Statement by the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights at the 67th session of the General Assembly

30 October 2012

Mr. Chairperson, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honoured to present my fifth report to the General Assembly.

When I assumed this mandate four years ago, the financial crisis had just shaken the global economy to its core. Today, the world continues to suffer the disastrous consequences of the crisis and the subsequent austerity measures taken by many governments. In many countries poverty is more extreme and inequality more deeply entrenched than a few years ago. The international commitment to spare no effort in freeing men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty seem to have remained mostly a matter of rhetoric rather than reality.

Nevertheless, I have also witnessed some progress. In many countries, poor and non-poor people alike have mobilized against unacceptable levels of inequality and poverty has been clearly established as a human rights issue in the national and international spheres. In this regard, today, I would like to open this statement recognizing and welcoming a small but still significant step forward in the struggle to protect the rights of the poor.

On 27 September 2012 the Human Rights Council adopted by consensus the Guiding Principles on extreme poverty and human rights in resolution 21/11.

The Guiding Principles provide the first global policy guidelines applying States’ human rights obligations to the specific situation of people living in poverty. Of course, all human rights apply to all people. However, people living in poverty are disproportionately vulnerable to human rights violations and the discrimination against them is so widespread that often those who live in a more privileged situation do not realize their efforts to overcome their situation. Policy makers and political elites often ignore the significant obstacles related to stigma, discrimination, financial constraints, social structures and more – that the poor face in accessing public services and enjoying their human rights.

Based on international human rights norms and standards, these Principles will serve as a practical tool for policy-makers to clarify States’ human rights obligations with regards to the poorest segments of society and ensure that public policies (including poverty eradication efforts) reach them and respect and uphold all their rights.

The adoption of the Guiding Principles on extreme poverty and human rights marks the end of a long process of consultation and drafting that began more than a decade ago, but its adoption at this moment is in fact very opportune. These Principles could play a key role in protecting and empowering those who are hit hardest by the global economic crisis worldwide. Therefore, I call on this organ to endorse these Principles and take concrete measures to ensure their widest dissemination and implementation at the domestic level.

Mr. Chairperson,

As I have emphasized in all my reports, eradicating extreme poverty not only requires improving income levels and access to basic services, but also ensuring that persons living in poverty have the resources, capabilities, choices, security and power necessary to enjoy the whole spectrum of human rights and to claim redress for human rights violations.

The report I present to you today, addresses one of the most important barriers that prevents people living in poverty from realizing their human rights and escaping the poverty cycle: lack of access to justice.

Access to justice is a human right in itself, and essential for tackling the root causes of poverty. Without access to justice, people living in poverty are unable to claim their rights, or challenge crimes, abuses or violations committed against them, trapping them in a vicious circle of impunity, deprivation and exclusion.

Persons living in poverty face obstacles in each of the steps that they must take to seek redress through the formal justice system. These obstacles are linked not only to their lack of financial resources - that make it impossible for them to pay court fees or transportation costs or even to hire a lawyer - but also to wider social and structural issues, often related to entrenched discriminatory attitudes against the poor. These other obstacles are harder to pinpoint and to remedy, but they severely impede or discourage the poor from seeking justice. Here I will present just a few examples of these obstacles.

When people live in remote areas with a meager income, they cannot afford to travel hours or even days to distant courthouses. In the unlikely event that a court is relatively close to those living in poverty, as a consequence of the discrimination and deprivation that they have suffered throughout their lives, is quite likely that they are unaware of their rights and of how to secure the assistance they need, so they still cannot pursue justice. Moreover, they often do not speak the official language and may require the assistance of an interpreter or are denied legal standing because they do not have an official birth certificate.

The poor may also be deterred from seeking justice because they fear reprisal or sanction from more powerful actors within or outside their community, or they may fear being further stigmatized or discriminated against.

Many laws or legal codes are inherently biased against people living in poverty as they do not recognize or prioritize the abuses they regularly suffer, or have a disproportionately harsh impact on the poor. For example, in many legal systems, unaffordable fines are imposed for minor crimes and discrimination on the grounds of an individual’s socioeconomic situation is not recognized.

Inadequate capacity and lack of resources of the justice system (courts, police and prosecution) have a disproportionate impact on the poor, whose cases are under-prioritized, often resulting in individuals languishing in pre-trial detention for longer, and having to make many economic and social sacrifices just to pursue a case. Meanwhile, deeply entrenched prejudices and stereotypes against the poor in wider society are often at the root of unsympathetic or abusive treatment by police or justice sector staff.

Mr. Chairperson,

Allow me to here refer to some particularly worrisome issues addressed in the report:
The situation of women, who are disproportionately represented among the poor, is particularly critical. Women living in poverty suffer compounded obstacles to accessing justice, generated by inadequate legal frameworks that do not recognize the deprivations and abuse that women suffer as women, financial impediments due to unequal distribution of resources at the societal and household level, and strong social and cultural constraints which may forbid them from speaking out against abuse or seeking justice.

The lack of or inadequacy of legal assistance available to persons living in poverty is also a major issue addressed in the report. The provision of free and competent legal advice and assistance to those who are otherwise unable to afford it is a fundamental prerequisite for ensuring that all individuals have fair and equal access to judicial and adjudicatory mechanisms. Free legal aid should be provided not only in criminal matters, but also in civil matters where the rights and interests of persons living in poverty are at stake, for example in tenancy disputes, eviction decisions, immigration or asylum proceedings, welfare benefit appeals, cases involving working conditions, discrimination in the workplace or child custody decisions. Indeed, excluding these categories of claims from the scope of free legal aid discriminates against the poor preventing them from enjoying equal means to defend their claims

The scope of this report is global, as even mature democracies with well-functioning State institutions and technically inclusive and fair legal systems struggle to ensure de facto equal access to justice by those living in poverty. Thus, I must stress that any need to adopt budgetary constraints does not legitimize the adoption of laws and policies that diminish access to justice by the poorest segments of society. Not only do such measures undermine human rights but they also ignore the long term negative impact and costs to our societies of excluding the poorest from challenging injustice through the formal judicial system.

Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Given the great diversity of social contexts, the report does not provide a “one size fits all” solution for ensuring access to justice for persons living in poverty. Success in all contexts, however, will share the features of a human rights-based approach. Ensuring meaningful access to justice for persons living in poverty does not depend only on legal tools or access to legal services, lawyers and courts, but also requires a more holistic approach that takes into account broader structural, social and economic factors. My report includes a number of more specific recommendations for States which I urge you to examine closely.

Let me finish by stressing that when the poor are unable to access justice equally and without discrimination, we all lose. They are prevented from enjoying their human rights and any effort they may make to extricate themselves from a life of poverty are frustrated, allowing exclusion and marginalization to reach ever deeper into our societies. Therefore, not only do States have a legal obligation to ensure that all individuals are able to access competent, impartial judicial and adjudicatory mechanisms equally and without discrimination, but they are also obliged to improve access to justice by the poor as an achievable way of creating more inclusive and equitable societies into reality.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that the rule of law is meaningless for people living in poverty without effective access to justice. Therefore, I take this opportunity to welcome the concrete pledges to improve access to justice by the poorest that many States committed during the high-level meeting on rule of law held at the General Assembly on 24 September. I look forward to continuing to work with these States to ensure that these pledges becomes a reality and invite other States to take concrete steps, in line with the recommendations included in this report to improve access to justice by the poorest segments of society.

Thank you.