Is poverty a human rights violation?

Society has long taken a charitable approach to poverty — but many of today’s poverty advocates are moving beyond this, approaching it as a human rights violation. While Canada has signed various international decrees and covenants, poverty is still not widely viewed this way. Nor are there institutions in place to support such an approach. But change is afoot.

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One in seven Canadians lives in poverty; of all cities, Toronto has the highest poverty rate at 17 per cent, according to a 2017 report by the Citizens for Public Justice. Thanks to the growing, persistent reality of precarious employment, 51 per cent of Canadians living in poverty are part of the “working poor.”

A human rights approach, however, offers a broader definition of poverty. “In the simplest terms, it’s a matter of not living life with dignity. And that — living life with dignity — really requires the full spectrum of human rights — not just income security,” says Elizabeth McIsaac, President of Maytree, an organization dedicated to advancing systemic solutions to poverty through a human rights approach. “It’s about claiming your civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.”

A charitable approach positions those living in poverty as supplicants, which goes back to the days of begging for alms, and “there’s no dignity in that,” says McIsaac. The end goal is to protect that dignity — by law.

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“It’s recognizing that if you can’t put food on the table, if you can’t access clean water, if you’re not able to get a decent education, if you can’t get health care — including mental health [supports] and pharmaceuticals — and if you can’t access affordable housing, each one of those is a violation of human rights.”

Human rights are typically linked to civil and political rights, such as the right to assemble and vote; these rights are much better articulated in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and much better understood by the general public. But advocates such as McIsaac argue that all rights are interdependent; to realize civil and political rights, one must also have social and economic rights (you can’t vote, for example, if you can’t read and write).

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, states that: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

And while Canada has signed various international decrees and covenants about the eradication of poverty, McIsaac says we haven’t done the work of strengthening our legal and policy frameworks. “If we’re not recognizing it in law or in statements of policy as a human right, then people don’t see it that way.”

Part of the problem is that international covenants are drawn up at UN headquarters in Geneva; they feel distant and abstract to Canadians. So the first challenge is building our recognition of poverty as a human rights violation, then “walking the talk” by strengthening institutions — through, for example, a housing advocate or council of welfare — that monitors, reports and holds government to account on how well society is progressing toward these goals.

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A core part of this is housing: Is it secure, affordable and culturally appropriate? “That doesn’t mean tomorrow everybody has a house — it’s a commitment on the part of government and the community that we will move toward realizing that right,” says McIsaac.

It’s something poverty advocates refer to as “progressive realization,” which means there’s a commitment on the part of society to progressively realize that right for all human beings by building systems to support it.

And there is progress being made. McIsaac is optimistic about seeing legislation from the federal government on the right to housing. “We’re very close to seeing legislation being tabled at the federal level for a national housing strategy,” she says. “We hope it will put in place housing as a human right [with a housing advocate and advisory council].”

Both Amnesty International Canada and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, supported by the UN, have been working with the federal government to take a rights-based approach to the legislation. This approach, aimed at reducing homelessness and creating more affordable, stable housing, is one that has also been endorsed by United Ways in Canada.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, is also spearheading a global movement called The Shift in partnership with United Cities Local Government and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. As part of the movement, cities are signing on to a declaration of housing as a human right — a “shift” from seeing housing as a commodity to housing as a human right. Seoul in South Korea, for example, has mechanisms at a city level to recognize housing as a human right.

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A human rights approach to poverty positions all people as rights holders — acknowledging that they hold these rights, that they’re able to claim them, and that they can do so with dignity. “It’s very empowering to say: ‘I’m entitled to affordable housing’ as opposed to ‘Can you please let me have that?’,” says McIsaac.

In McIsaac’s view, reframing poverty requires that we expand our understanding of human rights to encompass social and economic rights. “We need to build out a culture of human rights that understands social and economic rights are part of the package. It’s not just about belonging to a union or being able to vote, it’s also about having access to housing that’s affordable,” she says. “This is not a political issue, and it’s not a partisan thing — this is about the human project of respect and dignity.”

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