Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
--Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 25(1)
Times of great crisis also represent moments of opportunity and innovation. They can signal significant paradigm shifts. That’s the best that can be said about the worsening world economic crisis at the moment.
The old neo-liberal Washington Consensus, financial and banking deregulation, and dependence on our unbridled individual and collective consumerism, have been abject failures in providing an adequate standard of living for the vast majority of the world’s peoples. The situation requires alternative approaches to global and local economic policies.
The Human Rights Implications
The global economic crisis may well exacerbate violations of civil and political rights. Massive poverty and socio-economic dislocation, and competition over scarce resources historically served as a trigger for violent conflict, discrimination and scape-goating of racial or ethnic minorities, and government crack-downs on civil liberties as social unrest rises.
But the current crisis, and the neglect of socio-economic justice that preceded it, already have had devastating economic and social human rights effects. The problems are well-known: malnutrition and lack of access to affordable food and clean water, homelessness, lack of access to primary health care, and educational inequality. Such human rights violations are all associated with the poverty, land insecurity, and unemployment that are spreading throughout even “developed” countries. (Photo: UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, Magdalena Sepulveda.)
The accepted wisdom has been thrown open to challenge. It is time for new ideas, as well as renewed urgency in efforts to generate the political will necessary to put some “old” good ideas into practice.
Among those ideas and priorities are
►sustainable development that includes human development (see, for example, the Millennium Development Goals);
►the interdependence of civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural rights; and
►the need for mandatory and voluntary mechanisms to ensure the responsibility and accountability of private business and financial enterprises.
Sustainability and a “Green New Deal”
In a speech at the gloomy (previously opulent and celebratory) World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for what might be one such new-old approach. He advocated for a “Green New Deal” that would attempt to address the “truly existential crisis” of global climate change through international, governmental, and private sector strategies. Positive action on climate change, he hopes, would also stimulate the world economy and slow the global recession.
Domestic and Global Observance of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
Some African and European leaders reminded increasingly inward-looking representatives from the Global North that it is the poor in both North and South who will suffer the worst effects of economic and environmental crises.
If we’ve learned nothing else in recent years, we should now know that seemingly far-away poverty, political and social oppression, health crises, and environmental devastation, can be directly linked in cause or impact to the backyards and kitchen tables of the Global North. The negative effects of poverty, labor abuses, environmental toxins, and insufficient public health services have a way of crossing borders.
Attention to international co-operation in economic and social development is, therefore, not only a matter of international human rights law, it is also a moral commitment and a matter of domestic national security interest for many nations.
Similarly, government obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill international economic and social human rights cannot simply be abandoned in times of economic difficulty.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, for example, requires even the poorest states parties to take steps to fulfill their obligations “to the maximum of available resources” (Art. 2(2)). The UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) issued instructive interpretive guidelines with regard to non-discrimination and minimum core obligations for states hoping to protect rights while managing economic challenges. (See, e.g., General Comment No. 3 on “The Nature of State Obligations” and the influential Maastricht Guidelines on Violations of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights).
►Non-discrimination: A fundamental human right under all major international treaties, the prohibition on discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, class, or other status can and should be implemented immediately even by poor states or states in economic crisis.
Any stimulus packages, therefore, should not, in intention or effect, discriminate on such prohibited bases. For example, if massive infusions will be spent on bringing physical infrastructure up to code or improving it, will the jobs created in construction and engineering include racial, ethnic, and religious minorities and women? To the extent that they have been previously excluded from those jobs, attention must be paid to targeted “special measures” such as recruitment and training.
►Minimum Core Obligations: Fundamental human rights necessary for an adequate standard of living include the right to food (and water), housing, education, the supports necessary for physical and mental health, and work at a living wage and under safe conditions.
The initial reaction to the continuing call for economic and social rights in an economic crisis is to charge that they are “too expensive” or “luxuries” to be considered in a time of prosperity. Ironically, of course, very few placed priority on such rights and conditions even during times of the false prosperity and economic growth some countries previously enjoyed. Now may be the best time to pressure the global community to finally take such rights seriously.
As indicated in an earlier post (Financing Human Rights), fulfilling our legal and moral obligations does take money. Nevertheless, if there is still serious debate in the U.S. over whether the billions of dollars in bonuses paid to executives working for bailed-out financial institutions are appropriate, perhaps we can afford to seriously debate whether addressing the basic needs of billions of poor people should also be considered an economic incentive and stimulus.
International human rights law recognizes that the economic resources available to a country may be limited. However, each state can make a start by respecting, protecting, and fulfilling minimum core obligations with regard to human rights. The CESCR and leading international policymakers, development experts, and legal scholars have outlined criteria by which to elaborate such obligations and measure progress. (See, e.g., Human Rights and the Global Marketplace: Economic, Social, and Cultural Dimensions (Jeanne M. Woods & Hope Lewis, eds.).
Corporate Responsibility and Accountability
Secretary-General Ban’s “Green New Deal” speech also was directed to the private sector. Recalling former Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s “UN Global Compact,” Ban called for a “Global Compact 2.0.” The reconceptualization is supposed to integrate corporate responsibility and technological innovation to address global climate change that would also ameliorate economic recession.
In another move, a press release issued by Professor John Ruggie, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Business and Human Rights, announced a new initiative on corporate law and human rights. Leading corporate law firms agreed to work with the UN to explore “whether and how national corporate law principles and practices currently foster corporate cultures respectful of human rights.”
It remains to be seen whether business actors will step up to the plate when many seem to be desperately casting about for their own survival.
“Developing” Toward What, and For Whom?
Economists and budget analysts can and do assess the positive economic impact of investing in public health and preventive health initiatives, early childhood education, environmentally sustainable housing, living wages, and safe working conditions.
The central motive of the human rights movement, however, is the belief that these rights are core human values whether or not they are always economically efficient. Still, isn’t such a truly developed society one in which we all would wish to live?