Poverty is a Human Rights Violation (December 2001)

This paper is about obstacles to an understanding that poverty is a human rights violation.

( FULL DOCUMENT LINK: Poverty is a Human Rights Violation (December 2001) (PDF) )

The Commitment

Over the past 50 years Canada has committed itself to an understanding of human rights that encompasses two particularly important insights. One insight is that everyone is entitled to an adequate standard of living, some of the commonly accepted elements of which include access to food, clothing, and housing; just and favourable conditions of work; education; a degree of income security throughout a person’s lifetime; and health, including protection from environmental causes of ill health. There has been a growing recognition that there is a collective responsibility to create a society in which these are entitlements, and are provided, not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of right, as incidents of social citizenship. This is evidenced by developments such as Canadian governments having ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, constructed a social safety net, established rights to social assistance for persons in need, and made an express commitment in the Constitution to provide essential public services of reasonable quality to all Canadians.

The other important insight is that inequality is not an individual phenomenon. Rather, inequality is disproportionately experienced by certain groups in the society that are particularly vulnerable to marginalization and discrimination, in particular, Aboriginal people, women, people with disabilities, and people of colour. This insight is reflected by the emergence in statutory and constitutional human rights law of the principle that when a government makes a legislative choice that has the effect of exacerbating the inequality of a group that suffers from pre-existing disadvantage, it violates the norm of equality. A corollary is that when a government creates a program specifically designed to assist a particular disadvantaged group this is not to be construed as discrimination against relatively advantaged individuals and groups. Further, in some instances, government must be understood to have a positive obligation to take steps to ensure that benefits and protections are provided to disadvantaged groups. This is known as the principle of substantive equality.

The Contradiction

However, in the past decade or so, the social safety net has been substantially weakened. One key example is cuts to social assistance programs and services relied upon by the most disadvantaged people, accelerated by federal government cutbacks to transfer payments and the repeal of national standards for social assistance programs. Both dimensions of human rights have been diminished: the right to an adequate standard of living, and the idea that government measures should not exacerbate the inequality of already disadvantaged groups.  (continued …  See full document.)

FULL DOCUMENT LINK: Poverty is a Human Rights Violation (December 2001) (PDF)

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