Poverty: a human rights challenge

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Margaret Bedggood

In a recent article in The New Zealand Herald, Simon Wilson called attention yet again to the evils of poverty here, following the Salvation Army’s report, the Welfare Expert Advisory Group report, and the years of reports and calls for action from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and other concerned NGOs and individual people.

This article was followed by many letters in support and then by the release of the latest report from Stats NZ (which admittedly ends in March 2020 and so takes no account of the adverse effects of the year of Covid-19). This is a subject, especially as it relates to children, in which the Prime Minister has taken a special interest and role since her previous government took office in 2017.

But, again, in none of this has there been any mention of relevant international human rights law, policy or practice, despite a long history of international focus on the elimination of poverty which can be summed up in the 1998 statement by Mary Robinson, then the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:

I am often asked what is the most serious form of human rights violations in the world today, and my reply is consistent: extreme poverty.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which monitors the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), in a statement adopted in 2001, refers to a sustained focus on poverty in international human rights, beginning with “freedom from…want” in the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and endorses this multi-dimensional definition:

Poverty may be defined as a human condition characterized by sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights

Further, this statement recognised that this reflects “the indivisible and interdependent nature of all human rights”. Poverty is not just about ‘income poverty’, though it includes that too.

Although poverty in itself can be seen as a violation of human rights, it is also the sum of violations of a range of rights, especially those in  the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), including the rights to work, social security, health and an adequate standard of living, which encompasses rights to housing, food, clothing and water and sanitation.  

Poverty, the denial of these basic rights, often leads to a descending spiral of deprivation and disadvantage so that the enjoyment of other rights is affected. Poverty can be linked to insecurity about work, housing, land, livelihoods and education and can lead to criminal behaviour and aggravate violence against women and children; to discrimination and exclusion from society, that is to a lack of power and voice, of access to information, consultation or participation. Poverty is often thus both the cause and the consequence of a denial of human rights.

In 1998 the UN Commission on Human Rights established an Independent Expert on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights (in 2011 converted to a Special Rapporteur) to investigate measures to address poverty at both local and global levels. Their reports contain a wealth of relevant information and advice for states.

Another relevant international source is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015 as the successor to the 2000 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Unlike human rights standards, these are not binding on states (with the result that they have had a wider level of endorsement). Nevertheless, they, and the targets attached to each of the 17 goals, again provide much information and recommendations. Of especial note, SDG1 reads:

End extreme poverty in all forms everywhere [by 2030].

1.2) By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions

1.3) Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable

As mentioned earlier, poverty is so closely linked to other human rights violations that it cannot be addressed on its own. Reducing poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand requires attention to breaches of other rights: low wages, low union engagement, social security inadequacies and access, health inequalities and infrastructure failures, the housing crisis and an unbalanced taxation system. And there are groups in our society on whom the burden of poverty weighs most heavily. This raises the spectre of the unacceptable and increasing ‘equality gap’ here in Aotearoa New Zealand. Equality, the core value of the human rights project, will be the subject of next week’s blog.

[International discussions of poverty also consider global inequality, that is between countries. This topic raises the question of our obligations as a global citizen and will be addressed separately, in a later blog post.]


NOTE: The Human Rights Foundation’s blog presents a human rights perspective on current issues. Through it, we aim to highlight human rights in general, as they provide: (1) a set of agreed international standards, under which governments, including ours, have obligations to their peoples; (2) information on policies and practices which can be useful models for adapting to local conditions.


Image credit P3 Foundation, 2016