The Poorest Teach Us the Indivisibility of Human Rights

07 May 2002

Jean Tonglet1

Mr and Mrs Simon2 are members of a traditionally itinerant population in France. However, as a result of their poverty, they no longer travel. Currently, they live with their children, ranging in age from 5 to 12, and an elderly uncle, in two trailers set up at the end of a road, surrounded by woods and cultivated fields, in the vicinity of several other families.

They have been camping there for three-and-a-half years, after having lived for 27 years in a trailer in a large urban centre in the same department. Five or six years ago, they were put under a great deal of pressure by local authorities, who urged them to move into a trailer park. Mr Simon refused, because in the park he would have been prohibited from carrying on his activities as a scrap-metal dealer. Following this refusal, the family was chased out of its home by the police. Later, they were once again forced off another property they had managed to rent. They felt branded as outcasts everywhere. They made up their minds to seek a hiding place in the deserted area where they currently live, in the hope of not having to endure any more evictions.

So great is their fear of "being reported to the authorities" that they avoid, as much as possible, contact with institutions and even with their neighbours. This is why their children do not attend school, and their only address is a post office box.

Mr Simon has managed to obtain the minimum social integration income.3 This income comes with an obligation to accept all proposals for job training or placement that aim to promote the social integration of recipients. Mr Simon does not believe that he could feel comfortable in these training sessions. Now 35-years-old, he feels that he can continue earning his living from salvaging scrap-metal. The vehicle he uses is no longer fit to transport water, let alone scrap metal. However, he has no choice.

The Simon family is similar to millions of persons and households found in all industrialised countries and, in various proportions, in developing countries. Such people live in old flats, streets and neighbourhoods; in dilapidated housing projects and clusters of makeshift dwellings. In such places, insecurities are cumulative: lack of income, unemployment, substandard education and training, lack of professional qualification and poor health, due to the impossibility of hygiene and lack of medical care. It is within these groups that the whole set of social, economic and cultural rights are endangered.

The International Movement ATD Fourth World was founded in 1957 by Father Joseph Wresinski, who was himself born into an impoverished household in Angers, France, in 1917. In 1956, at his bishop's request, Father Joseph went to live in an emergency camp for the homeless on the outskirts of Paris. Observing what he called "collective extreme poverty", he concluded that, "Those people would never escape as long as they were not welcomed as a whole, as a people, in those places where other people held debates or led struggles. They had to be there, on equal terms, in all places where people discuss and make decisions, not only about the present, but also about people's destiny and the future of humanity."4 It was in this camp, with the families living there, that Father Wresinski laid the foundation for an international movement committed over the long-term, alongside the poorest families, to asserting their dignity and their rights. The goal of this movement was, as the heads of states throughout the world were to promise in March 1995 at the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen, to "exercise the rights, utilise the resources and share the responsibilities that enable them to lead satisfying lives and to contribute to the well-being of their families, their communities and humankind."5

In 1985, awareness was growing of the persistence of poverty, and even of the emergence of what some called "new poverty", caused by the long economic crisis in Western Europe following the so-called "oil shocks" in 1973. This led to Father Wresinski's appointment as Rapporteur of the French Economic and Social Council on chronic poverty and lack of basic security. Between 1985 and 1987, the council embarked on an in-depth exploration of the flagrant violations of human rights endured by the poorest families. In its Policy Statement and Report in February 1987, the council offered the following definition for chronic poverty and lack of basic security:

A lack of basic security is the absence of one or more factors that enable individuals and families to assume basic responsibilities and to enjoy fundamental rights. Such a situation may become more extended and lead to more serious and permanent consequences. Chronic poverty results when the lack of basic security simultaneously affects several aspects of people's lives, when it is prolonged and when it severely compromises their chances of regaining their rights and of reassuming their responsibilities in the foreseeable future.

Speaking to the UN Commission on Human Rights later the same year, Father Wresinski stressed "the interdependence that exists between liberties, civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural ones. Without basic security, liberty is jeopardised. At the same time, when liberties are not exercised, basic security is not guaranteed." On the basis of this observation, he asked that a study be undertaken "in the context of the interdependence and the indivisibility of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, examining the manner in which human groups living in a situation of extreme poverty in industrialised and in developing countries can indeed enjoy these rights and exercise the responsibilities that are granted them."6

After the death of Father Wresinski in February 1988, his cause was taken up by a number of governments, with Leandro Despouy, then the Ambassador of Argentina to the United Nations, circulating a draft resolution. However, due to pressure from Western countries and the reticence of some developing countries, the draft was withdrawn.

It is necessary to recall that, in 1988, international policy was characterised by East-West tension and political blocs. This appeared in the area of human rights through a confrontation over the pre-eminence of one category of rights over another. Eastern bloc countries deemed it essential to guarantee the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights before civil and political rights could be implemented. Western bloc countries insisted that the establishment of representative governments, ensuring the full enjoyment of civil and political rights, was an indispensable prerequisite for the achievement of economic, social, and cultural rights. Therefore, the assertion that extreme poverty constitutes a violation of all human rights jeopardised the Western theory that priority be accorded to civil and political rights.

At the same time, some developing countries – without denying that extreme poverty affects the enjoyment of human rights – feared that a resolution confirming this would be used against them. Alone and opposed in many respects, Argentina withdrew its draft, but its contribution at least kept the issue in people's minds.

In 1989, France took up this theme. Joining forces with Argentina, it submitted a draft resolution. There were many reservations to overcome. First of all, it was necessary to reassure developing countries that under no circumstance would such a resolution mean more criticism of their human rights records. As for Western countries, it was necessary to leave behind the ideological debate over the hierarchy of human rights. Eastern bloc countries, on account of the emphasis on economic, social, and cultural rights, agreed to back the resolution. The Soviet Union became its co-author, a fact that did not improve the regard of many Western countries toward the draft resolution.

The resolution was finally adopted by consensus, without being put to vote. Several states, especially the United States and Japan, expressed deep scepticism about this approach. During the debate, they indicated that, in their opinion, extreme poverty should not be treated within human rights bodies because it is purely an economic and social issue. Various Western countries held this critical attitude for several years. It frequently resurfaces, as it did recently in a debate over the European Parliament's 1996 annual report on respect of human rights in the European Union. This caused a split within the Parliament as to whether a chapter about poverty should be included in the report.

The Special Rapporteur's Mandate

Year after year, by overcoming various obstacles, by adopting resolutions, always by consensus, and by mobilising more and more countries, the sponsors of this project, among which France continues to play a central role, have succeeded in defining a framework for serious attention to extreme poverty. In resolution 1990/15, the Commission on Human Rights requested that the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities examine extreme poverty and social exclusion. In resolution 1992/27, the Sub-Commission appointed Mr Leandro Despouy as the Special Rapporteur for the study entitled, "Human rights and extreme poverty." His tasks were to:

Take advantage of the experience and the thinking of the poorest and those committed to their defence in order to make extreme poverty a better-known phenomenon; bring to the public eye the efforts the very poor make in order to be able to exercise their rights and participate fully in the development of the society in which they live; and enhance the conditions enabling such persons to become partners in the realisation of human rights.7

Over the years, several events contributed to and served as guidelines for the Special Rapporteur's work: The International Year of the Family in 1994; the World Summit for Social Development held in Copenhagen in March 1995; and the seminar Extreme Poverty, Denial of Human Rights that took place in New York in October 1994, as a result of cooperation between the United Nations Centre for Human Rights and the International Movement ATD Fourth World. For the first time in the history of the United Nations, this seminar brought together individuals living in extreme poverty and international human rights experts.

The Special Rapporteur submitted to the Commission and the Sub-Commission a preliminary report and two interim reports, as well as a report on the seminar, Extreme Poverty, Denial of Human Rights, before presenting his final report to the Sub-Commission in August 1996 and to the Commission in March-April 1997.

The distinctive quality of this report derives from the manner in which it was written: In close partnership with the population under consideration, the victims of extreme poverty and social exclusion. Relying on non-governmental organisations that have long-term, grassroots commitments to such groups, the Special Rapporteur did his utmost to include in his report, and draw recommendations from, their points of view, thinking and analyses. A questionnaire was sent to states, intergovernmental organisations and non-governmental organisations. He studied family monographs8 outlining the history of very poor families from around the world over several generations as well as testimonies published in the Fourth World Chronicle of Human Rights.9 Direct consultations and dialogue took place during the seminar, Extreme Poverty, Denial of Human Rights, and at the ATD Fourth World project "People's Universities".10

Mr Despouy's report observed that when people living in extreme poverty are told about human rights, they say: "This is not for us." However, the very poor are endowed with and entitled to human rights and, by virtue of their resistance to hardship, they are elevated de facto to the rank of defenders of human rights.

The report studies three fundamental principles of human rights and 12 specific rights. For each one, it refers to the international texts at the foundation of these rights. It analyses them in the light of examples taken from the experience of the poorest, illustrating to what extent general principles and specific rights are constantly transgressed at the bottom of the social ladder. The three fundamental principles of human rights specifically referred to are:

  • The equal dignity of all human beings: "It is not right that we are treated like this – we are human beings, after all," very poor people often say. "We feel as though we are dogs. But the dog kennels in the centre of town have water and electricity, and we do not. This is really an injustice." Such affronts to dignity follow people living in extreme poverty to the very end of their lives. A volunteer working closely with a family living in a shantytown in Latin America witnessed a woman who had illicitly taken in her sick brother who was discharged from the hospital. Upon finding out that the man was dying, the landlord threatened eviction unless he was taken out into the street at night, so that the landlord would not have to pay for moving the body. The "unknown person" found dead in the street was buried anonymously. Such situations are so revealing of extreme poverty that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has included among its poverty indicators the inability of poor people to provide their dead with a decent funeral.
  • The principle of equality and non-discrimination: According to the report, the "principle of free movement of persons within the European Union expressly excludes those who cannot prove they have sufficient means not to require assistance by the host country." The example of one poor couple, each member of which was born in a different country within the European Union, illustrates this: Following the couple's marriage, the woman – Ms Chantal Lepied – changed her nationality to that of her husband. Twenty years later, they divorced and the woman decided to return to Belgium – her native country – with her seven children. Having few resources, they eventually found themselves living on the streets. In despair, the mother applied for social assistance. Since she was no longer a citizen of her country of birth, she was not entitled to the social assistance income. In addition, the family was threatened with deportation. She filed a petition in 1991 with the European Parliament, which concluded that the right to free movement within the European Union did not apply to her, because she was neither a salaried worker nor a student nor a retiree nor financially independent. Ironically enough, due to changes in the national legislation, the mother was later entitled to social assistance even though she did not have the right to remain in the country.11
  • The indivisibility and interdependence of human rights: One Latin American participant in the seminar Extreme Poverty, Denial of Human Rights testified, "Without shelter, drinking water, electricity, adequate food, work, a minimum income or other resources, one simply cannot conceive of living a life in good health, having one's children go to school, participating in local activities, including annual festivities or even birthday parties, participating in any political process as citizens or even having one's family life respected."

Reviewing 12 specific rights, the Special Rapporteur compared extreme poverty to apartheid or slavery. In his opinion, each of these situations involves a denial of human rights: There are individuals who are no longer regarded as human beings. "Poverty is the new face of apartheid," President Nelson Mandela declared during the World Summit for Social Development at Copenhagen.

We must, therefore, reach a new awareness of extreme poverty by changing our outlook, understanding, rising above prejudice and accusation and learning the right way to react. "The rich have drawn a curtain over the poor, and on it they have painted monsters," wrote English sociologist William Booth at the end of the nineteenth century. It is essential to support the daily efforts of the extremely poor. Their acts reveal a fighting spirit, albeit one that results in small achievements, occasional triumphs and many defeats. We should foster trust and mutual understanding and accept the poorest as partners. We should be determined to reach them and to constantly take up the search for all who are absent, all who are left behind. Only in this way will we attain a development that excludes no one. "Only as they rediscover their full range of rights and responsibilities shall we see emerging in all their splendour the human beings behind the poverty-scarred faces," wrote Mr Despouy, before presenting a series of recommendations to international agencies and Member States of the United Nations.

In 1998, we commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by rallying around the theme "All Human Rights for All," which recalls the theme of the gathering celebrating the 25th anniversary of ATD Fourth World: "Full Rights for All." The Commission on Human Rights has made new commitments as a consequence of the Despouy Report. By requesting that the High Commissioner on Human Rights give priority to the issue of human rights and extreme poverty, it asked her to ensure that this issue be on the agenda of the evaluation session of the World Conference on Human Rights ("Vienna + 5"), of the half-way point evaluation of commitments made during the World Summit for Social Development ("Copenhagen + 5"); and throughout the International Decade for the Eradication of Poverty. Furthermore, the Commission decided to appoint an independent expert, Ms Anne-Marie Lizin, who will make a substantial contribution to these evaluations and activities and prepare, if need be, a Declaration on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty.

In April 1996, the Council of Europe adopted a revised version of the European Social Charter, providing in its new Article 30 a right to protection against the threat of poverty, and in its Article 31, a right to housing.12 At the same time, it paved the way for an improved system for monitoring commitments made by states that have signed the Social Charter through a collective complaints procedure, open to non-governmental organisations enjoying consultative status with the Council of Europe.

The establishment of an "International Day for the Eradication of Poverty", on October 17, 1987 (recognised officially by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1992), means that Father Wresinski's message has been recognised as meriting institutional form. The Commemorative Stone in Honour of Victims of Extreme Poverty affirms the dignity of victims of human misery, hunger, violence and ignorance. It was inaugurated in October 1987, on the Square of Human Rights and Liberties, Trocadero Square, in Paris. Replicas have been laid throughout the world: One such replica was placed in October 1996 at the United Nations' headquarters in New York. All those who come together around the Commemorative Stone or one of its replicas, on October 17 of each year and the 17th of each month, invite us to join them in proclaiming:

"Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty."

-Father Joseph Wresinski.


  1. Jean Tonglet has worked in a number of capacities for the International Movement ATD Fourth World since 1977. Beginning as a volunteer, he was first stationed in Marseille, then in Noisy-le-Grand, France. Thereafter, he worked in Belgium, first as Secretary General of the Belgian section of the movement, then as delegate of the Movement to the European Union. Since 1995 he has been Executive Secretary of the organisation. The "ATD" in the name of the organisation stands for "Aide a toute Détresse", French for "aid to all distress".
  2. Not their real names.
  3. In 1988, France included a revenu minimum d?insertion (RMI) in the country?s social welfare programme. The RMI is an income that guarantees the poor a minimum standard of subsistence.
  4. Wresinski, J., Les Pauvres sont l'Église, Entretiens avec Gilles Anouil, Collection Les Interviews, Editions Le Centurion, Paris, 1983.
  5. United Nations World Summit for Social Development, 6-12 March 1995, Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development, paragraph 9, New York, United Nations Department of Public Information, 1995.
  6. Father Joseph Wresinski?s speech on 20 February 1987 addressing the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.
  7. "Grande pauvreté et précarité économique et sociale'", rapporteur M. Joseph Wresinski, Journal Officiel, Avis et rapports du Conseil économique et Social, Edition du 28 février 1987.
  8. The Special Rapporteur referred to the monographs of families from four continents published in This Is How We Live - Listening to the Poorest Families, Fourth World Publications, Landover, MD, USA, 1995, translated from the original French Est-ce ainsi que des familles vivent? This study was published on the occasion of the International Year of the Family.
  9. International Movement ATD Fourth World, Fourth World Chronicle of Human Rights, Editions Quart Monde, Paris, 1989, 1990-1991 (A 1993 edition exists in French, Cahiers du Quart Monde - Oser la Paix!).
  10. Fourth World People's Universities bring together adults living in extreme poverty with other members of society in order to share experiences, learn more about extreme poverty, provoke a dialogue and create partnerships.
  11. See petition 240/1991 submitted to the European Parliament by Mrs C. Lepied.
  12. Council of Europe, Directorate of Human Rights, European Treaties Series, no. 163 and 158.



Challenge discrimination, promote equality


Receive our public announcements Receive our Roma Rights Journal


The latest Roma Rights news and content online

join us

Find out how you can join or support our activities