Poverty and human rights

Economic and social rights are those human rights that relate to our ability to live in dignity and participate fully in our society. They include rights related to the workplace, social security, and access to housing, food, water, health care and education. They include the right to fair wages and equal pay; the right to adequate protection of income in the event of unemployment, sickness or old age; and the right to an adequate standard of living.

Canada’s obligations to protect these particular rights are outlined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), ratified by Canada in 1976.

What are human rights?

Human rights are basic rights and freedoms that we are all entitled to regardless of nationality, sex, national or ethnic origin, race, religion, language, or other status. They are rights that are inherent to all human beings. We all have these rights, regardless of what laws exist or don’t exist where we live.

Human rights include civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights. As the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights explains, “These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the foundation document that defines fundamental human rights that must be protected for everyone. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

The United Nations has further created a number of international treaties (or “Covenants”) that define specific rights and outline the obligations of governments. One such Covenant is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

What are economic and social rights?

According to the Human Rights Fact Sheet No. 33 (PDF), “Economic, social and cultural rights are those human rights relating to the workplace, social security, family life, participation in cultural life, and access to housing, food, water, healthcare and education.” They include the right to fair wages and equal pay; the right to adequate protection in the event of unemployment, sickness or old age; or the right to an adequate standard of living.

The ICESCR lists the rights and outlines the obligations of the state to protect them. It was adopted by the UN on December 16, 1966 and ratified by Canada on May 19, 1976.

How are economic and social rights monitored?

Canada’s compliance with the ICESCR is periodically reviewed by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Governments make official reports to the Committee that outline how economic and social rights are being implemented and enforced in their country, while non-government organizations are invited to make parallel reports with their perspectives.

While the Covenant was signed by the federal government, the obligation to protect and secure these rights applies to all levels of government, including cities and municipalities.

The Committee last reviewed Canada’s performance on protecting these rights on February 24 and 25, 2016. The Committee’s concluding observations were released on March 7, 2016.

How do economic and social rights relate to poverty reduction?

While poverty is not explicitly mentioned in the ICESCR, it is a recurring theme in the Covenant. Poverty has also been an ongoing concern for the Committee as well as civil society organizations – especially as it relates to protecting the economic, social and cultural rights of the most vulnerable populations. In fact, the protection of economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to work, housing or food, has a direct impact on poverty.

In a special statement in 2001, the Committee wrote: “In the light of experience gained over many years, including the examination of numerous States parties’ reports, the Committee holds the firm view that poverty constitutes a denial of human rights.”

What is the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights?

The Committee is the enforcement mechanism for the ICESCR. The Committee, with its 18 independent experts, is responsible for periodically reviewing member states’ compliance with the ICESCR.

All states that ratified the ICESCR are obliged to submit regular (“periodic”) reports to the Committee. The Committee requests an initial report two years after a state ratifies the Covenant, and periodic reports after that.

The Committee examines each report and addresses its concerns and recommendations to the state in the form of “concluding observations.”

Canada’s last review occurred on February 24 and 25, 2016. The Committee’s concluding observations were released on March 7, 2016.