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The Right Not to be Poor

by Roberto Bissio

Geneva, 13 Feb 2001 -- ‘Extreme poverty is a denial of human rights’, concluded Ms. Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights at the closing session of a seminar here last Friday.

The seminar agreed that some “document” on human rights, policies and poverty needs to be issued, but it could not decide if such a document from the Human Rights Commission and the UN is to be a declaration, a set of “guidelines” or some other statement.

At the seminar, the United States delegation expressed its opposition to ‘any process that might end up with the poor suing our government in courts because of their poverty’ and strongly opposed the establishment of any working group that could eventually lead to a new convention.

Swedish ambassador, Thomas Hammarberg, who chaired the meeting, emphasized that no one had proposed the creation of a new right, but that there is a need to identify a human rights ‘framework’ for the anti-poverty efforts of the United Nations.

A range of experts from academia, the UN agencies and NGOs, speaking in their personal capacities, reminded the seminar that poverty reduction is a key goal of the UN General Assembly’s Millennium Declaration, that the Bretton Woods institutions currently define the anti-poverty efforts as their main priority and that a ‘rights-based approach to development’ is now almost unanimously advocated.

Yet the word ‘poverty’ is hardly mentioned in any of the human rights instruments and there is no internationally agreed definition for it.

The 1995 UN Social Summit left it to each government to define poverty -and its reduction - according to national standards. The UN General Assembly’s Millennium Declaration of September 2000 set the target of halving by 2015 ‘the proportion of people whose income is less than one dollar a day’ (purchasing power parity dollars and not nominal exchange rate dollar).

All participants at the seminar agreed that the daily dollar figure is a rough indicator (of the minimum goods and services needed by a human to subsist), but it is not a definition and perhaps not even a useful planning tool for development strategies.

Deepa Narayan, a senior World Bank official, and the main author of the three-volume World Bank study, “Voices of the Poor”, said that “with surprising coincidence the poor from all regions feel powerless and voiceless”.

All the experts agreed on the need to define poverty as a denial of rights, capabilities and access to resources. That would be consistent with poverty measures based on the satisfaction of basic needs and with the internationally agreed targets like those on malnutrition, infant mortality, access to education and safe water. It is easy to visualize poverty situations that are critical or worse than others, the experts said, but since a rights-based approach is about participation and empowerment, the definitions of ‘extreme’ poverty should not exclude anybody from human rights protection for not being ‘poor enough’.

The ‘international dimension’ of the poverty issue was emphasized by the delegates of Mexico, Sudan and Pakistan.

An open-ended working group on the Right to Development has been focussing on some of these issues, and is to hold a formal session on 26 February to decide on a Chairman’s text for a possible outcome of that working group. The working group which met from 29 January to 2 February, (continuing its consideration of the issues since the last session), had a chairman’s text (presented on 2 February).

That text underscored the need to identify and address “the human rights impact in various countries of international economic issues such as international macro-economic decision-making, poverty eradication, debt burden, international trade, functioning of international financial institutions, transfer of technology, bridging of the knowledge gap (digital divide), impact of intellectual property regimes on human rights and the fulfilment of international development commitments.”

In the discussions at the working group, the EU indicated it was prepared to work on this text. However, participants at the meeting said that almost at the end, Australia, speaking also for the United States, New Zealand, Canada and Japan made a statement throwing a spanner into the works.

The Australian statement said they were not even interested in looking at how to work on the chairman’s text which, in their view, went too far.

Some of the developing countries said they did not want to water down the text further, and that the working group should adopt the text with those not agreeing making their reservations.

The Chairman decided that he would hold informal consultations, and that the working group would meet formally on 25 February to take decisions.

Of all the issues listed in the chairman’s text of the proposed outcome of the working group on right to development, the last one, namely, fulfilment of international development commitments, was emphasized at the human rights and poverty seminar last week by several participants in their interventions.

While many UN reports describe the devastating impact that AIDS is having, particularly in Africa, the production of cheap anti-AIDS medication in Brazil has been challenged by the United States at the WTO as a violation of the trade rules (in the WTO’s TRIPs Agreement).

“The right to life of HIV-positive persons in poor countries is protected by international law of no lesser status than intellectual property rights (IPRs) of trasnational pharmaceutical corporations," the experts said.

The Uruguay Round of trade negotiations and the more than a thousand bilateral investment agreements concluded in the last decade have created new rights for trasnational corporations—from IPRs to the right of establishment and to sue national governments in international ad hoc tribunals—without any balancing obligations, reminded the NGO experts.

Conflicts between globalization policies and human rights obligations are becoming frequent subject of analysis by the human rights bodies.

The ECOSOC sub-commission on the promotion and protection of human rights already stated in its resolution 2000/7 last August that ‘there are apparent conflicts between the intellectual property rights regime embodied in the TRIPS Agreement, on the one hand, and international human rights law, on the other’.

In 1998, the sub-commission on prevention of discrimination (since renamed as the sub-commission on promotion and protection of human rights) had warned the members of OECD about the possible conflict between their human rights obligations and those under the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) that they were considering.

And in a report submitted last January 25, the special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Miloon Kothari, concluded that “decisions regarding liberalization, deregulation and privatization have constrained the exercise of monetary and fiscal policy options for social purposes” thus affecting the right to adequate housing.

Not only macroeconomic adjustment and debt service were blamed, but “there is also a need to ascertain whether the prescriptions of ‘good governance’ (by the World Bank and the UNDP) and ‘poverty reduction’ (by the Bank and the IMF) are compatible with housing rights principles and State obligations, the Special Rapporteur said.

And in another report to the sub-commission at its meeting in August 2000, on ‘Globalization and its impact on full enjoyment of human rights’, two special rapporteurs, Joseph Oloka-Onyango from Nigeria and Deepika Udagama from Sri Lanka, had said there is a need for ‘critical reonceptualization of policies and instruments of international trade, investment and finance’. The two jurists said that instead of human rights being treated as peripheral, they should be brought directly into the debate and policy considerations of those formulating policies and operating the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Also, the sub-commission at its session in August 2000, after a scrutiny of the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), adopted a resolution that saw a lack of balance between the rights promoted by TRIPS and the broader human rights of peoples and communities. The sub-commission asked the UN High Commission for Human Rights to undertake an analysis of the issue, and asked the UN Secretary-General to prepare a report on the implications of TRIPs and options for further actions by the sub-commission. The WIPO, the WHO, the UNDP, UNCTAD, UNEP and other UN agencies were also asked to continue and deepen their analysis of the impacts of TRIPS and human rights implications.

There is thus a growing volume of analysis and expressions of concern over conflicts between globalization, policies of international trade and financial institutions and their agreements and rules (the WTO, IMF and World Bank) and human rights obligations and the issues of poverty and poverty eradication.

But if the US view at last week’s seminar on human rights and poverty prevail, the international community could end up with a Right to Poverty, rather than a Right not to be Poor. -SUNS4836

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