What bearing do constitutions – especially constitutional rights and governance institutions – have on creating or redressing poverty and economic inequality? Although in some constitutional settings, rights have been invoked to address poverty and economic inequality, whether invoking constitutional rights has resulted in intended impact is an open question. Moreover, intersecting and multiple forms of discrimination – e.g., on the basis of age, colour, caste, class, ethnicity, religion, language, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and migration status – may exacerbate poverty and economic inequality.
This session will examine the varied dimensions of the nexus between constitutional rights and poverty/economic inequality. A foundational question is whether such rights seek to establish a decent social minimum or aim at another form of equality. Answering that question will determine, for instance, whether the right to equality can be invoked to contest existing economic inequalities. Similarly, it impacts on the way in which socio-economic rights such as the rights to food, housing and health are interpreted. There is also an important question concerning the relationship between civil and political rights and socio-economic rights – can a lack of freedom of association and collective bargaining for employees contribute to economic inequality?
The session will also consider the potential and limits of the judiciary as the guardian of constitutional rights, in responding to government policies, plans and regulations that might either address or exacerbate poverty and economic inequality. For example, courts often have to deal with constitutionality of government decisions and policies concerning privatisation, disinvestment, restrictions on private property in the public interest, and austerity measures.
In some countries, socio-economic rights are made justiciable either by virtue of the constitution or because of judicial interpretation. It is worth considering (i) whether governments as well as courts in such countries have fared any better in dealing with poverty and economic inequality, (ii) whether such constitutional rights have also been able to change the structures of power that create and normalise poverty, and (iii) what bearing different types of discrimination have had on accessing courts or availing justiciable socio-economic rights.