UCLouvain’s Olivier De Schutter becomes United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights


On 1 May, UCLouvain Faculty of Law Professor Olivier De Schutter begins a mandate as United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. He served two consecutive terms as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, spanning from 2008 to 2014. He is currently a member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

‘UCLouvain is delighted with the appointment of Olivier De Schutter as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights,’ Rector Vincent Blondel said. ‘The university shares the vision of a transition to a model of sustainable development, and the fight against poverty and respect for human rights are fundamental pillars. UCLouvain has included the 17 sustainable development objectives among the priorities to be implemented through its missions. This concerns both its own organisation and the actions it carries out through teaching, research, and serving society.’ Rector Blondel warmly congratulates Prof. De Schutter and wishes him every success in the exercise of his mandate, ‘which is also a significant contribution for the university.’

Is there continuity between your two mandates as United Nations Special Rapporteur, the right to food on the one hand, extreme poverty on the other?

Prof. De Schutter: The experience I gained during my first term is very useful to me. But there’s an analogy that strikes me: I started my first mandate in May 2008, when the crisis on the prices of foodstuffs, in particular wheat, soybeans, and rice, was considerable owing to speculation on agricultural markets and the very high price of oil ($130 per barrel). The markets were in panic. These exceptional circumstances led to a change in the way the right to food was treated: agroecology and food sovereignty suddenly could be seen as credible alternatives. Today, in the midst of the crisis linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, I see a window of opportunity: fundamental questions must be asked concerning social protection, building resilience in small territories, thinking about long production chains, and so on. Even if the crisis is terrible and we know that the poverty figures will jump by 40% worldwide, this is also an opportunity to seize and a chance to get the attention of governments.

You quote social protection figures around the world – 55% of the world’s population, or four billion people, have no social protection and only 29% are covered throughout their lives. Is this the most difficult challenge?

If we look at the Sustainable Development Goals defined in 2015, there are two which we’re moving away from rather than approaching: reducing inequality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. Extreme poverty has declined over the past two years, but the economic recession we’re entering will cause us to lose, in this area, 10 to 20 years of effort. Three goals demand strategies that are designed together: reducing poverty, inequality, and greenhouse gases must be done simultaneously. The challenge will concern the post-crisis period and the need to remember that there are 17 SGDs and not just one. There’s a great risk that the reaction will focus on reviving the economic machine without meeting the need for an integrated approach. We’ve haven’t witnessed this kind of global economic downturn since the Second World War, and the question is this: What do we want for tomorrow?

Could universal income make social protection for all possible?

It’s a fact that more and more governments have responded to the crisis by giving money to households that had lost their income or to the self-employed, and unconditionally so, prompting new discussions on a global scale. This proposal is attractive because it’s an income detached from civil status and life choices. This is to recognise that these must not be influenced by the social protection that can ensue. It’s also attractive because it releases people from the obligation to prove that they’re making an effort to work, given it’s an unconditional right. But the devil is in the details. A basic income set at a low level (€300 or 400) will not release anyone and the goal won’t be achieved. Income that’s generous enough to allow everyone to devote themselves to non-commercial tasks could have certain gender effects – the risk is that women will withdraw from the labour market and the allowance will become a kind of family salary. I also fear, in the case of a generous allowance, a reduction in social benefits. This is also why the proposals by Philippe Defeyt, who along with Philippe Van Parijs has supported this idea from the start, insist on the need to combine basic income with the preservation of all social benefits, and on the need to simultaneously promote access to work, which is a source of social recognition and social ties. What’s in any case a priority in the immediate future is the generalisation of social protection. A lot of people are not covered by anything, at any age, at any time in life. In addition, in some countries 80-90% of people live in the informal economy.

You say several objectives are linked (reducing poverty, inequality, and greenhouse gases). Does this mean that it’s impossible to reduce poverty in the current framework?

The problem today is the impression that one has to choose between two objectives: ecological transition and social justice. This is due at the same time to competition for the means between these objectives: one has the impression that the means devoted to investment in the ecological transition can’t be devoted to the fight against poverty. This is also due to the fact that it’s believed that reducing poverty necessarily involves increasing GDP (increasing monetary wealth in society), even if this increases the ecological footprint. These are false dilemmas. Economic development can be oriented to benefit the poorest people first and reduce inequality, without increasing indiscriminate economic activity. And the ecological transition can be designed in many ways to reduce poverty, for example by investing in building insulation policies, public transport, agroecological agriculture, local food systems and the circular economy. So this is not a dilemma, we must meet these objectives together.

One of your priorities is to work with the people concerned, that is, the poorest...

People living in extreme poverty have the impression, which isn’t false, that they’re never heard, and they end up erasing themselves. This risks depriving yourself of the solutions they have to offer. Listening to them isn’t only an ethical commitment, it’s a way to find new strategies in the face of extreme poverty. It was the very philosophy of the International ATD Fourth World Movement that supported my candidacy: to give voice to those who don’t have it. I’m convinced that knowledge is complementary, the knowledge of experts, professionals, and people affected by the situation. I experienced it myself spending time with landless peasants during my first term. I learned a lot from them.

What tools do you have to achieve your goals?

I have three tools. First, the reports submitted to governments in the United Nations Human Rights Council. If they’re well documented scientifically, they can exert an impact, because governments are forced to respond. For example, governments have been forced to position themselves on visions for food sovereignty and agroecological transition. This is important because it also legitimises civil society positions.

The second tool is country visits twice a year for a fortnight. This is an opportunity to meet all the local actors and it’s extremely effective in sparking local dynamics. Arriving in a country with a United Nations cap has a real impact.

Finally, the third tool is communication with governments through allegation letters in which I ask them to explain themselves concerning alleged violations, letters to which they’re obliged to respond. In some cases, they’ll say that there’s been a mistake, in others, they react by repositioning themselves. They’re all the more attentive since these communications can be public.

Published on April 30, 2020