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Status: Published

Penalising poverty (2012)



Across the world, people living in poverty are disproportionately subject to stigmatisation, segregation, surveillance and criminalisation. Partly, this is due to the increasing use of criminal and non-criminal measures that directly target or disproportionately impact people living in poverty, such as legislation on vagrancy or begging; regulations on eating or sleeping in public places; and policing practices such as ‘move-on’ powers.

However, poverty is also penalised through control measures embedded or interwoven in policies in other areas, for example in urban planning (zoning, no-go areas, mass private spaces); or public health (forced treatment, drug policy, or mental health interventions). It is also a frequent effect of welfare-conditionality regimes, including surveillance. All such measures threaten the freedom, dignity and other human rights of people living in poverty.

Yet, this not only remains under-explored but also finds support in media portrayals and public perceptions of the poor which have the effect of masking the penalisation of poverty as both a grave denial of human dignity and a violation of a range of human rights.

The ICHRP will initiate and facilitate a Platform-Network, an open space for diverse actors to generate knowledge and policy advocacy to strengthen human rights–based responses to laws and practices that penalise people in poverty and propose policy alternatives. The policy research and advocacy of the Platform-Network will focus on the following areas: (a) criminal and non-criminal measures that penalise poverty; (b) governance of urban spaces and urban planning; (c) public health regimes; (d) the governance and policing of welfare; (e) public perceptions of the poor; and (f) legal strategies, including establishing poverty as a ground for discrimination in human rights law.


  • Influencing the agendas of intergovernmental bodies, especially the UN system, to recognise and respond to the wide range of human rights concerns around the penalisation of poverty

  • An enduring body of research, policy recommendations and tools towards ending penalisation of people in poverty

  • A constituency for advocacy and change through the platform network and enhancing the capacities of the members

  • Greater media coverage and public awareness of the penalisation of poverty and its consequences.

  • Ending the penalisation of people living in poverty, through the repeal of relevant laws and policy measures by international actors and national decision-makers

  • Recognition of poverty as a ground for discrimination
    Infusing human rights languages in social policy and welfare service delivery

  • Enhancing the protection of human rights and freedoms of people in poverty.

UN human rights mechanisms; human rights advocates; aid agencies and donors; urban planners; public health providers; social welfare and criminal justice institutions and service providers; policy-makers and legislators on criminal justice and policing issues; National Human Rights Institutions; researchers.
Processes and Outputs
On 17–18 March 2011, the ICHRP brought together advocacy groups and experts from around the world, along with representatives from the WHO, UN OHCHR and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, in a research workshop. Based on the findings of recent research and discussions at the expert meeting, the Platform-Network will focus on fashioning robust human rights analysis and positing alternatives in the areas where the penalisation of people in poverty is most acute, including criminal measures, welfare policing, public health regimes and governance of urban spaces.

Working with the Platform-Network, the ICHRP facilitated various knowledge and advocacy forums, including a side-event at the October 2011 UN General Assembly and a media forum (‘Governing Poverty: Risking Rights’) jointly hosted by ICHRP and OpenDemocracy.net. The workshop fed into the 2011 thematic report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, presented at the UN General Assembly in October 2011.

Why the ICHRP?
Owing to our previous work in Modes and Patterns of Social Control: Implications for Human Rights Policy (2010), from which this project stems, we have a strong research base and a large network of partners, advisers and others with relevant expertise on which to draw from. In particular, we have close links with the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, with whom we will be working in parallel on this issue. The March 2011 workshop on the subject convened by the ICHRP brought together experts and advocates from around the world, creating a solid foundation for this project. The ICHRP Secretariat’s location in Geneva is well suited to engaging with UN actors as well as diplomatic communities and other State representatives.

Related projects completed
Social Control (2010)