UNHRC – Part II: Prioritising Economic Aspects Of Human Rights

By Kalinga Seneviratne* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

SINGAPORE (IDN) – “As a result of the financial crisis, the ability of individuals to exercise their human rights and that of States to fulfill their obligations to protect human rights has diminished,” noted Bat-Erdene Ayuush, Head of the Right to Development Section at the UN Human Rights Office speaking at a UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) panel discussion at last year.

But, at its 25th session from March 3 to 28 in Geneva, only two out of about 100 reports tabled, address the economic and development aspects of human rights. Almost all other reports address individual rights specific to countries, rather than collective rights of people.

The international human rights agencies face a serious challenge today, when a new wave of colonialism is gathering steam.  Would they act like the Christian missionaries 500 years ago who accompanied the European colonizers and facilitated the exploitation and plunder in the name of “civilizing the natives”?

Pointing fingers at small nations for human rights violations, when the governments are unable to provide for the rising aspirations and demands of their people, while ignoring the fact that the global economic system hinders it, may make the modern human rights campaigners no different to the old Christian missionaries.

The excessive focus given to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) proclaimed in 1948 over other UN human rights covenants such as International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and the UN Declaration of the Right to Development (UNDRD) adopted in 1986, need to change in this era of globalization and corporate power over national governments.

A new wave of colonialism camouflaged as globalization is today threatening the hard fought freedom of people around the world from European colonialism, that was epitomized by the plundering of their natural and human resources with no recourse to human rights processes. The UDHR’s focus on individual rights needs to be balanced with collective rights to development.

In Asia, emanating from its own philosophical groundings human rights have been seen more as a participatory model rather then the western concept of individual rights. Thus, in Asia, there has traditionally been a higher focus given to social and community harmony.

With the advent of the economic crisis in Europe in 2008, these ideas are even espoused there. Aldo Caliari, Director of the Rethinking Bretton Woods Project noted, speaking at the same UNHRC panel as Ayuush, that in the past four years the EU had spent some 4.5 trillion euros – 37% of the EU’s GDP – bailing out the financial industry, while government spending on social protection had been subjected to austerity measures.

“Financial policy and rule making tends to be shockingly removed from public scrutiny – not just from human rights groups, but any public scrutiny. All sectors of society should be able to input into such a process,” he said, adding that a human rights approach to the financial crisis should not be confined to an analysis of impacts and burden allocation but should also look at austerity and financial regulation.

Addressing modern human rights issues

Social ethos that makes it okay for governments to bailout rich bankers who have indulged in criminally fraudulent practices, but, its bad economic policy to subsidise poor hard-working farmers, protect small business and market vendors, and treat migrant labourers as a commodity rather than human beings, are all human rights issues that need to be tackled as a priority on a global scale.

The ICESCR and UNDRD have ideas that could be adopted to address modern human rights issues created by this onslaught of neo-liberal economics. But, interestingly, the U.S. has not ratified both these treaties.

The UNDRD calls on member states to recognize an individual’s rights to work, for fair wages that would ensure a decent living, and a healthy and safe working environment; fundamental right for everyone to be free from hunger; right for everyone to an education; right to proper health standards and so on.

In keynote remarks delivered to an UN Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals in December 2013, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay argued that many leaders have abdicated their responsibilities to the current generation.

“Food, water, healthcare, education, housing and access to justice are not merely commodities for sale to the few, but rather they are rights to which all are entitled without discrimination,” she noted, and in an obvious reference to the European economic crisis, Pillay added that, “people have lost confidence in the dominant economic model. They are calling for a new paradigm for development, one that places human rights in the centre.”

The question is whether the UNHRC is doing enough to mobilise the international community to plan a fairer development path? Can they promote this with a passion so that it will attract the attention of the world’s leaders, especially those in richer countries?

UNHRC has often pointed fingers at governments for restricting media freedom, but, it has failed to acknowledge the lack of freedom in the global – mainly Anglo-American media – for access to voices of trade unions and other peoples’ movements that are opposed to the type of neo-liberal economics that Pillay referred to above.

How this global media ridiculed and gave almost no access to the voices that represented the “Occupy Wall Street” movement at the height of the banking crisis in the USA and Europe is a good example. If their voices were given access to the local and global mainstream media, it would have led to a strong human rights movement worldwide for social justice and a fairer economic order.


Corruption is also a very important human rights issue. But this cannot be tackled by pointing accusing fingers at developing country governments or threatening them with sanctions of different kinds. The rich countries have to take some responsibilities and make some sacrifices if this scourge of modern societies is to be controlled.

They have to monitor their investment flows and should not allow their companies to write off commissions (bribes) as business expenses in their tax returns. They will also have to put stringent monitoring devices into foreigners opening bank accounts, buying real estate and making other investments, and sending their children to universities and expensive colleges, as lot of the money from corrupt politicians  and business people in developing countries are being spent or parked safely in the West, and western governments have often welcomed it with open arms.

If such stringent controls could be introduced to stop terrorist funding, why cannot it be adopted to address the scourge of worldwide corruption?

Since UDHR was negotiated and adopted by a United Nations where most countries of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America did not have the freedom to speak at the time, this is opportune time to bring these voices into the process of reviewing the international human rights instruments.

The over emphasis given to individual rights such as freedom of speech and public demonstrations may have to be balanced with a more consultative model of grassroots participation and dialogue on economic and development issues, that are needed to protect social and community harmony.

This process needs to consider as major human rights violators, those who promote neoliberal economic models that exploits the poor and impact on community harmony. New human rights instrumentalities need to apply to non-government actors as well, especially to huge global corporations.

*Kalinga Seneviratne is IDN Special Correspondent for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications in Singapore. [IDN-InDepthNews – March 3, 2014]

The writer’s previous IDN articles:

Top left photo: Eleanor Roosevelt with the Spanish version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec 10, 1948 in Paris | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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