Legal Mechanisms to Eradicate Poverty – Presentation by Grove Harris

Legal Mechanisms to Eradicate Poverty – Presentation by Grove Harris

Legal Mechanisms to Eradicate Poverty & Achieve Sustainable Development
Side event for the UN’s 56th Commission for Social Development 2018
February 7, 2018

Denise Scotto, Esq., Attorney at Law & International Policy Advisor, FIDA/FIFCJ UN Representative; Grove Harris, MDiv, Temple of Understanding; and Winifred Doherty, UN Representative, Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd


Presentation by Grove Harris, Representative to the United Nations, Temple of Understanding

Thank you for the invitation to join this panel.

So much is interconnected in all the sustainable development goals, and the eradication of poverty requires efforts on many fronts.  My colleague Winifred Doherty has laid out efforts within the UN over years, with treaties and agreements.  Our convener Denise Scotto has affirmed the value of action from all. We each can act, and act now. All of the Temple of Understanding’s work contributes towards a common welfare where we all have enough. 

Ecological Justice is crucial – we all need clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and health free from chemical affronts, including pesticides.

Food Sovereignty speaks to local control over agriculture and food, including seeds and methods of production.  We call for a shift towards earth-centered politics and economics, and collective restraint of corporate exploitation.

The Human Right to Water requires an ongoing struggle to protect and increase community control and prevent exploitation and privatization of water, a common (and sacred) good.

Interfaith Education is important to regain curiosity and respect for our neighbors, and counter the “othering” that impoverishes our communities, our psyches, and our world.

Peacemaking, which practically defined requires food, water, and health, is crucial for ending poverty.  War only profits the arms manufacturers, and it devastates communities and the environment.

Women’s Initiatives are essential, as women are much more likely to be impoverished, along with their children, and gender justice can begin to redress this, for the good of the entire community. Poverty brings intense vulnerability and is systemic.

How can we get at the heart of systems and act for real change?

  • We need to break up concentrated wealth.
  • We need to focus on community flourishing.
  • We need to get much smarter about “partnerships.”
  • We need to protect frontline human rights defenders.
  • We need to act, aligning our spirit, our hearts, and hands.

We need to break up concentrated wealth.

The concentration of wealth into the hands of the very few is strangling the opportunities of communities.  Redistribution is key, through creative changes in the system. Some examples (U.S. based) provide some hope for real change:

How about free higher education? In California, this could be funded by reinstating the state’s estate tax on wealth over 3.5 million.  This idea has been put forth by Chuck Collins in Common Dreams.

How about reclaiming the markets for debt? The Occupy Movement has been buying up medical debt for pennies on the dollar, freeing people with major illness from devastating debt burdens, and then asking them to contribute towards freeing the next person.  Can we do the same for educational debt?  What about Puerto Rico, where one man in Boston bought up most of the country’s debt for pennies on the dollar, investing for “profit” (in this case greed) rather than shared prosperity?

How about holding corporations responsible for contributing to climate change?  For example, New York City is suing the top five oil companies to recoup damages from super storm Sandy, holding them responsible for climate impacts and their prior knowledge of environmental damage. NYC is also moving to divest.

How about holding governments responsible? Youth are suing the U.S federal government in courts – and winning – over their right to a future without environmental degradation, and government’s neglect in not protecting that.

How about shinning more light on the lengthy and slow work at the United Nations in Geneva towards an international legally binding treaty for corporate responsibility for Human Rights? 

We need to focus on community flourishing.

Daniel Perell spoke of community flourishing in the opening statement he delivered on behalf of the NGO Committee for Social Development. Clearly, we must shift from individualism and defining success by profit for the few.  Our individual struggles must be collective ones, ending poverty on a community basis, with goods and services circulating locally as well as nationally and internationally, in ways that distribute technology and leap frog towards more environmental sustainability, while supporting local strength and advancement. Cooperatives, credit unions, and community-based service delivery systems must be enhanced.  Re-localizing agriculture is essential, along with other service provisions. For example, in the U.S. the crisis of care for dementia is beginning to be addressed by locally based, free caregiver support systems.  There is great need, and so great opportunity, and it can be approached in collective, supportive, grassroots ways.

Access to world markets and goods, technology and capital essential for economic miracles must be tempered by human rights, by full cycle design and upcycling. Community prosperity is key, and governments must benefit from the prospering of business, not just subsidize that private prosperity.  Protection of the risks of entrepreneurs and investors must be tempered – the most vulnerable suffer risks every day without protection.  We need social systems where no one is expendable and protection is available to all, from investors to the most vulnerable.

Riki Ott, who served the Alaskan community after the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster, found herself very useful, with her academic training in oceanography and the accompanying patience for reports and intellectual work, to the community of fisher people.  Her legal work brought financial rewards to the community, but those funds brought challenges of divisiveness and opportunity for some but not for all.  Her ongoing work to bring oil companies to task for the risks they run that inevitably lead to catastrophes and costs born by the environment and communities includes reaching out to law students, to train them to bring cases against all businesses that have not follow the due diligence laws already on the books.  Many do not have legally mandated emergency response plans and means in place.  In this sense, legal remedy for poverty looks like holding businesses accountable to existing laws, and can include work against the dark economy and illicit avoidance of taxation, profiteering drug and arms trading etc.

Poverty is not strictly economic – it can be cultural. Lack of human compassion, of human touch, and of welcoming community are part of what drive isolation and economic insanity.  People who survive eating sugar rather than real food, by being fed on advertizing rather than information or literature, shopping to fill holes in heart and soul, being driven to drugs rather than more balanced lifestyles, are impoverished. They are vulnerable to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, struggling without community solutions to problems that cannot be managed by individuals or nuclear families in isolation. We cannot face powerlessness alone, and in coming together with others we can discover some power and flourish in community.

Indigenous peoples are fighting around the globe to protect sacred lands and sacred waters.  They honor their spiritual commitments and interconnectedness and resist in community.  I watched live web cast of native people at Standing Rock facing water cannons at night in the freezing cold of winter, protecting their sacred waters, which also protected the entire watershed and the water used by everyone downstream.  While these people may not have the means to afford material comforts, they have a richness that cannot be denied.

We need to get much smarter about “partnerships.”

There is much eager talk about partnerships to achieve the SDGs, and usually meaning between corporations and governments.  There is very little discussion of the dynamics of partnerships and the differing interests and accountabilities of the parties.  Corporations serve their shareholders via profit, and governments sometimes serve their citizens and other times serve their financial backers. In our interconnected world, none of this happens in a vacuum.

Dictionary definitions can lift up multiple layers of meaning.

Partner – one that is united or associated with another or others in an activity or sphere of common interest, especially a member of a business partnership or a spouse (emphasis added). Middle English, alteration of parcener.  Partner implies equal status.


Partnership is a legal contract entered into by two or more persons in which each agrees to furnish a part of the capital and labor for a business enterprise, and by which each shares a fixed proportion of profits and losses.  Mutual cooperation and responsibility is mentioned.


Parcener – (coparcener) one of two or more persons sharing an inheritance, a joint heir (emphasis added).


(All excerpted from the American Heritage Dictionary – Fourth Edition, 2000)


Our business partnerships can be subject to the same abuses that marriage partnerships sometimes involve.  Business needs more than capital and labor – all extractive industries take from the earth without replenishment. Natural resources are depleted – a common inheritance is taken from the public domain and misused as an invisible part of the model, for private profit.

Clearly there are large costs to be anticipated in negotiating major contractual partnerships, and globally a track record of dismal results from megaprojects and water privatization schemes.  And the “IN GOD WE TRUST” on the American dollar does not protect our common inheritance of clean and accessible water, or clean air or clean soil.

Protect frontline environmental human rights defenders.

Legal mechanisms continue to be developed, and it is a cutting edge question as to how international human rights law can effectively protect frontline environmental human rights defenders.  Note the diplomatic sentence on page 10 of the NGO Mining Working Group Water guide, “There are significant gaps in existing national and international legal frameworks for pursuing accountability against transnational corporations for human rights abuses.” We must remain cognizant that many front line defenders are making the ultimate sacrifice.  For example, Berta Caceres of Honduras was murdered after numerous death threats for her work defending a watershed against a dam project. Her international recognition with a Goldman environmental prize did not save her life. And outrage over her murder did not save the life of others in her organization, murdered within the year.

What has been effective in this case has been the lobbying of the investors in the dam, who have withdrawn their funds.  Hopefully legislation introduced in the US House will have some impact, prohibiting funds for Honduras police and military. H.R. 5474, The Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act is held up in committee; it outlines a set of measures and is available online. Similarly, a second bill H.R. 1299, March 2, 2017 seeks to protect front line activists and farmers who have been murdered defending their water and land.

The Women’s Major Group has developed a method of highlighting these tragic deaths at UN conferences. A group of women put tape over their mouths, and as the names of those murdered defending water and land are read, a woman pulls of the tape and says “presente”.  This is an attempt to bring voice to the voiceless, and call for necessary change on violations of the rule of law. May all of us remember the impacts on the ground of the issues debated here at the United Nations.

I have colleagues in the room who regularly refer to their congregations around the globe to find out how they might usefully shine a light on human rights abuses.  There are times when such attention might further endanger the lives of those on the front lines.  There’s a useful manual about how to appropriately engage in solidarity.  For those of us lifting up the stories of others, it’s about respecting their circumstances and their wishes, and not making the story about ourselves.  We need to keep the focus our mutual concerns, which are the water and land and their preservation for this and future generations.

In conclusion, we are called to act.

We need to act, aligning our spirit, our heads, our hearts, our hands and our feet.

  • Be alert to ‘fake’ language that covers over privatization that will benefit the few at the expense of the community.
  • Use U.N. mechanisms to support calls for action at local levels.
  • Lobby funders of development projects that are trampling on human rights.
  • Fund effective interventions like self-defense training for girls and self-respect training for boys.
  • Collaborate with those more in the know. Religious activists can work with local community experts and with global advocacy experts.
  • Plan on grief, my own and others’. We need to support each other and understand that anger may be a response to grief.  
  • Align our values and passion with action.
  • Welcome others to this work.
  • Own our own vulnerability. Avoid rigid defenses, to be able to respond rather than react to ongoing assaults.
  • Take Sabbath time, meditation time, and prayer time to help renew, refresh, and maintain clear focus.
  • Each of us can own whatever privilege we have, and strategize about how to use it.
  • Listen. Listen. To the Earth, to children, to the sacred.  And to other people.


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