Independent expert on extreme poverty fails once again

The ongoing 14th Annual Workshop of the Framework on Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region being held in Bali, Indonesia from 10 to 12 July 2007 is holding its special thematic discussion on extreme poverty and human rights today. Obviously, the governments from the region consider the issue of extreme poverty and human rights softer than civil and political rights. Unfortunately, the studies/reports of the Independent Experts on the question of human rights and extreme poverty have contributed to this perception.

Asian Centre for Human Rights which is represented at the 14th Annual Workshop studied the latest report (A/HRC/5/3 of 31 May 2007) of the Independent Expert submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2007. A cursory reading of the report shows that the Independent Expert once again miserably failed to highlight the causes of extreme poverty such as discrimination, war and conflicts, and economic development projects.

A. Discrimination:

i. Bangladesh


The Independent Expert in its report (A/HRC/5/3 of 31 May 2007) cites Bangladesh as the model for ensuring equity and non-discrimination. The Independent Expert states, “Most Asian countries also attach considerable importance to providing social safety nets for targeted vulnerable groups in order to fulfil the criteria of equity and non-discrimination. Bangladesh, in particular, has had significant success in its social safety net programmes (SNP's) of which 27 represent 4.4 per cent of public expenditure. These SNPs focus on every section of society, women, children, the disabled and the elderly and include programmes for employment generation, food security, health, education and community development.”


Obviously, the Independent Expert failed to take note of the fact that for decades the lands of the Hindu minorities have been appropriated under the Vested Properties Act/Enemy Properties Act of 1965 under which minority Hindus can be identified as enemies and disrobed of their properties, mainly land. Some 1.2 million or 44 percent of the 270,000 Hindu households in the country were affected by the Enemy Property Act 1965, enacted during the Pakistan era, and its post-independence version - the Vested Property Act 1974. Nearly 200,000 Hindu families of Bangladesh have lost about 40,000 acres of land and houses between 2000-2006 'grabbed' by politically powerful people belonging to Sheikh Hasina's Awami League, Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat-e-Islami and Jatiya Party. During the reign of the BNP-led alliance government (2001-06), 45 percent of the land grabbers were affiliated with BNP, 31 percent with Awami League, eight percent with Jamaat-e-Islami and six percent with Jatiya Party and other groups.  In October 2001, then outgoing Awami League led government passed Vested Properties Return Act, 2001 which further deprived the descendents of the victims from claiming their lands. Yet, no measure has been taken to implement the Vested Properties Return Act of 2001.


In the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of acres of lands of the indigenous Jumma peoples were grabbed by the illegal settlers who were brought under a government sponsored population transfer programme to reduce the indigenous Jumma peoples into a minority. Apart from directly assisting the illegal plain setters to grab the lands of indigenous Jummas, the Bangladesh military has been responsible for forcible seizure of lands of the Jummas in the name of construction of military bases.


The Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord of 1997 led to the establishment of a Land Commission but the Commission has not considered any case in the last 10 years.  While the 43,000 Jumma refugees returned to CHTs from Tripura State of India after the peace accord was signed in 1997 are left to fend for themselves, the illegal settlers are provided free rations. About 40 villages of returnee indigenous refugees have been under the occupation of the illegal settlers.


That forcible grabbing of lands and the denial of access to the indigenous peoples to their land contributes to extreme poverty does not require any further explanation.


Yet, Bangladesh has been lauded for promoting equity and non-discrimination.


ii. Vietnam


On Vietnam, the Independent Expert states, “Viet Nam also has been able to meet significant poverty reduction targets through the implementation of its Comprehensive Poverty Reduction and Growth Strategy (CPRGS) adopted in 2000. The incidence of poverty in Viet Nam has declined from 17 per cent in 2000 to 7 per cent in 2005. At the end of 2004, 2 out of 64 provinces in Viet Nam did not have any poor households, 18 provinces had poverty rates ranging from 3 to 5 per cent, 24 provinces had poverty rates between 5 to 10 per cent and only 2 provinces recorded poverty rates of over 20 per cent. Viet Nam has fulfilled its MDG targets 10 years in advance, and reduced the number of poor households from 58.1 per cent in 1993 to 24.1 per cent in 2004, measured against the international poverty line.[1]


The Independent Expert once again fails to note extreme poverty of the ethnic minority groups. A study commissioned by the Committee on Ethnic Minorities of the Vietnam government in September 2006 stated that by 2004, 61 percent of ethnic minority people were still poor while only 14 percent of Kinh and Chinese people were still living in poverty. Further, “the gap in welfare between the majority and minority groups has grown over the decade, resulting in a situation where ethnic minorities are 39 percent of all poor people, despite representing only 14 percent of the total population of Vietnam. This represented a near-doubling of the proportion of ethnic minorities in the poor population in eleven years. The study commented that if these trends remain unchanged, poverty in five years' time will be overwhelmingly an issue of ethnicity”.[2]


In terms of regions, in the central Highlands, 13.6 percent of the Kinh and Chinese population were poor in 2004. And in the North West, the poorest region in Vietnam by a significant margin, still only 17 percent of the Kinh and Chinese are poor. Ethnic minorities, by contrast, experience far fewer gains in every region of the country except the Mekong Delta. With the exception of the Mekong Delta, ethnic minority poverty rates were above 50 percent in every region and were well above 70 percent in several regions. In one region – the South Central Coast – data showed that more than 90 percent of ethnic minorities were living in poverty in 2004 while only 15 percent of Kinh and Chinese people within the same region were poor.[3]


The ethnic minorities of Vietnam suffer from extreme poverty and hunger. In 2004, four percent of the Kinh and Chinese population were experiencing severe poverty. By contrast, more than one third of all ethnic minorities in Vietnam were living in hunger at this time. Data from some regions showed particularly severe poverty. Nearly half of the ethnic minorities living in the North West and in the Central Highlands were living in hunger. And in the South Central Coast, 72 percent of all ethnic minorities were poor. By contrast, less than five percent of Kinh people living in these same regions were food poor in 2004.[4]


Research conducted in 2005 in six provinces of Vietnam by the World Bank also showed that large numbers of ethnic minorities are short of food for at least 2 months of the year. According to this study, 94 percent of the Thai interviewed in Nghe An and 87 percent of the Muong studied in Thanh Hoa do not have enough to eat for at least 2 months or longer. This figure was 54 percent among the Gia Rai in Gia Lai and 20 percent among the Hmong in Cao Bang.[5]


iii. Nepal


On Nepal the Independent Expert states “Although in many of these countries, the actual implementation process is still in its infancy, success in terms of overall poverty reduction is already becoming apparent. In Nepal, for example, the Central Bureau of Statistics (2005) reveals that the national poverty head county rate declined from 41.76 per cent in 1995/96 to 30.85 per cent in 2003/04. In urban areas in particular, the change was even more significant, from 21.55 per cent to 9.55 per cent, representing a decline of 56 per cent. The Poverty Gap analysis also shows a substantial decrease from 6.54 to 2.18 in urban areas and 11.75 to 7.55 at the national level.”[6]


The survival of the indigenous peoples, whose livelihood depends largely on natural resources, has been threatened with restrictions on the use of natural resources in their ancestral lands and evictions from their homes. They do not have livelihood opportunities. According to Census 2001, 45.8 to 58.6% of the indigenous households are landless.[7] Nearly 80% of the indigenous peoples are marginal farmers having less than 1 acre of land or small farmers having 1-2 acres of land. Only 2.8% of the Tharu, 0.32% of the Tamang, 0.76% of the Rai and 0.63% of the Magar communities own land of more than 10 acres. As a result, the indigenous peoples suffer from extreme poverty and food scarcity.[8] 


UNDP's Nepal Human Development Report 2004 rightly stated, “Indigenous people also experienced violations of their inherited rights to natural resources and abrogation of their traditional land tenure systems, along with expropriations of their lands, displacements from their traditional homelands and heavy taxes, including a number “collected” in unpaid labour. The promulgation of state/royal orders, rules and regulations before 1951 and the enactment of various laws afterwards also limited their access to natural resources such as forests, pastures, rivers, ponds, and wildlife. Development efforts tended to add to their marginalization; malaria eradication in 1950s caused an influx of hill people into Tarai and the new settlers, primarily upper- caste hill people, pushed the original local inhabitants off holdings they had worked for centuries. National park projects also displaced several indigenous Tharus and other communities from their lands without adequate resettlement. All these processes resulted in the economic marginalization of these groups.”[9]


The Independent Expert was also completely oblivious of the conflict with the Maoists that wrecked the country from 1996 to 2006 and its impact on extreme poverty.

Besides, in the report on the visit to the United States (E/CN.4/2006/43/Add.1), Independent Expert failed to make any reference to the Native Americans, the indigenous peoples who are the poorest in the United States. Any report on extreme poverty in the United States that fails to touch upon the Native Americans cannot be considered as objective, fair and credible.

B. War, conflicts and dictatorship's link with extreme poverty

In his latest report to the Human Rights Council, the Independent Expert states that “In the African Continent, considerable experience has been accumulated with the implementation of poverty reduction strategies initiated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Such strategies were based on the recognition that engineering economic growth through structural adjustment programmes may exacerbate inequality and poverty, and in the absence of conscious efforts to mitigate these side effects, social resentment and popular discontent may increase to the extent that it negatively impacts on the growth process”.


The Independent Expert refers to the success of the Poverty Reduction Strategies in Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana and Zambia which are more stable in Africa.


Countries such as Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Zimbabwe etc which are afflicted by war, conflict and political repression obviously find no reference. Therefore, the Independent Expert's report has actually excluded the majority victims of extreme poverty. Ask a Zimbabwean, she/he will tell you how a regime has created more extremely poor people.


If the link between conflicts and extreme poverty on Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan or repression in Zimbabwe fails to catch the eyes of the Independent Expert, the conflicts such as the one in Sri Lanka or repression in Burma was unlikely to get attention of the Independent Expert. This is despite the fact that war, conflict and political instability have been contributing to extreme poverty.

C. Economic development projects causing extreme poverty

The 11 th Five Year Plan (2006-2010) of the government of China refers to the need for ensuring “common prosperity” rather than mere growth in order to ensure social safety net and balanced and sustainable growth rather than mere growth rate. This once again calls for re-examination of the uncontrolled growth and its models/mechanisms/engines that contribute to extreme poverty.

Across Asia, Special Economic Zones, Export Processing Zones and development projects like construction of dams and mining have been causing massive displacement without guarantees for land rights, relief and rehabilitation. These unsustainable development programmes have fuelled violent conflict and led to gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. A large majority of those displaced by these economic development projects are reduced to extreme poverty.

The Independent Experts repeatedly failed to study the impact of the economic development projects on extreme poverty.

D. Asian governments' failure to cooperate with UN mechanisms

The governments from the Asia-Pacific region consistently focused on the economic rights. Yet, at the UN, they are far from ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Most State parties which ratified the ICESR fail to submit the periodic reports. Moreover, not a single government from the Asia Pacific region has invited the Independent Expert on extreme poverty and human rights.

Unless the Independent Expert focuses on the linkage with civil and political rights, discussion on extreme poverty will remain semantic. The studies of the Independent Experts have so far been less than useful to establish those linkages and therefore, extreme poverty remains a discussion in abstract.

[1]. A/HRC/5/3 of 31 May 2007

[2]. “Explaining Ethnic Minority Poverty in Vietnam: A summary of recent trends and current challenges” by Rob Swinkels and Carrie Turk, World Bank, Vietnam, Draft Background paper for CEM/ MPI meeting on Ethnic Minority Poverty, Hanoi, 28 September 2006.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Ibid.

[6] . A/HRC/5/3 of 31 May 2007

[7]. IGWIA: The Indigenous World – 2007, Pg. 392

[8]. Nepal Human Development Report 2004, UNDP

[9]. Nepal Human Development Report 2004, Page No. 61,

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