Extreme Poverty and Human Rights: the Rights of the Poor
Response from the Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission to
Human Rights Council’s Invitation for Views on the Draft Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights: the Rights of the Poor
This paper sets out the response of the Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) to the Human Rights council’s invitation for views on the draft guiding principles on extreme poverty and human rights: the rights of the poor. In order that this response is read in context, it is necessary to begin with an explanatory note on the notion of poverty in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is not a welfare state per se but the Government does provide for basic needs, such as food, housing and health care, some aspects of which are on a means-tested basis. Studies on income disparity and poverty in Hong Kong are primarily conducted on relative poverty, comparing household income of the lowest earning sector of the population with the income of the top earning sector. The “poor communities” in Hong Kong refers broadly to the relatively poor segment of the population. The Government acknowledges the existence of a wealth gap and speaks very broadly of “the poor and needy” as including low-income earners, single parents, new arrivals and the unemployed. A Commission on Poverty was established in February 2005 in view of the community concerns about the poverty situation in Hong Kong, and the challenges of rising income disparity, unemployment of low-skilled workers, intergenerational poverty and the elderly in poverty. The primary objective of the Commission on Poverty was to promote employment as the core measure to alleviate poverty and achieve self-reliance, to provide children and families at risk with additional support to prevent intergenerational poverty and to provide welfare support and a safety net to needy elderly and other disadvantaged groups who cannot support themselves to ensure a dignified standard of living. The Commission on Poverty was dissolved in June 2007 and the Labour and Welfare Bureau has taken up the task to oversee and monitor the overall progress of poverty alleviation work. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong, in his recent policy address, has promised to make poverty alleviation a priority for the Government in the next five years and the arrangements committed by the Government include, a pilot Transport Support Scheme, relaxation on the current restrictions on disregarded earnings under the Comprehensive Social Security Allowance Scheme (welfare), establishment of a Child Development Fund, expansion of the Comprehensive Child Development Service and enhancement of community care services for hidden and single elderly people.
The EOC is tasked to administer three anti-discrimination ordinances, i.e. Sex Discrimination Ordinance, Disability Discrimination Ordinance and Family Status Discrimination Ordinance, and has a specific role to protect and promote the economic, social and cultural rights that are within the ambits of these laws. The EOC is aware that the rights of the poor communities are particularly vulnerable to structural violations. In protecting and promoting economic, social and cultural rights in Hong Kong, the EOC would also take into account the issue of poverty where it is relevant to our mission.
Our Views on the draft Guiding Principles
The EOC believes that there is a causal relationship between inequality/discrimination and poverty and that one dimension of poverty relates to the right to equality. We trust that people living in extreme poverty are entitled to the full enjoyment of all human rights and we share the international community’s view that extreme poverty is a form of discrimination that has an impact on civil and political rights. We concur that there is a need to re-affirm that the fight against extreme poverty must remain a high priority for the international community.
We affirm the rights set out in the Draft Guiding Principles, “Extreme Poverty and Human Rights: the Rights of the Poor”, and would like to make the following suggestions to the draft guiding principles:
- For “participation by the poor”, we suggest the HRC to specifically address the rights of the people with disabilities. We believe that every piece of legislation aimed at eliminating extreme poverty should seek to take into account the different situation of people with disabilities with regard to the use of resources, access to rights, the exercise of responsibilities and support for family life. In particular, we believe that the UN should stress the importance of the removal of physical barriers for people with disabilities as physical barriers are the greatest hindrances for people with disabilities to seek employment.
- For “discrimination and stigmatization”, we suggest that stigmatization based on social and income status should also be denounced. Changing cultures and attitudes is a long educational process and we believe that States should commit to foster an education system that embraces diversity. To remove negative stereotypes attached to neighbourhoods or places of residence, we believe that States could take proactive measures to break down barriers isolating areas with high concentration of low income families, for example, making sure that people living in those areas have adequate and accessible public transport systems.
- For “right to education”, we are of the opinion that women and people with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the lowest-income bracket all over the world. The denial of opportunities hinders individual capacity to make choices that would allow them to lead dignified lives and to move out of poverty. Unequal access to education and training is still prevalent at an institutional level in many countries. We therefore suggest that the guiding principles should state specifically that education policy must seek to take into account the different situation of women and men living in extreme poverty and to rectify inequalities between girls and boys with regard to the use of resources and access to rights.
- For “right to health”, we suggest to include in the guiding principles that no person should be denied proper medical care due to extreme poverty. Trading in human organs is a serious crime against humanity and people living in extreme poverty are often made victims of such trade. The practice should be publicly denounced.
- For “right to work”, on the matter of access to employment, we suggest that disability discrimination stemming from extreme poverty should also be officially censured.
- For “right to justice”, we believe that people living in extreme poverty often find themselves deprived de facto of the opportunity to exercise their rights and are subject to institutional discrimination in their immediate surroundings. They are not able to benefit from existing legal assistance or remedies. To this end, we suggest to include in the guiding principles that States have a duty to facilitate people living in extreme poverty to seek legal assistance and access to justice.
Equal Opportunities Commission