On 27th September, the Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights were adopted by consensus by UN Human Rights Council. This marks the end of a long process that began in 2001. By adopting them, the member states of the Council affirmed that eradicating extreme poverty is not only a moral duty, but also a legal obligation under existing international human rights law.
Magdalena Sepulveda, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, explained why this was important news for everyone concerned by poverty: “The Guiding Principles seek to provide for the first time a global standard in the fight against extreme poverty, focusing on the rights of people living in poverty... This is a practical tool for policy-makers which will guide States in designing their public policies, particularly their poverty eradication efforts, based on a human rights-based approach.”
The Guiding Principals draw on existing international agreed human rights norms and principles that States have already signed up to, such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights or the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. This means they can be used to highlight the gap that often exists between the rights that countries agree to guarantee on paper and the rights actually enjoyed by their most excluded citizens.
When writing the Guiding Principles, the authors took care to hold in-depth consultations with people living in extreme poverty. Thanks to this, they focus on the rights that those affected by poverty identify as the most important - such as the right to housing, to education, to access to justice, to social security and to work. Grounded in current realities, they give clear guidance how governments should act to uphold these rights when they are under fiscal constraints.
Because they are intended as a tool for ensuring that the most excluded populations can fully enjoy their human rights, the Guiding Principles provide solid, useful guidelines for grass-roots organisations around concrete issues. For example, on the subject of the Right to Privacy and to Protection for Home and Family, one point they insist on is that states must “ensure that financial and material poverty is never the sole justification for removing a child from parental care or for preventing his or her reintegration.” Similarly, regarding social security, states should “ensure that persons living in poverty, in particular women and those working in the informal economy, have access to social security benefits, including social pensions, which are sufficient to ensure an adequate standard of living and access to health care for them and their families.”
The Guiding Principles are not only useful in underlining states' obligations to their citizens. They also clearly outline the barriers that people living in extreme poverty face daily, and give detailed steps of ways for governments, NGOs and grass-roots organisations to counteract them. Because they are based on accepted human rights norms, they can provide a common basis for dialogue between community groups and local authorities. On top of this, in detailing foundation principles around participation, agency, and empowerment, and by giving specific implementation requirements, they serve as a best practice guide for anyone working with marginalised communities and individuals.
Overall, the Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights are potentially very useful for anti-poverty groups, from national coalitions to grass-roots organisations. However, if they are to fulfil their potential, it is vital that people engage with them, discuss them and above all promote them as a new yardstick to measure governments' efforts in eradicating poverty