IT’S NOT JUST THE ECONOMY, IT’S A HUMAN RIGHTS CRISIS
In September 2008 I was in New York to attend the UN high-level meeting on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the internationally agreed targets to reduce poverty by 2015. Delegate after delegate talked about the need for more funds to eradicate hunger, to cut preventable deaths of infants and pregnant women, to provide clean water and sanitation, to educate girls. The life and dignity of billions of people were at stake, but there was only limited will to back up the talk with money. As I left the UN building I could see the ticker tapes running a very different story coming from another part of Manhattan: the crash of one of the largest investment banks on Wall Street. It was a telling sign of where world attention and resources were really focused. Rich and powerful governments were suddenly able to find many more times the sums that could not be found to stem poverty. They poured them with abundance into failing banks and stimulus packages for economies that had been allowed to run amok for years and were now running aground.
By the end of 2008, it was clear that our two-tier world of deprivation and gluttony – the impoverishment of many to satisfy the greed of a few – was collapsing into a deep hole.
As with the case of climate change, so too with global economic recession: the rich are responsible for most of the damaging action, but it is the poor who suffer the worst consequences. While no one is being spared the sharp bite of the recession, the woes of the rich countries are nothing compared with the disasters unfolding in poorer ones. From migrant workers in China to miners in Katanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), people desperately trying to drag themselves out of poverty are feeling the brunt sharply. The World Bank has predicted 53 million more people will be thrown into poverty this year, on top of the 150 million hit by the food crisis last year, wiping out the gains of the last decade. International Labour Organization figures suggest that between 18 and 51 million people could lose their jobs. Skyrocketing food prices are leading to more hunger and disease, forced evictions and foreclosures to more homelessness and destitution.
"The world needs a different kind of leadership, a different kind of politics as well as economics – something that works for all and not just for a favoured few."
While it is too early to predict the full impact on human rights of the profligacy of recent years, it is clear that the human rights costs and consequences of the economic crisis will cast long shadows. It is also clear that not only have governments abdicated economic and financial regulation to market forces, they have failed abysmally to protect human rights, lives and livelihoods.
Billions of people are suffering from insecurity, injustice and indignity. This is a human rights crisis.
The crisis is about the shortages of food, jobs, clean water, land and housing and also about growing inequality and insecurity, xenophobia and racism, violence and repression. Together they form a global crisis that requires global solutions based on international co-operation, human rights and the rule of law. Unfortunately, powerful governments are focusing inward on the narrow financial and economic consequences in their own countries and ignoring the wider world crisis. Or, if they are considering international action, they are limiting it only to finance and economy, and so recreating the mistakes of the past.
The world needs a different kind of leadership, a different kind of politics as well as economics – something that works for all and not just for a favoured few. We need leadership of the kind that moves states from narrow national self-interest to multilateral collaboration, so that the solutions are inclusive, comprehensive, sustainable and respectful of human rights. Alliances between governments and corporations built on expectations of financial enrichment at the expense of the most marginalized must be dismantled. Alliances of convenience that protect abusive governments from accountability must go.
Many faces of inequality
Many experts point to the millions lifted out of poverty by economic growth, but the truth is that many more have been left behind, the gains have been far too fragile – as the recent economic crisis shows – and the human rights costs too high. Human rights were too often relegated to the backseat as the juggernaut of unregulated globalization swept the world into a frenzy of growth in recent years. The consequences are clear: growing inequality, deprivation, marginalization and insecurity; voices of people protesting suppressed with audacity and impunity; and those responsible for the abuses – governments, big business and international financial institutions – largely unrepentant and unaccountable. There are growing signs of political unrest and violence, adding to the global insecurity that already exists because of deadly conflicts which the international community seems unable or unwilling to resolve. In other words: we are sitting on a powder keg of inequality, injustice and insecurity, and it is about to explode.
Despite sustained economic growth in many parts of Africa, millions of people remain below the poverty line, struggling to meet their basic needs. Latin America is possibly the most unequal region in the world, with Indigenous and other marginalized communities in rural and urban areas denied their right to health care, clean water, education and adequate housing despite the impressive growth of their national economies. India is emerging as an Asian powerhouse giant but has yet to address the deprivation of its urban poor or marginalized communities in rural areas, while in China the gap in living standards between rural and migrant workers and affluent urban classes is becoming even starker.
The majority of the world’s population today is urban and of them, more than a billion live in slums. In other words, one in every three city-dwellers lives in inadequate housing with little or no basic services, and with the daily threat of insecurity, violence and forced evictions. Sixty per cent of the population of Nairobi, Kenya, lives in slums – one million of them in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. To give another example, some 150,000 Cambodians are at risk of forced eviction in the wake of land disputes, land grabbing, agro-industrial and urban redevelopment projects.
Inequality as a by-product of globalization has not been limited only to those living in developing countries. As the October 2008 report of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed, in industrialized countries too “the economic growth of recent decades has benefited the rich more than the poor.” The USA, the richest country in the world, came 27th out of 30 OECD member states in terms of entrenched poverty and growing income disparity.
From the urban poor in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to Roma communities in European countries, the dirty truth is that many people are poor because of overt and covert policies of discrimination, marginalization and exclusion, perpetrated or condoned by the state, with the collusion of business or private actors. It is no mere coincidence that many of the world’s poor are women, migrants, ethnic or religious minorities. It is not by chance that maternal mortality remains one of the biggest killers of our times, although a minimal expenditure on emergency obstetric care would save the lives of hundreds of thousands of women of child-bearing age.
A clear example of the collusion between business and state to deprive people of their land and natural resources and impoverish them is the case of Indigenous communities. In Bolivia, large numbers of Indigenous Guarani families in the Chaco region are living in what the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has described as a state of bondage analogous to slavery. Following his visit to Brazil in August 2008, the UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous people criticized “the persistent discrimination [that is] underlying the formation of policies, delivery of services, and administration of justice” to Indigenous People in that country.
Inequality extends into the justice system itself. In an effort to strengthen the market economy and encourage investment by foreign business and private actors, international financial institutions have funded legal reform in the commercial sector in a number of developing countries. But there has been no comparable effort to ensure that poor people are able to assert their rights and seek redress through the courts for the violations committed by governments or companies. According to the UN Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, around two thirds of the world’s population have no meaningful access to justice.
Many forms of insecurity
The numbers of people living in poverty and subjected to human rights abuse are likely to grow as several factors come together in a recessionary economic climate. First, structural adjustment policies, led by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank until a decade ago, have eviscerated social safety nets in both developing and developed countries. Structural adjustment policies were designed to create conditions within states which would support a market economy and open national markets to international trade. These led to the promotion of the minimal state in which governments abrogated their obligations on economic and social rights in favour of the market. In addition to calling for economic liberalization, structural adjustment policies also pushed for privatization of public services, deregulation of labour relations, and the cutting of social security nets. User fees promoted by the World Bank and the IMF in areas such as education and health care often put these services out of the reach of the poorest. Now, with the economy in shambles and unemployment rising, too many people are facing not just loss of income, but also social insecurity with no safety nets to support them through troubled times.
Second, the global food insecurity, despite its gravity, is getting insufficient attention from the international community. Nearly one billion people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. There has been a sharp spike in hunger, as a result of food shortages caused by decades of underinvestment in agriculture; trade policies encouraging dumping and the consequent devastation of local farmers; climate change leading to growing water shortages and degradation of land, increasing population pressure; rising energy costs and the rush for biofuels.
In many places, the food crisis has been aggravated by discrimination and political manipulation of food distribution, obstruction of much needed humanitarian aid, insecurity and armed conflict, which destroy the possibilities for farming or deny people the access to the resources they need to produce or buy food. In Zimbabwe, where five million people were in need of food aid by the end of 2008, the government used food as a weapon against its political opponents. In North Korea, food aid was deliberately restricted by the authorities to oppress and keep people hungry. “Scorched earth” counterinsurgency tactics by Sudanese armed forces and government-backed Janjawid militia destroyed livelihoods as well as lives of people in Darfur. Displaced civilians trapped by the conflict in northern Sri Lanka were deprived of food and other humanitarian assistance because the LTTE armed group would not let the people leave and the Sri Lankan armed forces would not give full access to aid organizations. Possibly one of the most outrageous cases of denial of the right to food in 2008 was the refusal of the Myanmar authorities to allow desperately needed international assistance to 2.4 million survivors of Cyclone Nargis for three weeks, even as the government diverted its own resources to promote a flawed referendum on an even more flawed Constitution.
Add to the higher food prices, the lay-off of hundreds of thousands of migrant or foreign workers as export-driven economies slow down and economic protectionism raises its head. The remittances from foreign workers totalling some US$200 billion annually – twice the global level of overseas development aid – are an important source of income to a range of low and middle income countries like Bangladesh, Philippines, Kenya and Mexico. Falling remittances mean less revenue for these governments and so less cash to spend on basic goods and services. Furthermore, in some countries the fall in the export of labour leaves more disillusioned, angry, young men idle in their home villages and an easy prey to extremist politics and violence.
Meanwhile, even as labour markets shrink, the pressure to migrate continues to rise, and receiving countries resort to ever-harsher methods to keep people out. In June 2008, I visited the public cemetery of Tenerife in the Canary Islands where unmarked graves bear silent testimony to the failed endeavour of African migrants to enter Spain. In 2008 alone, 67,000 people made the perilous crossing across the Mediterranean to Europe, with unknown numbers drowning in the process. Those who made it live a shadowy existence, without identity papers, open to exploitation and abuse, and with the threat of deportation preceded by prolonged detention hanging over their heads as a result of the 2008 European Union (EU) directive on returns of illegal immigrants.
Some EU member states, such as Spain, have entered into bilateral agreements with African countries to return migrants, or stop them from leaving in the first place. Countries such as Mauritania see these agreements as a licence to arbitrarily arrest, detain in substandards conditions and deport without any legal remedy large numbers of foreigners on its territory, with no evidence of their intentions to leave the country and even though it is no crime to leave Mauritania irregularly.
As more and more people are pushed into ever-more precarious conditions, social tensions are increasing. One of the worst instances of racist and xenophobic violence in 2008 occurred in South Africa in May, when 60 people were killed, 600 injured and tens of thousands were displaced, even as tens of thousands more entered the country to seek refuge from political violence and deprivation in neighbouring Zimbabwe. Although official inquiries failed to establish the causes of the attacks, it is widely believed that they were motivated by xenophobia and the competition for jobs, housing and social services, exacerbated by corruption.
Economic recovery depends on political stability. Yet those very same world leaders who are scrambling to put together stimulus packages to revive the global economy continue to ignore the deadly conflicts around the world that are spawning massive human rights abuses, entrenching poverty and endangering regional stability.
The economic and social conditions in Gaza, blockaded and battered by military attacks, are appalling. The political and economic fall-out of the conflict in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories reverberates far beyond its immediate vicinity.
The conflicts in Darfur and Somalia are playing out in areas with fragile ecosystems where increased pressure on water and the ability to provide food to sustain the population are both a cause and consequence of the continuing wars. The massive displacement they have generated has put enormous pressure on the neighbouring countries, which now have to cope also with the additional consequences of the global economic crisis.
In eastern DRC, greed, corruption and economic interests have vied with regional power politics to impoverish the people and entrap them in a persistent cycle of violence. A country of immense natural wealth, it now finds reconstruction and recovery efforts set back by a fall in foreign investment in the wake of the economic downturn.
In Afghanistan, pervasive insecurity has restricted the ability of people living there to access food, health care and schooling, particularly women and girls. The insecurity has seeped across the border to neighbouring Pakistan, already suffering from the government’s failure to uphold human rights, tackle poverty and address youth unemployment, and is driving the country into a downward spiral of extremist violence.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the financial crisis it is that international borders do not insulate us from harm. Finding solutions to the world’s worst conflicts and to the increasing threat of extremist violence through greater respect for human rights is part and parcel of the bigger picture of getting the global economy on its feet.
From recession to repression
On the one hand, we face the grave danger that rising poverty and desperate economic and social conditions could lead to political instability and mass violence. On the other, we may well end up in a situation where recession could be accompanied by greater repression as beleaguered governments – particularly those with an authoritarian bent – clamp down harshly on dissent, criticism and public exposure of corruption and economic mismanagement.
We had a taste in 2008 of what could lie ahead for 2009 and beyond. When people took to the streets to protest against rising food prices and the dire economic conditions, in many countries even peaceful protests were met with tough responses. In Tunisia strikes and protests were put down with force, causing two deaths, many injuries and more than 200 prosecutions of alleged organizers, some culminating in long prison sentences. In Zimbabwe, political opponents, human rights activists and trade union representatives were attacked, abducted, arrested and killed with impunity. In Cameroon, following violent demonstrations as many as 100 protesters were shot dead and many more imprisoned.
In times of economic stress and political tensions, there is need for openness and tolerance so that dissatisfaction and discontent can be channelled into constructive dialogue and the search for solutions. Yet, it is precisely in these circumstances that the space for civil society is shrinking in many countries. Human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, trade union representatives and other civil society leaders are being harassed, threatened, attacked, prosecuted without justification or killed with impunity in every region of the world.
Media censorship is likely to increase as governments seek to stifle criticism of their policies. This will add to the threats that journalists already face in many countries. Sri Lanka holds one of the worst records, with 14 journalists killed since 2006. Iran has tightened internet expression and Egypt and Syria imprisoned bloggers. China relaxed media control in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics but soon after that reverted to old habits of blocking websites and other forms of censorship. The Malaysian government banned two prominent opposition newspapers, fearing criticism in the run-up to elections.
Open markets have not necessarily led to open societies. Emboldened by its economic power derived from high oil and gas prices, the Russian government increasingly adopted a nationalistic and authoritarian stance in recent years and sought actively to erode freedom of expression and attack its critics. As the Russian economy runs into trouble with falling oil prices and rising inflation, and social discontent spreads, the authoritarian tendencies could become even more pronounced.
China continues to suppress harshly those who criticize its official policies and practices. The result is that official corruption and corporate malpractices are not tackled until the scandal can no longer be suppressed and much damage has occurred, as shown by the SARS/bird flu scare or the HIV/AIDS epidemic a few years ago or the more recent scandal about melamine in powder milk products. The Chinese government has reacted with high profile executions of those found guilty of corruption but that has done little or nothing to change corporate or official behaviour in China.
An informed citizenry empowered to demand accountability is a better guarantee that governments and companies will do their job well. Freedom is an asset to be encouraged, not suppressed, at a time when governments are seeking to stimulate the economy.
New kind of leadership
"...the G-20 must subscribe to global values and confront their own tarnished records and double standards on human rights."
Deprivation, inequality, injustice, insecurity and oppression are the hallmarks of poverty. They are clearly human rights problems and will not yield to economic measures alone. They demand strong political will and a comprehensive response integrating political, economic, social and environmental issues within an overarching framework of human rights and the rule of law. They demand collective action and a new kind of leadership.
Economic globalization has brought about a shift in geopolitical power and a new generation of states, in the form of the G-20, is claiming the mantle of world leadership. Composed of China, India, Brazil, South Africa and other emerging economies from the global South as well as Russia, USA and leading western economies, the G-20 claims to be a more accurate representation of political power and economic clout in the world today. That may be so, but to be truly global leaders, the G-20 must subscribe to global values and confront their own tarnished records and double standards on human rights.
True, the new US administration is striking a markedly different path on human rights as compared to the George W. Bush administration. President Barack Obama’s decision, within 48 hours of taking office, to close Guantánamo prison camp within a year, unequivocally denounce torture and end secret detention by the CIA, was commendable, as was the administration’s decision to seek election for the USA to the UN Human Rights Council. However, it is too early to tell whether the administration will call as frankly and forcefully on countries like Israel and China – as it does others like Iran and Sudan – to uphold human rights.
The EU remains ambivalent on its commitment to human rights. Although strong on issues like the death penalty, freedom of expression and protection of human rights defenders, many EU member states are less willing to live up to international standards on protection of refugees and elimination of racism and discrimination within their borders or to own up to collusion with the CIA on the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects.
Brazil and Mexico are strong supporters of human rights internationally but unfortunately often fail to practice within their own borders what they advocate abroad. South Africa consistently blocked international pressure on the Zimbabwean government to end political persecution and electoral manipulation. Saudi Arabia detains thousands of terrorist suspects without trial, locks up political dissidents, and severely restricts the rights of migrant workers and women. China has a deeply flawed criminal justice system, uses punitive forms of administrative detention to silence critics and is the world’s top executioner. The Russian government has allowed arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, and extrajudicial executions to flourish with impunity in the North Caucasus regions of Russia, and threatens those who dare to criticize it.
The G-20 governments have an obligation to uphold international human rights standards to which the international community has subscribed. Otherwise, they undermine their own credibility and legitimacy as well as effectiveness. The goal of the G-20 is to find a way out of the global economic crisis. They also claim that their efforts will benefit people living in poverty. But economic recovery will be neither sustainable nor equitable if it does not include a strong focus on human rights.
It is incumbent on those sitting at the world’s top table to set an example through their own behaviour. A good start would be for the G-20 members to send a clear signal that all human rights, economic, social or cultural rights, political or civil rights, are equally important. The USA has long denied the validity of economic and social rights and is not a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. China, on the other hand, is not a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The two countries should accede immediately to the respective treaties. All G-20 members should ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2008. Signing up to international treaties, however, is only one step in what needs to be done.
New opportunities for change
Global poverty – exacerbated by the economic situation – has created a burning platform for human rights change. At the same time, the economic crisis has triggered a paradigm shift that opens up opportunities for systemic change.
“Governments should invest in human rights as purposefully as they are investing in economic growth.”
For the past two decades, the state has been retreating or reneging on its human rights obligations in favour of the market in the belief that economic growth would lift all boats. With the tide receding and boats springing leaks, governments are radically changing their positions and talking about a new global financial architecture and international governance system in which the state plays a stronger role. That opens up an opportunity to also halt the retreat of the state from the social sphere and re-design a more human rights friendly model of the state than the one that has characterized international policy-making for the past 20 years. It creates the possibility to radically rethink the role of international financial institutions in terms of respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights, including economic and social rights.
Governments should invest in human rights as purposefully as they are investing in economic growth. They should expand and support health and educational opportunities; end discrimination; empower women; set universal standards and effective systems to hold corporations accountable for human rights abuses; build open societies where the rule of law is respected, social cohesion is strong, corruption is eradicated and governments can be held to account. The economic crisis should not become a pretext for wealthier countries to cut back on their development assistance. International aid is even more important now in the economic downturn to support some of the poorest countries deliver core services on health, education, sanitation and housing.
Governments should also work together to resolve deadly conflicts. Given the inter-relationships, ignoring one crisis to focus on another is a sure recipe for aggravating both.
Will governments seize these opportunities to strengthen human rights? Will corporate actors and international financial institutions accept and live up to their human rights responsibilities? So far, human rights have barely figured in the diagnoses or the prescription being proposed by the international community.
History shows that most struggles for great change – such as the abolition of slavery or the emancipation of women – started not as the initiative of states but as the endeavour of ordinary people. Successes in establishing international justice or controlling the arms trade or abolishing the death penalty or fighting violence against women or putting global poverty and climate change on the international agenda are all largely due to the energy, creativity and persistence of millions of activists from around the globe. It is to people power that we must now turn to bring pressure to bear on our political leaders. That is why, together with many local, national and international partners, Amnesty International is launching a new campaign in 2009. Under the banner of “Demand Dignity”, we will mobilize people to seek accountability of national and international actors for human rights abuses that drive and deepen poverty. We will challenge discriminatory laws, policies and practices, and demand concrete measures to overcome the factors that impoverish and keep people poor. We will bring the voices of people living in poverty to the centre of the debate to end poverty and insist that they are allowed to participate actively in decisions that affect their lives.
“We also “demand dignity” for prisoners of poverty so that they can change their own lives.”
Almost 50 years ago, Amnesty International was created to demand the release of prisoners of conscience. Today we also “demand dignity” for prisoners of poverty so that they can change their own lives. I am confident that with the help and support of our millions of members, supporters and partners around the world we will succeed.