Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 10 (Fall 1997): Efforts, East and West, to Improve Human Rights Assessments: Articles: Human Rights Assessments: A Role for UNDP?

Sep 5, 1997

"Human poverty constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights."
—1997 Human Development Report

That poverty constitutes a denial of human rights might seem obvious to some, but for others it is controversial. The controversy stems from some UN member countries’ fear that recognition of economic and social rights in international forums will obligate them in ways that they are currently unwilling to accept. As a result, the United Nations development agencies, with the notable exception of UNICEF, have not cast poverty in terms of a denial of rights. This is surprising given that human rights is not some development fad, but one of the pillars on which the United Nations stands.

With relative ease UNDP and other development agencies could move to adopt a rights-based approach to poverty eradication. UNDP already has a highly influential policy tool for promoting government recognition of ESC rights and developing a mechanism to assess them: the annual Human Development Report. As the agency is already helping governments to combat poverty through its regular activities, adopting a rights-based approach would require little change from an operations standpoint. Moreover, UNDP would gain a much-needed legal framework for its advocacy of people-centered development, poverty eradication, sustainable livelihoods, job creation, and gender equality.

The Human Development Report, which provides a comprehensive analysis of development trends in the world and serves as a policy guide for governments, NGOs, and international organizations, has time and again provoked stimulating debates about human development and poverty from a global perspective. The Report provides a number of internationally comparable indices for measuring human development, gender equality, and poverty, which are already used by research and human rights organizations in their assessments of human rights conditions. Since 1996 the Report has contained a table of the status of ratification of some of the main human rights conventions. However, not until the 1997 edition has it framed development in a human rights context. Because of the Report’s influence on its targeted audience of domestic and international policymakers and advocates, it can have considerable impact on the attention accorded to ESC rights and the existing human rights assessment regime.

The 1997 Report has taken firm steps toward conceptualizing poverty in a human rights framework, thereby setting an example for governments and other international development agencies. It defines poverty as a multifaceted phenomenon composed of many forms of deprivation: In addition to the absence of material well-being, poverty involves a denial of choices and opportunities. Poor health, a short life span, a lack of knowledge, inadequate housing, malnutrition, and social and political exclusion and powerlessness are all forms of deprivation, which together or in part constitute what the Report calls “human poverty.” The constituent parts of such a holistic definition of poverty can be easily identified as violations of human rights established in existing instruments of international law.

In fighting poverty the general assumption is that progress is a set of aspirations, a noble cause based on charitable intentions. But recent UN conferences have turned these aspirations into commitments. A comprehensive legal framework for development and poverty eradication exists within the two human rights covenants, as well as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to mention only the primary human rights instruments. These treaties cover a wide spectrum of poverty-related rights, including the rights to life and physical integrity, to a decent standard of living, to housing, education, health, participation in development, and so forth. Whether these rights are judiciable or enforceable is unimportant. These legal instruments provide a set of internationally agreed-upon standards for development and a tool for advocating that priority be given to poverty eradication at the domestic and international level.

The success of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which brought about a fundamental shift in attitudes and changes within UNICEF, could serve as a model for UNDP and other agencies. With 191 of 193 countries having ratified the convention (only Somalia and the United States have not), development programs in support of children now have a solid legal framework that binds governments and the international community. In fact, many ideas for replicating the success of the convention are in the works, including the creation of a Poverty Charter.

The charter was proposed by Simon Maxwell, Director of the United Kingdom--–based Overseas Development Institute, at an UNDP-organized poverty meeting in May 1997; it would consolidate the various poverty-related provisions of the two human rights covenants, the Declaration of the Right to Development, and the commitments made at the World Summit for Social Development into one international treaty. It would also provide a legal backbone for UNDP’s poverty programs and for the development activities of the United Nations as a whole, and a yardstick for government achievements in the protection and realization of poverty-related rights.

UNDP, the World Bank, and other prominent development agencies could play a far greater role in the monitoring and reporting of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and other human rights conventions. UNDP and the World Bank have already taken the lead in developing indicators for monitoring poverty eradication at the national level. And many initiatives are under way within the United Nations to develop better indicators to monitor sustainable human development. Developing new human rights indicators related to poverty would be a wasteful duplication of effort. Instead, close cooperation among the Centre for Human Rights, the treaty bodies, UNDP, the World Bank, and other agencies, along with the coordination of the many new initiatives, would ensure an effective process of monitoring and promoting poverty-related rights.

Just as UNDP bases its dialogue with governments and donors on the commitments made at the UN world conferences, especially the World Social Summit in 1995, the agency could easily negotiate and review its programs with governments on the basis of international human rights treaties that governments have voluntarily joined. In its dialogue with donors, UNDP could make more frequent use of international law—which clearly obligates donor countries to assist countries with limited resources to realize the human rights of their citizen—to strengthen its arguments for more and better targeted resources for the eradication of poverty.

Linking its poverty-eradication program to international human rights law would give UNDP a stronger mandate within the United Nations. UNDP’s activities on the ground would be recognized as an integral part of the UN effort to promote economic and social rights. UNDP would thus provide the essential bridge between two of the main pillars on which the United Nations rests: respect for human rights and the promotion of social progress. Such a linkage would also provide UNDP with an additional tool for advocating human-centered development policies in the countries where the agency is operating.

Any truly human-centered approach to development is by definition rights-based. Grassroots organizations do not appeal to charity or government largesse in their efforts to protect or improve their members’ lives and livelihoods. They are claiming their rights. Poor people should no longer be seen as beneficiaries of handouts, but instead as legitimate claimants to entitlements. In turn, a rights-based approach is by necessity people-centered: It recognizes poor people as key actors in the development process. The right to participation in the process of achieving rights, such as secure livelihoods, health, and housing, is itself a poverty-related right.

These rights can only be realized through the empowerment of poor people and the mobilization of communities in partnership with government and donor agencies. This rights-based approach has profound implications for poverty eradication efforts. It recognizes the legal and moral responsibilities of governments and the international community to take action to reduce poverty and to refrain from actions that exacerbate poverty. Poverty eradication must be seen as a moral imperative for all; for those countries that have ratified the relevant instruments of international law, it is a legal obligation as well.

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