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Poverty and Human Rights Prof. Fons Coomans Outline. Human rights as a concept Poverty as a concept Relationship between human rights and poverty Human rights principles underlying poverty reduction strategies Value added of human rights based approach to poverty reduction Examples .

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Poverty and Human RightsProf. Fons CoomansOutline

  • Human rights as a concept

  • Poverty as a concept

  • Relationship between human rights and poverty

  • Human rights principles underlying poverty reduction strategies

  • Value added of human rights based approach to poverty reduction

  • Examples

Human rights as a legal concept

Values and norms about the protection of human dignity, laid down in legal texts, that entail rights for individuals and obligations for states.

Human rights as vehicles to protect human dignity.

Requirements for a right to be recognized as a human right:

  • Object: substance or content of a right

  • Subject: right holder

  • Duty bearer: duty holder

Categories of human rights:

  • Civil and political rights

  • Economic, social and cultural rights

  • Collective or group rights

Economic, social and cultural rights

Different definitions:

Rights relating to an adequate standard of living;

Conditions under which people live and work;

Claims to the fulfilment of basic needs;

Claims relating to the quality of life from a material and immaterial perspective;

Claims relating to opportunities to make a living and

the protection of working conditions.


  • Poverty in the USA:

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZukhSRMkug

Poverty as a Concept

  • Who defines what poverty is and who decides which people are poor? → often based on one’s own norms about what is considered as poor. Ask the people!

  • Poverty line: 1$ per day.

  • Poverty: relative and context-based: different types of poverty and depending on the place where people live and their socio-economic position.

Income Poverty

  • General meaning: lack of income or purchasing power

  • Extreme poverty: households are unable to meet their basic needs for survival.

  • Moderate poverty: conditions of life in which basic needs are met, but just barely.

  • Relative poverty: a household income level below a given proportion of average national income.

Capability Poverty

Amartya Sen’s capability approach:

A person’s freedom or opportunities to achieve well-being.

Poverty: low levels and deprivation of capability.

Sen: poverty: “the failure of basic capabilities to reach certain minimally acceptable levels”.

Basic capabilities: being adequately nourished, clothed and sheltered, avoiding preventable morbidity, taking part in the life of a community and being able to appear in public with dignity.

Social Exclusion

  • The process through which individuals or groups are wholly or partially excluded from full participation in the society in which they live, often on a discriminatory basis.


  • A worsening of the poverty situation of people as a result of a deliberate policy of the state or a failure or indifference by the state to embark on an active and effective policy of poverty eradication.

  • Example: Ogoni region (Niger Delta, Nigeria)

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXtQVaK94s8

The Link between Poverty and Human Rights

Basic opportunities or freedoms, both negative and positive ones, which are considered as fundamental for minimal human dignity.

Consequently, poverty can be defined as:

  • Either the failure of basic freedoms (from the perspective of capabilities)

  • Or the non-fulfilment of rights to those freedoms (from the perspective of human rights)

Poverty seen through a human rights lens:

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.

Poverty constitutes a denial of human rights.

(UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Statement on Poverty, 2001)

Poverty as a violation of human rights?

  • What is a violation? A violation is an act or omission (failure to act) which destroys or harms the enjoyment of a right which a state is under an obligation to respect or to fulfil.

  • Of which legal norm? There is no human right not to be poor.

  • By whom? → Who is the duty bearer?

    → Who is the perpetrator?

The United Nations position:

The United Nations presently sees poverty as a cause and a product of human rights violations.

Poverty is characterized by discrimination, unequal access to resources and social and cultural stigmatization. It amounts to a denial of human rights and human dignity.

Fighting poverty is a matter of obligation, not of aspiration or charity.

Normative Human Rights Framework

  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966); Article 2(1) + 6-15

  • Declaration on the Right to Development (1986)

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)

  • Article 2(1):

    Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.

Declaration on the Right to Development (1986)

‘Development is a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting there from.’

UN-Millennium Declaration (2000)

“We will spare no efforts to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected. We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want.”

Human Rights Principles Underlying Poverty Reduction Strategies

  • Universality and indivisibility

  • Equality and non-discrimination

  • Participation and inclusion of marginalized and vulnerable groups

  • Empowerment of poor people

  • Accountability and the Rule of Law

  • State obligations: progressive realization of esc-rights

  • Obligation of International Cooperation


  • Key role of non-discrimination, inclusion and empowerment:

  • Roma in Europe: breaking the cycle of poverty:

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqECoZz35z8

Value added of a human rights based approach to poverty reduction:

  • International legal human rights obligations accepted voluntarily add legitimacy to poverty reduction.

  • Recognition of complementarities between economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights.

  • Emphasis on legal obligations to realize essential services.

  • Key role of non-discrimination as a legal principle.

  • Accountability of policy-makers.

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