Poverty in the UK—an international human rights issue?

“What right does the UN have to tell us what to do in our own country?” screamed a headline from the Telegraph in response to the visit of Prof Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme Poverty and Human Rights. The article proceeded to argue that the UN should have no place lecturing the UK government on its anti-austerity measures and that the world was marching away from multilateralism towards a system of looser alliances between states.

The legitimacy of Special Rapporteurs

Professor Alston is an independent expert appointed by the the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), a body of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights across the globe. The UK is member of the HRC and routinely uses its seat to voice concerns about human rights issues in other countries. A recent example of this is a statement made to the HRC by the UK in September where the UK voiced concerns about the human rights situations of journalists in Burma/Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia. In another statement, the UK highlighted human rights concerns in Cambodia, Cameroon, Venezuela, the Philippines, Bangladesh and the Maldives. It smacks of hypocrisy therefore for journalists in the UK to complain of alleged UN interference  in UK affairs while staying silent about their own government’s critical views of the human rights situation in other countries.

To the extent that the UK is a member of the HRC, it has consented to the remit of Prof Alston’s visit and cannot now complain of its sovereignty being undermined simply because it is politically expedient to do so. Moreover, Special Rapporteurs are appointed through an independent and transparent system and continue to act in an independent capacity on their country visits.

Their mandate should not be conflated with that of a UN agency. As for the alleged threat to the UK’s sovereignty from the UN, there is nothing to fear. The Special Rapporteur’s role only extends to making recommendations which are not legally binding. The most that the Special Rapporteur can do is to train a spotlight on poverty in the UK and no one would seriously suggest that doing so is a threat to this country’s sovereignty!

Poverty as a human rights issue?

On his website, Prof Alston defines extreme poverty as including a lack of income, a lack of access to basic services and social exclusion. His role in the UK is to gather evidence and report back to the Human Rights Council. If he uncovers allegations of human rights abuses arising from extreme poverty in the UK, he will write to the government to highlight such abuses.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), around 4.6 million people in the UK were living in persistent poverty as of 2015. Persistent poverty means getting an income below the median average (£12,567 in 2015) in the current year and the two preceding years. The ONS argues that experiencing such low relative income over a long period is more detrimental than doing so over a shorter period.

The figure for poverty in general (as opposed to persistent poverty) is even higher at 14 million with absolute child poverty expected to rise even further by 2022. To that extent, it is legitimate that there should be oversight from an impartial source—UN or otherwise—of the causes of such poverty and how it could be tackled.

Tackling poverty and international human rights

Crucially as a country that prides itself in the rule of law and human rights, the UK should welcome visits by independent experts and see them as an opportunity to demonstrate how transparent and open it is, even when doing so may be politically awkward. Other nations, where poverty is a much bigger issue than in the UK, will be watching closely the UK’s response to the Special Rapporteur. For poverty doesn’t happen in isolation, it often affects the enjoyment of other rights and leaves those living in poverty vulnerable to other abuses. If the right lessons are learnt and taken on board, the UK could establish a template for other nations to adopt in dealing with poverty and human rights in their own countries.

The UK quite rightly takes great pride in the amount of money it spends on foreign aid–0.7% or £13 billion of its budget. The Special Rapporteur’s visit therefore presents the UK with an opportunity to practice what it preaches and set its own house in order.

There is no moral authority in providing aid (often predicated on an adherence to human rights standards) to other countries when you’re failing to do the same in your own country. Additionally, a transparent assessment of human rights implementation in the UK plays an important role in safeguarding the welfare of individuals from state interference. Again, the UK has a role to play in encouraging such transparency as a standard that other nations can adopt.


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