Poverty and Human rights

Poverty, Human rights & the SDGs: Insights from April 14 Webinar

Discover the four presentations from international experts on Poverty, Human rights & the SDGs. This topic was discussed during our Webinar on April 14. The panelists addressed issues such as climate change, the right to housing and social protest movements.

To watch the full recording, please click here.

1. On the linkages between human rights and poverty in the African context.

Introduced by Amanda Lyons, Hans Otto Sano, researcher at the Danish Institute for Human rights was the first to speak.
“Economists have failed to consider any element of human rights” and “Human rights scholars have not paid enough analytical attention to poverty; not in the African context at least”, Otto says.

Around the world, “poverty is declining, but not in equal patterns everywhere” and inequalities do have an impact on poverty reduction programmes.

“While economic growth generally contributes to poverty reduction even if there is no change in inequality, the poverty-reducing power is less in countries that are initially more unequal.”Hans Otto.

If we focus on the African continent, glaring inequalities between and within countries can be observed. In that context, the poverty induced by the Covid19 crisis, most likely in urban areas, raises important concerns. Despite this, the very same pandemic also led to some changes in legislation, including regarding social protection rights and food aid in urban areas. It could be difficult for governments to go backwards now that they implemented according to Hans Otto,. This means that these positive measures have a fair chance to remain in the aftermath of the crisis and could contribute to poverty reduction in these countries.

In this setting, the adoption of a human rights-based approach, hence, to implement policies in line with international human rights standards, could allow for an increased empowerment of people through participatory measures and prevent discrimination when it comes to the enjoyment of rights such as the social protection. In the end, a human rights-based approach would contribute to poverty reduction.

2. How are climate change, poverty and human rights connected?

After this insight into the African context, Sumudu Atapattu, Director of Research Centers and International Programs at the University of Wisconsin Law School, addressed one of the global issues connected to poverty: climate change.

The connexion between Climate change and Poverty

Both slow onset and sudden events are “causing water and food shortages” which have a “direct impact” on the rights of people. Once again, inequalities enter the scene and exacerbate this impact. Indeed, “poor people tend to live in areas where the environment is degraded” and will be more affected by the consequences of climate change.

“It is always the poor and marginalized that are disproportionally affected by these consequences […] and the least able to adapt” in poor as well as in rich countries. And climate change, just as Covid19, “will exacerbate poverty and other initial vulnerabilities”.

In short, climate change is “a real injustice” as Sumudu says and it affects poor people the most. But not only. Climate change will also create more poverty in general. To give us an idea of how concerning this issue is, Sumudu recalls that “The World bank has estimated that climate change will push “120million more people into poverty by 2030”.

The direct impact of Climate change on Human Rights

After walking us through the link between poverty and climate change, Sumudu underlined that “poverty is also a human rights issue”. Poor people cannot “really enjoy their rights” and suffer “aggravated risks of having their rights infringed”. Climate change has thus a direct impact on many human rights. Moreover, it could undermine many of the rights protected by international human rights law. Facing both aggravated consequences of climate change and poverty, the most vulnerable communities can use human rights as a tool. They can reclaim thse rights including  in front of the courts but also  call for States to respect their obligations.

To adopt a human rights-based approach “gives a human face to the problem” and “victims, a voice. […] Human rights provide us with a tool to bring to light the impact of vulnerable communities.”

Sumudu concluded that poverty and climate change are both “Global issues with localized consequences”. As the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlight it, they are intersectional. It is then important to address them together, using human rights standards as a tool.

3. State responsibility regarding the efficiency of the right to housing

Leilani Farha, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to Housing, then took her turn to speak on the right to housing and started with a very powerful statement.

“Two things are certain and have been exposed dramatically by the pandemic: first, governments have failed to effectively implement the right to housing. All the way up to the pandemic and all the way during the pandemic. [..] The second is that governments have not been held accountable for the misery and inequality they have created through their unswerving commitment to a neo-liberal agenda.”

States failure to address the Right to Housing as a Human Right

Indeed, “If the right to housing would have been taken seriously and integrated into legislative and policy making, we would not see : 

“Widespread homelessness, including for particular groups of people.
The rise of informal settlements without basic services like water and sanitation.
The world urban population living in unaffordable rental housing fearful of and subject to eviction.
People forcibly evicted into homelessness […] and we would not see governments facilitating high finance.”

“Government haven’t just allowed the financialization of housing to happen unregulated, they haven’t just supported it, they haven’t just granted high finance a huge political advantage, they have based their entire economies and government structures in the financialization of housing”.

What has a Human-rights based approach to offer?

The issues mentioned before “challenge dignity” and are “human rights matters. Therefore, they “demand human rights responses”, she answers. It would also change dwellers and residents from “beneficiaries of charity at best, or criminals at worst, into rights holders”. Human rights also require “meaningful participation of communities in decisions that affect their life”. This indeed makes for better decision making and more peaceful societies.

They also include accountability mechanisms. The right to housing does entail some standards which must be met. Through these mechanisms and standards, governments must be accountable. They are also a tool for  civil society to “show the governments what they are required to do”.

“The Human Rights framework is quite unique for having at its central goal the pursuit of equality. […] Any new social contract would have to be based on human rights”.

Leilani highlighted that in the current pandemic context, “the relevance of things has changed completely, everything has to be reevaluated”. This could put into question the relevance of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations. Leilani is certain of one thing though: Goal 11 on “sustainable cities and communities” can only mean that “homelessness must be ended” by States by 2030. This is “the only correct interpretation” in regard to Human rights.

4. The use of human rights language within social protest movements in cities

Natalia Ángel-Cabo is a Professor of Law at Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá, Colombia). She is also the Chief editor of Latin American Law Review. She discussed with us the use of Human rights as a tool for social protest movements.

There has been a very strong critic from some scholars on the potential of human rights to challenge inequality and poverty in the last years. Natalia admits it, this critic has some purchase. Indeed, it is clear that “poverty has not been eradicated from the world”. Nevertheless, “it doesn’t mean that there isn’t any potential for Human rights to produce social change.”

Human rights “are limited but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have any potential to produce social change”.

Indeed, Human rights have for many years and remain “a common language for social movement. They use it to raise their grievance and to challenge injustice and inequality. To illustrate this idea, Natalia presented an overview of Latin America social protests regarding various issues.  She highlighted the importance of this human rights language and how it can be used starting from these examples.

“Social movements have used rights, challenged rights and mobilize to defend rights for centuries”.

To “take out the streets” Amanda says, is the main way for the poor to mobilize and challenge their rights. Due to the pandemic and in the name of health protection and national security, States have restricted fundamental rights such as the right to mobilize. Thus, only time will determine what the future holds for social protest movements.


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