Eradicating poverty: from moral duty to legal obligation

United Nations
Human Rights Council.

The United Nations Human Rights Council will discuss this month a series of “guiding principles” that would force countries to adress the consequences of international economic treaties and fiscal policies on poverty and human rights. If the proposal by Magdalena Sepúlveda, special rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty, is approved “eradicating poverty shall not only be a moral duty, but a legal obligation”, acccording to Roberto Bissio, director of the Third World Institute (ITeM).

“Sepúlveda believes a consensus will be reached and the Council will approve in September this concise 25-page paper where eight principles and four requirements are summarised to ensure 14 specific rights to people living in poverty”, wrote Bissio in his latest article for Agenda Global.

In her capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Sepúlveda acts independently of any government or organization since her appointment in May 2008. The regular session of the UN Human Rights Council will take place in Geneva, on September 10-28.  


There follows the text of Bissio’s article:

Poverty as a human rights violation
Roberto Bissio (*)

Before signing international trade or investment treaties or designing fiscal policies, governments should ensure the compatibility of these policies with their human rights obligations, while avoiding measures “that create, sustain or increase poverty, domestically or extraterritorially”. This is necessary to conciliate the human rights international regulations with the reality of poverty in which most part of the world population lives.  

Although this and other issues –such as the reaffirmation of the right to water– are potentially controversial, the Chilean lawyer Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, printed the word  “final” on the draft that has just been sent to States to establish the “guiding principles on extreme poverty and human rights”. Sepúlveda believes that a consensus will be reached and that the Human Rights Council will approve in September this concise twenty-five page paper where eight principles and four requirements are summarised to ensure fourteen specific rights to people living in poverty.

The paper is conceived as a public policy guide and, therefore, it addresses the national governments that decide about them, but also includes sections about the obligations of the large transnational corporations.

Thus, this marks the end of a long process that began in 2001, when the then Human Rights Commission (now Council) requested the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights to define how to apply rules of action to the struggle against poverty, considered by the United Nations a universal priority.

The World Bank has a monetary definition of poverty and has set the poverty line on income below one-dollar a day (now adjusted to one dollar and twenty-five cents). According to the human rights approach, poverty is, in turn, “a human condition characterised by the sustained or chronic deprivation of resources, capabilities, choices, security and power”.

Poverty, says the preface to the “principles” which have been declared final by Sepúlveda, is “both a cause and a consequence of human rights violations”. Poor people “experience many interrelated and mutually reinforcing deprivations –including dangerous work conditions, unsafe housing, lack of nutritious food, unequal access to justice, lack of political power and limited access to health care– that prevent them from realizing their rights and perpetuate their poverty”.

Thus, the first principle proposed is that of human dignity, together with “the indivisibility, interrelatedness and interdependece of all rights”. The other principles are equality against all discrimination, which “includes the right to be protected from the negative stigma attached to conditions of poverty”, equality between men and women, the rights of the child, the agency and autonomy of persons living in extreme poverty, participation and empowerment, transparency and access to information and accountability.

Based on these principles, States should adopt national strategies to reduce poverty and achieve social integration, with clear reference points and deadlines, and well-defined plans of action. Public policies should give “due priority” to poor people and the “facilities, goods and services required for the enjoyment of human rights” should be “accessible, available, adaptable, affordable and of good quality”.

Although all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights apply to poor people, the document offers a list of “some specific rights whose enjoyment by persons living in poverty is particularly limited and obstructed, and in relation to which State policies are often inadequate or counterproductive”. Among them there is the right to water and sanitation, food, health and education, housing, work and social security, among other essential elements for dignity, such as the right to have legal identity documents.

States have the already mentioned obligation to be coherent, request international assistance when their efforts are not sufficient and provide assistance if they are in a position to do so, being accountable for their interventions.

“In a world characterised by an unprecedented level of economic development, technological means and financial resources, that millions of persons are living in extreme poverty is a moral outrage”, reads the preface of the paper. When it becomes approved, eradicating extreme poverty shall not only be a moral duty but also a legal obligation.

(*) Director of the Third World Institute (ITeM).

More information:
Guiding principles on extreme poverty and human rights:

Agenda Global :