphanage because our shanty burned down and my mother was out in the street? It is not right," one father tells us, "because I am a human being, too."

101. Like other population groups, poor people are no doubt unaware that they have human rights under treaties and can therefore claim redress if they believe that they have suffered a violation of one or more of the rights defined by those treaties. While they often fail to understand the language of human rights and the instruments which safeguard them, very poor people none the less have a clear idea of what rights should provide to ensure respect for the dignity of any human being. Hence there is a need to draw on their experience the better to understand and secure the foundations of human rights, especially as, by virtue of their permanent resistance to hardship, the very poor - those families, for instance, who invite other families from the streets into their own overcrowded dwellings - are de facto defenders of human rights. "We", they say, "do not leave people out in the street."

102. It was therefore essential as part of this study to compare and contrast international human rights law with how very poor people actually live. To this end, the Special Rapporteur reproduces a selection of testimony which he has found to be representative. His intention is not only to give a more telling picture of an acute shortfall in the realization and exercise of human rights in conditions of extreme poverty, but also to develop tools for a legal approach to the subject.

103. To pin down the links between extreme poverty and human rights, it is first necessary to examine some of the fundamental principles of human rights in the light of the experiences of very poor people. The report will then consider, but not exhaustively, several specific rights and how they interact.

A. Some fundamental principles of human rights in the light of extreme poverty

Human dignity and the principle of equality

(a) The equal dignity of all human beings

104. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first international instrument to confer legal recognition on the concept of human dignity, which had until then been left to philosophers. It begins with the words: "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world". This principle, then, served as the foundation and source of the rights recognized in the Declaration.

105. The reach of the Universal Declaration has been such that the principle of human dignity has made its appearance in many countries’ legal systems, giving rise to legislation and jurisprudence based upon it.[3]

106. At the international level, this principle of human dignity appears in resolutions on human rights and extreme poverty adopted by the General Assembly, the Commission on Human Rights and the Sub Commission. The World Conference on Human Rights also identified extreme poverty as a "violation of human dignity".

107. The fact that "recognition of the inherent dignity" are the first words of the Universal Declaration is reason enough, therefore, to begin this discussion by invoking the principle. In support of this approach, the Special Rapporteur notes that not a single testimonial from people in extreme poverty omitted to emphasize affronts to their inherent dignity as human beings.

108. Very poor people often say, "It is not right that we are treated like this - we are human beings, after all. We feel as though we are dogs. But the dog kennels in the centre of town have water and electricity, and we do not. That is really an injustice."

109. These affronts to dignity follow people living in extreme poverty to the very end of their lives, as witnessed by the following incident reported by a social worker. In a shanty town in Latin America, a woman had illicitly taken in her sick brother when he came out of hospital. When the landlord found out that the man was dying, he threatened eviction unless the man was taken out into the street, at night, so that he would not to have to pay for the body to be removed. The "unknown person" found dead in the street was therefore buried anonymously.

110. Such situations are so revealing of extreme poverty that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has included among its indicators the inability of poor people to provide their dead with a decent funeral. It is impossible not to think here of Sophocles’ Antigone, and recall that one of the first aspirations and civilized acts of human beings was to bury their dead in dignity.

(b) The principle of equality and non-discrimination

111. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". International human rights law therefore establishes an intrinsic link between dignity and equality, and these two concepts together constitute the foundations of the principle of non-discrimination. This is a general principle unanimously established in the Universal Declaration and in all international human rights instruments. As will be seen throughout this chapter, people living in extreme poverty are nevertheless frequently victims of de facto or de jure discrimination which violates the principle of equality. Thus, for example, the principle of free movement of persons within the European Union expressly excludes those who cannot prove they have sufficient means not to require assistance by the host country.[4]

112. "Poverty", states paragraph 16 of the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development, "too often result[s] in isolation, marginalization and violence"; and paragraph 19 of the Programme of Action underscores that poverty has various manifestations including social discrimination and exclusion. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has held that the principle of non-discrimination in access to rights is directly applicable whatever the level of resources available to States parties.[5]The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, for its part, has observed that poverty may be a factor exacerbating racial discrimination.[6]

A concatenation of misfortunes demonstrates the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights

113. The principles of indivisibility and interdependence were central to the thinking of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They have been regularly reaffirmed since by the General Assembly, the Commission on Human Rights and the Sub-Commission, and by the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, para. 1.5) and the Copenhagen World Summit (Programme of Action, para. 15 (b)).

114. The Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly recognizes this indivisibility by treating all human rights together in one and the same instrument. It is surely no accident that this concentration had at its core children, who, more than others, need special protection.

115. When extremely poor people discuss their situation, the message that most commonly emerges is that they are prey to a concatenation of mutually reinforcing misfortunes which become ever harder to overcome the longer they endure.

116. Describing everyday life at the seminar in October 1994 (see para. 99), one participant from Latin America said: "Without shelter, drinking water, electricity, adequate food, work, a minimum income or other resources, one simply cannot conceive of living a life in good health, having one’s children go to school, participating in local activities, including annual festivities or even birthday parties, participating in any political process as citizens, or even having one’s family life respected."

117. Several participants described their situation as a "vicious circle of poverty". One European participant illustrated this in the following terms: "When one lives in extreme poverty, without education, it is difficult to get work. Without resources, it is impossible to get decent housing or pay bills. Our family has no electricity, or even water. It is difficult for us to eat properly. My children find it difficult to learn in these conditions."

118. An African participant stated: "We always have to be thinking about our accommodation, the food we have to find for our children and for ourselves. We keep wondering what we are going to do to ensure that our children can grow up properly. All this is like a cloak of worry which covers us and prevents us from exercising any responsibilities."

119. Another African participant went further: "How can one talk of ’democracy’ and ’human rights’ when meeting basic human needs is a dream?" And one person from western Europe completed the picture by saying: "This all has repercussions for social life: we lose our freedom of movement; sometimes we have to hide; we dare not attend local celebrations or even exercise our rights as citizens."

120. Someone living in extreme poverty is not, it seems, a free individual: he is not in a position to exercise his public and individual freedoms. The two international covenants on human rights acknowledge that "the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from ... want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights".

121. To ignore the fundamental principles of human dignity, equality and indivisibility of rights, of whose importance we are reminded by the experiences of the very poor, would be to compromise beyond redemption the meeting between the very poor and human rights advocates which the Commission has sought, through its successive resolutions and this study, to bring about.

B. Life in extreme poverty and its impact on human rights

122. As already indicated, the Special Rapporteur proposes here to examine, but not exhaustively, several fundamental rights and how they interact in the experience of people living in extreme poverty.

The right to a decent standard of living

123. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration affirms that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family". This right is also recognized in article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which places emphasis more particularly on "the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger".

124. In regions where famine is prevalent, the poorest people are the first victims since they have nothing in reserve. "We would like to eat and we have nothing to eat, we would like to drink and we have nothing to drink. We are two adults and six children sleeping in the house where I live. I am responsible for all of them. When God gives me a little corn, it is so rare that I have to eat some of it with them."

125. Many accounts highlight the fact that people living in extreme poverty rarely have access to this right to a secure existence. The pervasive insecurity makes any development project impossible. On the other hand, access to an adequate and regular income may be a veritable springboard. In one open university in Europe, a young woman on a minimum subsistence allowance spoke of it in these terms: "Before, we never knew how we would get through the next day. Since we have had a steady income to count on we have had the courage to try something different. Those of us who used to have absolutely nothing, no security, had to learn how to live with a fixed amount of money. Then they could start learning to read and write."

126. It is interesting from the legal standpoint to note that the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[7] has expressed the view that "a minimum core obligation to ensure the satisfaction of, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights is incumbent upon every State party. Thus, for example, a State party in which any significant number of individuals is deprived of essential foodstuffs, of essential primary health care, of basic shelter and housing, or of the most basic forms of education is, prima facie, failing to discharge its obligations under the Covenant".

The right to housing

127. Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights establishes that everyone has the right to adequate housing for himself and his family. This right is pivotal in that it is also a means for the realization of other fundamental rights. Thus, for example, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has qualified the right to housing referred to in article 27 of the Convention as an essential component of the right to a standard of living adequate for the child’s overall development.[8] Also, the Committee has recalled the importance of the universality and interdependence of human rights, and decided to monitor the implementation of the right to housing of children in the light of the implementation of general principles of the Convention, namely the right to non-discrimination (art. 2), the best interest of the child (art. 3), the right to life (art. 6) and the right to participation (art. 12).

128. The housing of very poor people, when they have any, tends to be insecure. These dwellings, built with salvaged or low-quality materials, with no running water, sewerage or electricity, or low-cost housing projects, are often located in unhealthy environments, close to polluting industrial zones or railways. In one large western metropolis, a wall separating a very poor residential area from a high-speed railway line bears a plaque that reads: "In memory of the 11 children of our area who suffered for society’s lack of understanding. They paid with their lives for the absence of a wall such as this, which had been demanded for 13 years".

129. The insecurity of housing for the very poor may also stem from legal or arbitrary evictions or inability to pay even a minimal rent regularly.

130. The dwellings of the very poor are almost always a long way from basic services or in isolated hamlets in the mountains or countryside. A doctor working with very poor people recounted: "A little girl came to the village health clinic for some medicine. She waited a long time patiently for someone to attend to her. Just before leaving, she told me that she had to hurry back because there was only one pair of shoes for her and her mother and she had put them on to go to the village. And it was a long way from the clinic to where she lived in the mountains."

131. In these conditions,[9] very poor families tend to live unstable and sometimes wandering existences, for many situations show that they lose the basic security of a home more often than others.

132. Poor housing also has a major impact on health and employment. An Asian man put the situation well: "Ours is a wandering life. We go from slum to slum, living beside rubbish dumps, under bridges, in cemeteries or even in the streets. Living this way, it is extremely difficult to get health care. What is more, you have to take odd jobs that are particularly arduous and damaging to your health."

The right to education

133. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration sets forth the right of everyone to education, which "shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages". This right is also set forth, in greater detail, in articles 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It is an important area of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and is the main focus of the activities of UNESCO. The World Declaration on Education for All, adopted at Jomtien (1990), furthermore affirms, in article 1, that "every person - child, youth and adult - shall be able to benefit from educational opportunities designed to meet their basic learning needs".

134. Education is undeniably one of the most effective ways of breaking the vicious circle of destitution. It provides knowledge and training, offering a better future and more control over one’s life. Despite the efforts made in recent years by most States, however, it all too often remains inaccessible to those who live in abject poverty.

135. The precariousness of housing and the wandering existence that sometimes results hinder regular school attendance and hamper children’s intellectual and physical development through lack of stability, lack of space, an unhealthy environment, overcrowding, noise, etc. The problems associated with not having a legal residence or identity papers are also a cause of non enrolment. A monograph about an Asian family establishes a direct link between inability to arrange proper schooling and the question of residence: "As the family dwelling is built on squatted land, it cannot be considered a legal residence and, in this country, without a legalized link with the land neither property nor people can legally exist. As a result, the mother cannot obtain a residence certificate that would entitle her children to go to the public school."

136. Insufficient family income often means that children have to join in the daily quest for family subsistence or work outside the home, and this reduces their availability for learning and sometimes prompts them to leave school or live in the streets. Parents’ commonly low levels of education or illiteracy make it impossible for them to help with school work. Lastly, children are sometimes rejected or discriminated against at school on account of their social origins. "My children are treated badly at school, insulted and left out of school outings because we cannot pay for them. They are always at the bottom of the class. My children have been marked for life by this experience", says one witness.

The right to work

137. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration sets forth the right to work. Articles 6, 7, 8 and 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also recognizes the right of everyone to work, under just and favourable conditions, earning an income and a decent living for themselves and their families, as well as the right to social security.

138. For very poor people without housing, education or training, finding a job is wellnigh impossible. Living without a recognized address or in disreputable or outlying districts is a major handicap. When very poor people do find work, it is, because of their lack of skills, very often insecure, detrimental to health, and too poorly paid to guarantee an adequate standard of living, far less offer any security for the future. Moreover, such work is generally not highly regarded.

139. One piece of testimony from Latin America gives an idea of the link between housing and work: "Because I have no job, I cannot get housing. I find myself in a vicious circle, with no chance of getting out. I am looking for work, but whenever I apply, the answer is: ’next week’. It is always ’next week’, but that never comes."

140. These difficulties create a sense of humiliation and uselessness, and the resulting loss of social and self-esteem can even lead to the break up of the family unit. One man testifies: "I love my family. Every day I used to leave home early and look for work so as to provide for my wife and children. All my efforts were in vain. When I came home in the evening, they had

managed, I don’t know how, to find something to eat. The food stuck in my throat. I felt useless, and what was more, I was taking away some of the food they had earned. I was a burden on them, and that is why I left."

141. Very poor people are thus unable, as emphasized in paragraph 9 of the Copenhagen Declaration of the World Summit for Social Development, "to contribute to the well-being of their families, their communities and humankind".

142. ILO and UNICEF activities reflect the extent of child labour worldwide. Child labour is an immediate consequence of the extreme poverty in which the parents live. The great majority of these juvenile workers are exposed to conditions tantamount to slavery, that constitute a denial of human rights, in particular of articles 4 and 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The conclusions of the Sub-Commission’s Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery and of the bodies monitoring implementation of ILO conventions provide a great deal of relevant information in this regard.[10]

The right to health

143. This right is recognized in article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is described in article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as "the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health". The right to health is the focus of the activities of the World Health Organization which has launched a programme entitled "Global Strategy for health for all by the year 2000" and demonstrated the impact of extreme poverty on health dramatically in its 1995 report.

144. It has already been shown how living in extreme poverty exposes the very poor to serious health risks. Statistics also show that mortality rates are very high and life expectancy is considerably reduced among very poor populations.[11] Pregnancy and childbirth are particularly risky and lack of money makes it generally difficult to get medical treatment. Health services are frequently inaccessible, inadequate and ill equipped. In addition, the very poor worry about the potential repercussions of medical treatment on other aspects of their lives. One person stated "In my building there is a lady who is in poor health. She has a lung problem and doesn’t want to get treatment because her husband can’t take care of their four children on his own. She is afraid that the children will be placed in an institution if she goes to hospital."

145. The poorest population groups are also shown to be those least often covered by vaccination campaigns although they are the ones most exposed to disease.

The right to protection of the family

146. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration states that "the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State". Protection of the family is also mentioned in most international human rights instruments, including articles 7 and 10 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Convention on the Rights of the Child refers to it as "the natural environment for the growth and well being of all its members and particularly children". In paragraph 9 of its Declaration, the Copenhagen Summit also states that one of the main aims of social development is to provide all men and women with the means to exercise the rights and discharge the responsibilities that enable them to contribute to the well being of their families.

147. Firsthand accounts from various parts of the world illustrate, however, the extent to which living in poverty threatens family ties. Families constantly faced with material, administrative and other problems and the dignity and health of whose members are often under threat, can disintegrate at any moment: parents, particularly fathers, sometimes have to look for work far from home and children can be removed and placed with another family or in an institution, or are sometimes forced to go away to find work or to live in the street. Homelessness can also have repercussions on the cohesion of the family unit, as illustrated by this account from Asia: "Sometimes one of the children goes out begging, which is an offence in this country. One evening, he is arrested by the police and sent to a juvenile correctional home. His mother goes to visit him regularly. She can’t take him away because she has no residence certificate. She will have to get the full support of other residents of the shanty town to have herself and her children put on the residence certificate of her own mother, who is herself registered on the certificate of a friend. Only then can her son go back to his family."

148. This example shows the extent to which gestures of solidarity among persons living in extreme poverty can sometimes help to preserve family bonds.

149. By contrast, assistance provided by official social services is sometimes seen as an obstacle to the assumption of family responsibilities. A woman in North America, for example, states: "I was in a shelter with my children. I was so closely watched by the social services that I did not dare do anything. I did not dare scold my children when they were naughty. If they heard us shouting, someone from the child welfare office would come to see what was happening. ... I was so afraid that my children would be taken away from me that I did not dare do anything. I could only really begin to carry out my responsibilities as a mother when I left the place and got a flat. My son was then eight years old."

150. Threats to family life are particularly serious, as is illustrated by the accounts received, in that the family is often the only bulwark against poverty and exclusion and the first line of resistance to them. "A person could be totally cut off from his or her family and social milieu. The isolation was very painful, for the family was the last protection against total misery", to quote an account from Eastern Europe.

The right to privacy

151. This right is embodied in article 12 of the Universal Declaration and in article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

152. However, the accounts received illustrate, if further proof is necessary, just how unrealistic it is to speak of this right in reference to people living on the pavements of large cities, who have no fixed abode or live crowded together in shanty towns or tiny one room apartments.

153. Action by the social services can be seen as arbitrary invasion of privacy. "When you live in poverty, they sometimes tell you, ’If you stay with your husband - or your wife - we will find another home for your children.’ They have no right to say that. My wife and I have done everything, even lived apart, to stop them touching our children. We even made a statement to the police to prove it, even though we are not married! What right have they to do that?"

154. This invasion of the privacy of very poor families knows no bounds. It is not unusual, for example, for pressure to be exerted on young women to limit the number of childbirths or to give up their children; in some cases, they are even officially sterilized or forced to have abortions. "I was in a hostel when I found out I was pregnant. I went to the doctor and he gave me a medical certificate. At the hostel they said that they would hold a meeting to decide whether I should have an abortion or keep the baby."

The right to recognition as a person before the law and to be registered

155. These rights are recognized in article 6 of the Universal Declaration and articles 16 and 24 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and their enjoyment is a prerequisite for the realization of many other rights.

156. Exercise of the right to "be registered immediately after birth ... have a name" (art. 24) may be impeded by the lack of a legal domicile, which is an obstacle to civil registration. The fact of not being registered makes it extremely difficult to obtain the papers necessary to prove parentage, to marry, to exercise political rights, to be able to travel freely within and outside national frontiers, to stand surety before the courts, to obtain employment, to benefit from social services, to avoid being imprisoned, etc. Difficulties of this kind were in fact encountered by seminar participants, and even prevented some individuals from attending.

157. Because they are not officially registered, therefore, many children and adults living in extreme poverty have no legal existence and thus enjoy no rights or protection.

The right to life and the right to physical integrity

158. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration provides that "everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person". The "inherent right to life" of every human being is similarly protected by article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 9 of which also embodies the right to liberty and security of person. Article 6 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child also refers to the child’s inherent right to life.

159. However, the living conditions of persons in extreme poverty are such that eminent jurists[12] are currently debating, in connection with

poverty, whether "treatment can be considered inhuman and degrading not only by virtue of physical violence and torture, but also at the psychological level, in terms of respect for human dignity".

160. The lives and physical integrity of children living on the street are continually threatened by drugs, prostitution which can lead to AIDS, violence of all types, kidnapping, detention, murder, etc.

161. For its part, the Human Rights Committee has stated: "The expression ’inherent right to life’ cannot properly be understood in a restrictive manner, and the protection of this right requires that States adopt positive measures. In this connection, the Committee considers that it would be desirable for States parties to take all possible measures to reduce infant mortality and to increase life expectancy, especially in adopting measures to eliminate malnutrition and epidemics."[13]

0. The right to justice

162. Articles 10 and 11 of the Universal Declaration proclaim the equal "right to the law" of all individuals and the general conditions for its exercise. Articles 14 and 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights embody and define this same right.

163. The available evidence points, however, to an actual denial of the "right to the law" of persons living in extreme poverty. There are a number of obstacles barring access to justice for the very poor, including:

(i)their indigent condition;

(ii)illiteracy and lack of education and information;

(iii)the complexity of procedures;

(iv)mistrust, not to say fear, stemming from their experience of the justice system. Whether they are defendants or accused, they often see their petitions turned against them: "There is a strong possibility that they would be reproached with some unlawful aspect of everyday life quite unrelated to the grounds for the petition; the poorest have learned that, in seeking their due in a given matter, it is often preferable not to be in the wrong in some other respect"; [14]

(v)the slow pace of justice, although their petitions more often than not relate to very sensitive aspects of life (return of children, for example) which need to be dealt with rapidly;

(vi)in many countries, the fact that they are not allowed to be accompanied or represented by solidarity associations which could also bring criminal indemnification proceedings.

164. Another aspect which is beginning to assume dramatic proportions is the impunity with which the most fundamental human rights of persons living in poverty and on the fringes of society are violated. For example, in a number of countries, particularly in Latin America, many persons known as "expendables", such as children and vagrants, are killed by death squads with complete impunity. The Inter American Commission on Human Rights has received a number of complaints of such incidents.[15] The Special Rapporteur believes it is urgent for the Sub Commission, and in particular the Special Rapporteurs on impunity, to study this new form of gross human rights violation.

165. This impunity also exists on a different scale in the industrialized countries, where it takes the form of difficulty in gaining access to justice. The Weiss case referred to by the Special Rapporteur in his previous report[16] shows that if the very poor cannot be supported and represented in the courts by associations, violations of their human rights go unpunished.

The right to take part in political affairs

166. Article 21 of the Universal Declaration proclaims the right of everyone "to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives". This provision is taken up and amplified in article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which also proclaims the right of everyone to vote and to be elected and to have access to public service in his country.

167. It has already been seen that vagrancy and lack of civil registration are major obstacles to the exercise of this right. Illiteracy, lack of education or even social discrimination also represent major obstacles to the responsible exercise of political rights. "When I went to the polling office to be registered, they told me ’No, you’ve been in prison, you’re not entitled to vote’. In fact, they were wrong, it was my father who had been to prison. When I went to the police station to have this corrected, they said ’Like father, like son’, and they did nothing to enable me to vote."

168. The reports of election observers show that the very poor are more exposed than others to unscrupulous manipulation of freedom of choice, the very foundation of representative democracy.

169. In the future, in this as in other fields, the development of the information society to enable referendums, for example, to be conducted electronically, may create new forms of exclusion among the poorest and least educated population groups.[17]

The right to participate in social and cultural life

170. Article 22 of the Universal Declaration provides that "everyone ... has the right to realization of social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity". Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also proclaims the right of everyone to take part in cultural life.

171. However, persons living in extreme poverty are sometimes turned away from places of culture, as illustrated by the account of an individual working with very poor families: "I had planned to take a group of children to the zoo. This was a treat for the children, but when we arrived, we were refused entry because of the ’appearance of the children’." Because of such affronts, persons living in extreme poverty are reluctant to take part in social and cultural life, or even in local festivities (see para. 119 of this chapter).

172. Culture is therefore not a "supplement" to be enjoyed when all other rights have been realized. "Culture is the possession of knowledge which enables the individual to be independent, to make his way through life and to be able to reflect", according to the members of an open university; "it is also what unites us with others, something we can bring to others, something we learn about each other and which enables us to respect one another".

173. Restoring the right to culture in areas of great poverty is thus an essential dimension of the fight against poverty. This is what is meant by UNESCO’s constant plea for the "cultural dimension of development".[18] Cultural activities enable us to develop new relationships with the very poor, to benefit from their experience and learn about their expectations and thus come to genuinely recognize them as human beings with abilities to be cultivated, their own ideas to share and their own responsibilities.

174. It is against this background that the Copenhagen World Summit for Social Development affirmed the absolute need to find a new balance between economic development, social development and cultural development, stressing how closely linked fundamental human needs are in fields as varied as health, water, education, employment, housing and participation in cultural and social life.

C. Criteria for a juridical definition of extreme poverty

175. From the above analysis of what it is like to live in extreme poverty and its impact on human rights in general, it is quite clear that there are a number of basic factors which must be taken into account in any legal approach to the question of extreme poverty.

176. Firstly, extreme poverty involves the denial, not of a single right or a given category of rights, but of human rights as a whole. The foregoing analysis shows the extent to which poverty is a violation not only of economic and social rights, as is generally assumed from an economic standpoint, but also, and to an equal degree, of civil, political and cultural rights, and of the right to development. Extreme poverty is thus a particularly clear illustration of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights.

177. The foregoing analysis shows that life in extreme poverty consists of an accumulation of mutually reinforcing misfortunes: poor living conditions, insalubrious housing, unemployment, ill health, lack of education, marginalization, etc., a veritable "horizontal vicious circle" of poverty, to use the words of those concerned.

178. This observation raises two questions which should always be borne in mind. Firstly, from a legal standpoint, the substantive question is not the "recognition", but the real and effective "exercise" of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by the extremely poor. Secondly, the indivisibility and, most of all, the interdependence of human rights demonstrates the extent to which, in a negative concatenation like that described above, deprivation of one right can have repercussions on the exercise of the rest. This serves to forewarn us that the restoration of any right in isolation is not enough to ensure that persons living in extreme poverty will be able to exercise all their rights to the full.

179. Another, equally malign factor is the clear tendency of the phenomenon to perpetuate itself by being passed on from one generation to the next. This trend, which has been the subject of numerous investigations at various times, is clearly reflected in the monographs made available to the Special Rapporteur which describe the life of a single family over a number of generations. It is surprising to see how poverty perpetuates itself and becomes increasingly difficult to escape from. This represents a veritable "vertical vicious circle" of poverty.[19]

180. Lastly, the most acute social consequence of poverty is the exclusion and, in many cases, stigmatization of the poor. While exclusion can occasionally lead to poverty, poverty always leads to exclusion.

181. Because of these characteristics, the traditional criteria applied in defining and dealing with the problem of poverty and extreme poverty are clearly inadequate for the more integrated and comprehensive approach called for in the Special Rapporteur’s mandate. Accordingly, the approach proposed in this report comprises at least three features, namely:

(i)Firstly, an examination of each and every sphere in which the effects of poverty are felt (economic, social, political, civil, cultural, etc.);

(ii)Collection of information from the people living in such conditions themselves, who are normally not consulted even about studies or programmes aimed at them. This is indispensable, not simply because it is an intrinsic requirement of any human rights oriented approach, but because it is otherwise impossible to understand the internal dynamics of poverty; and

(iii)Without it, no proper study can be made of the extent to which each misfortune exacerbates the others until the state of extreme poverty is reached.

182. In other words, the aim of this method is not to measure what people earn, but to find out what really happens to them. Consequently, we cannot do without the people themselves if we are ever to find out how much and what they are suffering - for the very simple reason that it is the people themselves that we are interested in.

183. With regard to the criteria for a definition, it should be borne in mind that, not only do the various misfortunes have undesirable effects on each other (the concatenation of misfortunes) but, as they increase and intensify, exclusion becomes worse, insecurity is accentuated, the possibility of actually exercising human rights diminishes and the difficulty of assuming one’s own responsibilities increases. At the point where these insecurities

become acute and never-ending, so that the whole of the individual’s existence is dominated by this host of deprivations and misfortunes, we find the implacable face of extreme poverty.

184. This accumulation of misfortunes and deprivation in health, education, housing, participation, etc., which continually plagues the lives of those enduring extreme poverty, has a precise and clearly defined name in standard legal terminology: absolute denial of the most fundamental human rights.

185. As noted in his first methodological report, it has not been the Special Rapporteur’s intention to submit a precise definition of extreme poverty for the approval of the Sub Commission. However, in view of the Copenhagen Summit’s request to States to arrive at a definition of absolute poverty, if possible by 1996, as part of the implementation of the Programme of Action, the Special Rapporteur submits for consideration the definition suggested in his methodological report, accompanied by a few brief comments (see annex III).

  1. This seminar, held from 12 to 14 October 1994 at United Nations Headquarters, New York, brought together some 40 people from around the world. It was attended, on an equal footing, by people living in extreme poverty and persons committed to their cause, experts on extreme poverty and human rights issues and representatives of intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. The aim of the seminar was to improve knowledge of the conditions of life and thinking of individuals and families living in extreme poverty. It was an important part of the direct consultation undertaken by the Special Rapporteur. (See E/CN.4/1995/101.)
  2. These family monographs are the product of a methodology that makes it possible to follow the history of families living in extreme poverty over several generations. The Special Rapporteur has relied in particular on the monographs included in the work Est-ce ainsi que les familles vivent? (Editions Quart Monde, Paris, 1994). Two summaries of such family monographs were annexed to the second interim report (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1995/15, annex II).
  3. Cf. "Pour une analyse juridique du concept de 'dignité' du salarié", Olivier de Tissot, Revue française de droit social, December 1995. This article describes the appearance of the concept of dignity in the French codes and jurisprudence.
  4. In this connection, see petition 240/1991 submitted to the European Parliament by Mrs. C. Lepied.
  5. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, when considering the reports of States parties, recognizes that factors relating to the national economies of States, including the lack of adequate resources, may impede the implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. However, the Committee, in its General Comment No. 3 on the nature of the States parties' obligations arising under the Covenant, notes that the Covenant imposes various obligations which are of immediate effect and not subject to constraints due to the limits of the resources available to the States parties. Among these immediate obligations, the Committee notes, are the "undertaking to guarantee" that relevant rights "will be exercised without discrimination" and "to take steps" towards the goal of progressive achievement of the full realization of these rights.
  6. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in its concluding observations upon its consideration of reports by States parties, considers poverty a principal subject of concern and a factor impeding the implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Also, the Committee stresses that the general impoverishment of a country and the dysfunctioning of its social services and social security are causes of racial or ethnic discrimination and as such a matter of anxiety for the Committee. The Committee recommends States parties to report on these and other matters relating to poverty alleviation, including laws and policies addressing poverty, social and health services and the social impact of structural adjustment programmes under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). (See CERD/C/304/Add.6, Concluding observations on Madagascar.)
  7. HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1, General Comment No. 3 adopted by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, para. 10.
  8. Statement of the Committee on the Rights of the Child to the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) (CRC/C/50, annex VIII).
  9. On this subject, see the working paper submitted by Mr. Rajindar Sachar on the right to adequate housing (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1992/15).
  10. See the reports of the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.
  11. See The World Health Report, WHO, 1995.
  12. See the article by Mr. Louis Edmond Pettiti, "Misère, violation des droits de l'homme en Europe aujourd'hui", Revue Quart Monde, No. 151, 1994. Other writers, such as Mr. Frédéric Sudre, take the view that "extreme poverty itself has all the ingredients of degrading treatment as defined by the Commission and the European Court", ibid.
  13. HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1, General Comment 6 adopted by the Human Rights Committee, para. 5.
  14. "Pour une justice accessible à tous: le regard des familles en grande pauvreté sur les mécanismes d'aide légale et sur certaines initiatives locales", Council of Europe, Directorate of Human Rights, Strasbourg, 1992, document H (92) 2.
  15. The reference is to complaints Nos. 11.544 submitted by Casa Alianza and Centro de Estudias Judiciales Internacionales (CEJIL) and 11.286, 11.288 and 11 290, also submitted by CEJIL.
  16. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1995/15, annex II.
  17. See in this connection "Bâtir une société européenne de l'information pour tous", Premières réflexions du groupe d'experts de haut niveau, European Commission, Brussels, January 1996, pp. 88 et seq.
  18. See the many publications of UNESCO in connection with the World Decade for Cultural Development, and the report of UNESCO's World Commission on Culture and Development (chaired by Mr. J. Pérez de Cuéllar), "Our creative diversity", 1996.
  19. Indeed, remembering the horizontal vicious circle, it would appear reasonable for the Copenhagen Summit to prefer the term "infernal circle" of poverty (Programme of Action, para. 39 (f)).

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