Poverty is a Human Rights Violation

Posted 2002-02-17 by Shelagh Day | Jurisfemme Publications – Volume 21, No. 1, Winter 2002

Longtime members and supporters of NAWL, Gwen Brodsky and I have launched a new project dedicated to strengthening the rights of the poorest people, to have the right to social and economic security recognized by law. As well, this project is intended to increase the capacity of legal and community advocates to argue for the realization of those rights.

Canada is a signatory to international human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which require governments to address conditions of poverty, and the social and economic inequality experienced by women and other disadvantaged groups. Government social programs are a central means of fulfilling the rights set out in these international human rights instruments. But changes or cuts to social programs which threaten the social and economic security of women and other disadvantaged groups in Canada are not necessarily understood by governments, courts, and tribunals as potential violations of rights.

There is also a lack of understanding of the connection between rights to social and economic security and the right to equality. The group denoted as "people living in poverty" is predominantly composed of women, Aboriginal people, people of colour, older people, and people with disabilities. Various forms of discrimination contribute to the poverty of these groups, and the realization of rights to social and economic security is essential to their achieving equality. Unfortunately, attempts to assert rights to social and economic security are often expressed in a gender-, race- and disability-neutral fashion which does not take into account the diversity or needs of poor people.

In recent years, United Nation's monitoring bodies for human rights treaties have expressed increasing concern about the need for enforcement of international human rights commitments within the domestic law enforcement regimes of State parties. The Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed the requirement that domestic law be interpreted consistently with international human rights law.

However, there are significant obstacles to overcome if courts and tribunals in Canada are to become effective venues for the enforcement of rights to social and economic security and substantive equality.

This is a central, but neglected area of law, and it is an important moment to devote resources to its development. An infusion of energy, research, analysis and community collaboration is needed to meet the challenges.

Activities of the Poverty and Human Rights Project

The Poverty and Human Rights Project is a project of the Canadian Human Rights Reporter Inc. in collaboration with the Centre for Feminist Legal Studies at the University of British Columbia. This project undertakes research, writing, and education on poverty as a human rights issue. The discussion, analysis, research and information generated by the project is intended to contribute to efforts in legal fora to promote interpretations of the Charter and other human rights instruments that will give life to rights to social and economic security. Activities include:

* Development of inventive, well-researched approaches to address the current barriers to domestic enforcement of rights to social and economic security;
* Development of methodologies most appropriate for advancing the realization of rights to social and economic security within different legislative frameworks, such as human rights codes and the Charter;
* Compilation of information on emerging case law related to rights to economic and social security; and of data to support submissions about the social and economic disadvantage of particular groups;
* Holding think tank consultations with community advocates, law students and interested academics focussed on developing approaches for addressing particular challenges that legal and community advocates are facing;
* Holding seminars on the right to social and economic security and the developing research of the project in conjunction with the Centre for Feminist Legal Studies and with community organizations;
* Providing stipends for law students and community advocates to support their involvement in the project's research and other activities;
* Creating a Web site that provides links to Internet-available information for those working on rights to social and economic security;
* Providing access to a repository of materials for those doing research or advocacy in this area;
* Disseminating the research through academic and community conferences;
* Conducting local community workshops to explain and promote understanding rights to social and economic security.

The Poverty and Human Rights Project is funded by the B. C. Law Foundation.

For more information email Shelagh Day at sheday@inter-change.ubc.ca

Shelagh Day is a human rights expert and advocate. She is the Special Advisor on Human Rights to NAWL.