The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) presented a report on December 5, 2017 that, for the first time in the region, details Member States’ human rights legal obligations to address the situation of poverty and extreme poverty in the Americas through a human rights perspective. See IACHR, Poverty and Human Rights in the Americas (2017), para. 18 (in Spanish only). The Commission’s report acknowledges that poverty is interrelated with certain rights, both civil and political and economic and social, such as the rights to work, education, health, and access to justice, and, therefore, recommends that States focus on ensuring rights for all, including groups in vulnerable situations, as a method for addressing poverty and extreme poverty. See id. at paras. 12, 98, 494. The report also highlights the disproportionate impact of poverty on groups in vulnerable situations; recognizes the barriers to access to justice that poverty presents; and makes recommendations to Member States, such as taking a human rights perspective over a welfare approach to addressing poverty, among others. See id. at paras. 34, 98. Additionally, the report recognizes different definitions of poverty and extreme poverty, although it does not explicitly decide on definitions for each, but the report does state that extreme poverty is a grave problem that impacts the exercise and enjoyment of all human rights. See id. at paras. 2, 18. This is the first report since the IACHR established the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights. [IACHR Press Release: ESCER; IJRC]
Human Rights-Based Approach to Poverty & Groups in Vulnerable Situations
The Commission recognizes that States have an obligation, under international human rights law, to adopt measures aimed at eradicating poverty and extreme poverty, and emphasizes that States should do so through the recognition of States’ obligations to ensure human rights, such as the rights to housing, education, and work; the Commission believes using a human rights perspective to eradicate poverty is preferable to a welfare approach. See IACHR, Poverty and Human Rights in the Americas, paras. 34, 98. [IACHR Press Release: Poverty]
The Commission states that a human rights perspective to eradicating poverty and extreme poverty can empower people in the economic and social spheres. [IACHR Press Release: Poverty] The report recognizes that poverty is not inevitable; according to the report, States’ policies and practices, and structural and systematic inequalities in the social, political, economic, and cultural spheres have exacerbated conditions of poverty by marginalizing certain groups and classes of people – namely, women; children; indigenous people; Afro-descendant populations; migrants; people deprived of liberty; persons with disabilities; the lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) population; and the elderly. See IACHR, Poverty and Human Rights in the Americas, para. 12. Therefore, the Commission states that economic growth alone will not bring marginalized groups out of poverty. See id. at paras. 4, 494. A human rights-based approach to poverty allows for policies to be tailored to the needs of groups in vulnerable situations, and in turn guarantee conditions of real equality. See id. at para. 98.
The report additionally recognizes that people who are facing poverty or extreme poverty encounter greater obstacles to access justice and, therefore, cannot exercise the full enjoyment of their human rights. See id. at para. 504. Thus, the report calls for policies that guarantee legal services to persons living in poverty to compensate for the inequality that results from a lack of resources, which also impacts their ability to defend their interests. See id.
The report notes two competing methods of defining poverty within the international debate on how to conceptualize the definition of poverty. See id. at para. 35. The first method of defining poverty, commonly referred to as “monetary poverty,” generally measures poverty in two ways: absolute poverty (income compared to fixed poverty lines) or relative poverty (income in relation to the rest of the population). See id. at para. 39. This method focuses on trying to reach an exact measurement of the conditions that would determine poverty using criteria of universal and general application. See id. at para. 37. This criteria mainly refers to the monetary aspects of poverty, specifically whether or not a person has the necessary income to acquire the basic goods and services that a person needs. See id. paras. 37-38. The second method of defining poverty focuses on the multidimensional nature of poverty, which takes into account its relationship with social protections, gender gaps, and life cycles, among others. See id. at para. 47.
Although the report does not provide a specific definition of poverty, the IACHR observes that the “monetary poverty” approach to defining poverty is most commonly used in the Americas. See id. at para. 49. The IACHR lists the following parameters as useful in defining the poverty line: whether persons have access to a “basket” of consumption that includes basic foods based on the composition of the households and their individual requirements; nutritional aspects of basic foods; the value of acquiring these foods considering average prices; and the household income, measured through the household survey. See id. at para. 50. Extreme poverty under this framework would be determined based on whether or not a person has the ability to meet daily caloric and nutritional needs. See id. at para. 51.
Recommendations to States
The report makes a series of specific recommendations to address each of the problems identified in the report. First, it calls on legislative, executive, and judicial bodies to change regulations and policies that allow for discrimination in order to achieve equality and non-discrimination. See id. at 195. The IACHR recommends that States integrate the human rights framework in all stages of public policy, including “design, planning, implementation and evaluation,” which will require strengthening legal and regulatory institutions. See id. at paras. 482-83, 486. The report also calls for redistributive fiscal policies to address socioeconomic inequalities. See id. at para. 494.
Next, the report calls for the progressive realization of economic and social rights that are related to poverty, and highlights States’ obligations to refrain from adopting any policy that worsens a population’s economic, social, and cultural rights without an “adequate and convincing” justification. See id. at 195. The State also has an obligation to account for its available resources and to demonstrate how these resources have been used towards the progressive realization of human rights impacted by poverty. See id.
To increase access to justice, the IACHR recommends strengthening access to judicial protection for those living in poverty and extreme poverty by creating effective judicial systems in rural and impoverished areas, increasing the number of public defenders available, removing discriminatory barriers to access to justice, and providing training programs. See id. at 195. Further, public policies should be sustainable and subject to accountability mechanisms, which ensure democratic and transparent institutions. See id. at 195-196.
The IACHR also recognizes the importance of an intersectional and coordinated response among the various sectors of society, such as the education, health, work, and housing sectors. See id. at 196. Further, policies should be sufficiently tailored to address the needs of groups in vulnerable situations, which include women, children, indigenous people, Afro-descendant populations, migrants, persons deprived of liberty, persons with disabilities, the LGBTI persons, and the elderly. See id. at 197-200.
International Human Rights Standards on Poverty
Regionally, Member States of the Organization of American States (OAS) have obligations to ensure rights related to poverty, and to work towards achieving certain goals also related to poverty. See id. at paras. 109, 129-31. Article 2 of the Charter of the Organization of American States lists the eradication of poverty as one of the central purposes of the organization. See id. at para. 109. Under Article 34 of the Charter, States must put forth maximum effort towards attaining specified goals, such as ensuring adequate nutrition and conditions for a “healthy, productive, and dignified life.” See id. The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, which applies to all Member States of the OAS, establishes rights that are, the Commission states in the report, related to poverty, including the rights to equality before the law, health, education, work, and social security, among others, under articles 2, 11, 12, 14, and 16, respectively. See id. at para. 129. Further, under Article 26 of the American Convention on Human Rights, States have an obligation to take measures to progressively realize economic, social, educational, and cultural rights. See id. at para. 131.
Within the universal human rights system, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has recognized that the rights to work, an adequate standard of living, adequate housing, health, and education are related to the eradication of poverty. See id. at para. 277. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes the rights to work, social security, adequate standard of living, freedom from hunger, health, and education, among others, under articles 6, 9, 11(1), 11(2), 12, and 13, respectively.
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