Reflections on impact: UN Special Procedure on extreme poverty and human rights

Magdalena Sepulveda_Timor Leste

My country visit to Timor Leste in November 2011.

In 1998, the former Commission on Human Rights established the UN mandate on extreme poverty and human rights.  I was appointed as mandate holder in May 2008, tasked with evaluating the relationship between extreme poverty and the enjoyment of human rights, with an emphasis on vulnerable groups.

The goal of this special human rights monitoring mechanism is to strengthen international, regional and national efforts to reduce poverty and alleviate its effects, by protecting and promoting human rights.  The Special Rapporteurs have a truly universal scope of action: we investigate and report on human rights situations at global and country-specific levels.

In the attached reflection paper, I discuss the priorities and impact of my tenure as Special Rapporteur thus far. Below are some of the highlights from the paper.

Strengthening Voices

I see the most important aspect of my role as giving voice to those who are routinely ignored by their governments and the international community.  At the very least, I am able to promote the rights of people living in poverty at international, regional and national fora where all too often the needs and rights of the poor are ignored.

I see the most important aspect of my role as giving voice to those who are routinely ignored by their governments and the international community.

In order to achieve impact with the very limited human and financial resources that I have, I work in collaboration with various non-governmental organizations, to try and influence the conduct of States and other stakeholders.

One of the most important ways I achieve impact is through bi-annual country visits.  During these missions, I assess how well countries are complying with human rights obligations, particularly as regards people living in poverty.

In some cases, my recommendations have translated into real improvements in social protection programs: in terms of design, implementation, and budgetary allocation.  For example, when I visited Timor-Leste in November 2011, I called for increased public expenditure on social services, citing concern about the steady decrease in spending on social services like education, health, and agriculture.

My statement received national media attention and was debated in the national parliament.  When the 2012 budget was eventually adopted, it contained substantially increased allocations for social services.

While this shift of course cannot be attributed solely to my mission and recommendations, the UN Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) noted that the mission had positively contributed to this end.

By listening to and collaborating with people living in poverty, those campaigning in grassroots organizations, and other members of civil society, I hope to provide a platform for their causes.

Championing a rights-based approach to social protection

Since the very beginning of my mandate in 2008, I have advocated for a rights-based approach to social protection.

Since the very beginning of my mandate, I have advocated for a rights-based approach to social protection.

At their best, social protection programs can function as a tool to assist States in fulfilling their obligations under international human rights law.  In particular, such programs may ensure minimum   essential levels for individual rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living (encompassing access to adequate food, clothing and housing), the right to education, right to health and right to social security.

When human rights norms and principles are not taken into account in the design, implementation and monitoring of social protection programs, not only are they rendered weak and unsustainable, but they may also undermine or even violate individuals’ rights.

For these reasons, I have endeavored to influence States as well as certain critical organizations toward a rights-based approach to social protection, with some success. Particularly relevant has been my work with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the World Bank and the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Setting standards

In September 2012, following a consultation process with States, academic experts, NGOs and other human rights and development practitioners, I presented a final draft of United Nations Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights to the Human Rights Council.  The Guiding Principles were adopted by consensus in resolution 21/11.

These Guiding Principles are the first global policy guidelines that apply States’ human rights obligations to the specific situation of people living in poverty.

These Guiding Principle apply States’ human rights obligations to the specific situation of people living in poverty.

The Principles seek to address the barriers and structural factors that perpetuate the cycle of poverty through successive generations. Based on international human rights norms and standards, the Guiding Principles will serve as a practical tool for policy-makers to ensure that public policies reach the poorest members of society, and respect and uphold all their rights.


These are a few of the specific results and impacts achieved during my mandate; more are detailed in my reflection paper.  All my reports are available on the website of the mandate, including my last report to the General Assembly on obstacles to access to justice for people living in poverty.  Despite a number of constraints, not least regarding human and financial resources, I believe I have been able to achieve some successes through my work as Special Rapporteur. I am certainly proud of these accomplishments.

Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona
is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Ms. Sepulveda is a Chilean lawyer who has worked as a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights, as a staff attorney at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, as the Co-Director of the Department of International Law and Human Rights of the United Nations-mandated University for Peace in San Jose, Costa Rica, as Research Director at the International Council on Human Rights Policy in Geneva, and as Associate Research Fellow at the Norwegian Center for Human Rights.  She was appointed Independent Expert on the question of human rights and extreme poverty by the Human Rights Council in 2008. In June 2011 the Human Rights Council extended the mandate on extreme poverty and human rights, and changed its title to Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (HRC resolution 17/13).

March 10, 2013 | Namati