The origins of the 17 October: marking a breakthrough in the thinking on human rights.

Poverty, extreme poverty, has become so glaring these days that it has become both inevitable and necessary that, at a given moment in history, we hold a near- universal act of witness to commemorate the victims of extreme poverty throughout the world, It is also a reminder that, thanks to those living in extreme poverty, a decisive step forward has been made in our understanding of human rights.
Indeed, those who experience it have taught us that the greatest danger facing them would be to create distinction between civil and political freedoms on one hand, and on the other, economic, social and cultural rights. It is because we have created such a distinction that extreme poverty has in our rich countries resurfaced in recent years. It has always existed but it has come to the fore precisely because we have been so preoccupied, so focused on civil and political rights, and have all too often forgotten economic and social rights. We have not taken steps to eradicate extreme poverty because our concerns, our battles, were of another order. We were not really conscious that it even existed.

We have forgotten that the long-term unemployed quickly become dependant on assistance. And why? Because they no longer have social security, they cannot belong to a trade union or a political party, and are no longer consulted. They depend on those who help them, and get forgotten. We have come to understand that these people are no longer free, can no longer participate.
Those who have been evicted cannot take part in an association defending tenants’ interests. Those in extreme poverty and plagued by ill-health cannot go to hospital, and may even be refused treatment there. We now see that these individuals and families without a recognised home, and no longer have the right to vote and be considered fellow citizens.

Little by little, we have come to understand that without health, without money, when people’s minds are haunted by problems of personal or family survival, men, women and families in extreme poverty are unable to take part in the life of the community. Their children are likely to leave school unable to read and write, condemning them to a future of unemployment, to a lack of family life, to a lack of a stable professional life, but also – and this is perhaps worst of all – to being unable to express themselves and to feel that they are stakeholders in the country in which they live, and in its future development.

This is the change that has been made in public opinion thanks to the poorest people: the indivisibility of human rights is less and less disputed, but rather increasingly recognised. This is why we’re holding this public act of witness on the 17 October 1 because it’s essential to mark this breakthrough in our thinking on Human Rights.


  1. On 17 October 1987 on the Plaza of Human Rights at the Trocadero in Paris, ATD Fourth World initiated the UN International Day for Overcoming Poverty
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