SDG targets risk missing the mark on inequality

Blog by Kate Donald, Director of CESR's Human Rights in Sustainable Development Program.

Modern developments rise up behind informal
settlements in Sao Paolo, Brazil
This week, the UN Statistical Commission convenes for its annual meeting in New York. At the top of its agenda will be the latest report of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs), which presents a final proposal for global indicators to monitor the SDGs. In the run-up to the Commission, various civil society groups have expressed their concern about particular indicators or missing indicators, as well as the opaque decision-making process.

The Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) is particularly concerned that SDG 10 (‘Reduce inequality within and between countries’) does not include a robust measure of economic inequality, and as such this indicator set is woefully incomplete. Economic inequality is a particularly pervasive and cross-cutting form of inequality that is a pressing issue in all countries, negatively impacting human rights enjoyment as well as poverty reduction and growth. Moreover, good methodologies to measure economic inequality already exist, which can easily be applied globally.

In general, the indicators for SDG10 that touch on income focus solely on the bottom end of the spectrum, thereby neglecting to consider high earners and the top wealth brackets. Including the top end of the distribution is essential when assessing overall economic inequality (given that inequality is by definition relative, and the accumulation of wealth and income at the top has direct impacts on the situation of those at the bottom).

CESR and others proposed a specific indicator that would have captured these concerns and measured the full distributive impacts of fiscal policy: the Palma ratio measured pre-tax and post-social transfers. Unfortunately, although a similar indicator did feature in previous IAEG proposals, neither this eminently measurable indicator nor the more widely-used Gini coefficient were included in the final draft. This leaves Goal 10 without a badly-needed economic inequality indicator and failing to address a crucial aspect of Target 10.4 ‘Adopt policies, especially fiscal, wage and social protection policies, and progressively achieve greater equality’. These shortfalls make it more likely this target will be overlooked by policy-makers. 

One of the most important and hard-won elements of Target 10.4 is its explicit recognition of fiscal policy as a determinant of inequality, but the sole indicator agreed focuses on wages and social protection transfers (and moreover lumps them together in a way which dims the indicator’s power). Given the growing evidence of how fiscal policies can affect human rights, we feel this is a lamentable omission from the IAEG, distorting and unbalancing the target and the goal itself. 

The final Agenda 2030 agreement Transforming Our World states that “inclusive and sustainable economic growth…will only be possible if wealth is shared and income inequality is addressed”. If the implementation of Agenda 2030 is to meet this essential condition, it will be necessary to incentivize the right policy actions with relevant indicators. It is to be hoped that national-level indicator sets can correct this glaring gap in the global list.

  • To learn more about CESR's work on Human Rights and Sustainable Development, see here.

Posted by Kate Donald on March 8th, 2016

Indicators of success: how best to measure Agenda 2030

Four months have now passed since Agenda 2030 – the new sustainable development goals for the next 15 years – was agreed at the UN in New York. Targets have been set under each of the 17 goals, but the crucial matter of designating indicators to measure progress remains in the balance.

The indicators chosen will have a critical impact on the
effectiveness of Agenda 2030. Photo: UNHCR 
An Inter-Agency and Expert Group (IAEG) made up of statisticians from member states and representatives from UN agencies has been tasked with elaborating a list of global indicators (one or two for each of the 169 targets). This work is yet to be finalized, with a significant portion of the indicators still under discussion. The upcoming UN Statistical Commission meeting in March will be a crucial milestone, although it is unlikely all the indicators will be agreed by then.

That some of the indicators remain undecided is not in itself a problem, but there is growing concern over those that have already been defined, as several of them may lead to skewed and/or inadequate tracking of progress. At an October meeting of the IAEG in Bangkok, the majority of indicators were announced as agreed or final, with very little transparency as to how these decisions had been taken. And in many cases, they seem quite arbitrary and uninformed.

The multidimensional character of some of the targets is lost in attempts to capture them in a single indicator. For example, we are left with an inequality goal which does not include a robust measure of income inequality, although good methodologies already exist. Target 10.4 is to ‘Adopt policies, especially fiscal, wage and social protection policies, and progressively achieve greater equality’. However, the indicator agreed focuses almost solely on wages. This completely fails to measure at least one crucial stated aspect of the target: how fiscal policies can play a key role in improving equality. For this reason, the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) has consistently advocated for using an additional inequality indicator – the Palma ratio of the share of gross national income held by the top 10% versus that of the bottom 40%, measured pre-tax and post-social transfers – which would look at the full distributive impacts of fiscal policy.

Other indicators being proposed are manifestly inadequate. For example, the suggested indicator for target 17.13 – ‘Enhance global macroeconomic stability, including through policy coordination and policy coherence’ – is Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is not relevant for any aspect of the target.

This reality is problematic because indicators are not only measures by which progress can be judged; they also focus attention on particular groups or issues and create incentives for policy action. If an indicator is reductive and of questionable relevance, then it implicitly allows governments to get away with doing little to achieve the (carefully negotiated and crucial) target, and this in turn undermines accountability.

These concerns and others were addressed at a civil society briefing and exchange with member states at the UN in New York in January. At that event, Kate Donald from CESR spoke about some of the deficiencies of the current proposals from a human rights perspective, building on our report The Measure of Progress and our experience in human rights monitoring.

Admittedly, the global indicator framework was never likely to be perfect or perfectly comprehensive, and there is a limit to how relevant a global indicator can be to every country. Some indicators will inevitably be of less relevance to certain countries, while the specific issues they face under particular targets may not be well covered. While all countries face important challenges on issues like water quality, access to free quality education, access to justice and poverty, the nature and scale of these challenges is undoubtedly different and will require different policies and actions.

With the deficiencies of the global indicators becoming increasingly apparent, the national level will be a crucial space for identifying and applying indicators. To this end, CESR has been working with national groups on how to develop national indicators to measure progress towards the SDGs and international human rights obligations.

Kate recently participated in an expert working group bringing together access to justice practitioners in the United States to propose national indicators for SDG target 16.3; ‘…ensure equal access to justice for all’.  The suggested global indicators focus on the crime reporting rate and the proportion of those who have faced a dispute and accessed some kind of resolution mechanism. These issues have some relevance in the US, but do not address the more nationally resonant and policy-sensitive problems of access to legal aid or the right to counsel without charge for tenants facing eviction. Kate shared insights on the SDG indicator process and on how indicators can best take into account human rights principles and standards.

In December, CESR’s Allison Corkery participated in a workshop in Nairobi on the monitoring of access to information as it pertains to the rights to water and sanitation – an issue of critical relevance to the implementation of SDG 6 (Ensure water and sanitation for all). Co-convened by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and Article 19, it focused on the Free Flow Principles, which are a wide-ranging set of guidelines developed by Article 19 to promote access to information, transparency, accountability, good governance and civic engagement in the water and sanitation sectors. Allison highlighted the value of using indicators and benchmarks in such monitoring. She also facilitated a brainstorming exercise to identify the principles most relevant to the Kenyan context—an exercise that highlighted the complexity of accommodating the interests and priorities of diverse stakeholders, which is a crucial first step in identifying appropriate indicators.

As the SDG experience is showing, the selection of indicators (especially when on a tight timeline and at a global scale) is fraught with perils and pitfalls. Nevertheless, well-chosen indicators that are fleshed out with reliable data are a crucial building block of accountability and can provide an important tool and evidence base for both human rights claims and policy reforms. To be successful, indicators (whether they be global or national) require broad support and buy-in. To secure that, it is vital that the process of agreeing them is open, transparent, and participatory, so that the indicators reflect rights-holders’ concerns and perspectives, whilst also focusing policy efforts effectively.

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South Africa: court orders task team to tackle school furniture saga

The Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in South Africa has secured a significant breakthrough after the High Court in Mthata ordered the Minister of Basic Education to set up a “furniture task team” for Eastern Cape schools. The task team is intended to remedy long-standing deprivations of the right to education caused by the failure to supply basic furniture needs. It is mandated to audit the furniture needs of schools in the province and supply all furniture required by April 2017. The order was made by agreement between the Minister and the Centre for Child Law (CCL), which was represented by the LRC. It is the fourth court order in the Madzodzo v the Minister of Education case, which was brought in response to the school furniture saga that has been plaguing the province for years.

Since August 2015, the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) has partnered with the LRC to monitor implementation in this case. This has included sorting, collating and analyzing the enormous amount of data presented by the Eastern Cape Department of Education (ECDOE) during several rounds of litigation. Our research revealed that approximately R300 million (US $19 million) had been allocated to furniture production and delivery since the start of the litigation—resulting in the delivery of more than 200,000 units of furniture for schools in the Eastern Cape. Nevertheless, many schools continue to face severe shortages. Almost two fifths of the province’s 5,700 schools needed furniture, according to one list compiled by the ECDOE in 2014. When so many students sit on the floor, on makeshift seats made from bricks and paint tins, or with four sharing a desk designed for two, it is hardly surprising that the Eastern Cape Province has one of the worst final year pass rates in the country.

Drawing on OPERA, our framework for monitoring economic and social rights compliance, we also worked with the LRC to dig deeper into the systemic dysfunctions that had hindered efforts to comply with the court order. As summarized in a short LRC Factsheet, a substantial amount of additional information is needed to understand the scope and scale of the problem – there have been five attempts to audit furniture needs in the Eastern Cape, but the data produced has been seriously flawed – and to properly evaluate the procurement processes undertaken to date. In particular, there is a pressing need to track those deliveries that have been made and the resources that have been disbursed. Having a better understanding of these issues gave the LRC a strong basis to argue for heightened oversight of the department’s compliance with its obligations in the case and to offer constructive, evidence-based recommendations to the department about the steps it needs to take to do so.

The new court order is significant in the detailed obligations it sets out for the Minister. The furniture task team appointed by the Minister must prepare a consolidated list with specific details about the furniture needs of all public schools in the Eastern Cape. This list will need to be verified by August 2016 and the Minister is required to ensure that those schools needing furniture receive age and grade appropriate furniture by April 2017. The Minister must also report to the court every 90 days, providing updated data about current shortages; describing steps taken to procure furniture, including budget allocated and orders placed; and supplying evidence of deliveries made and a timetable for deliveries scheduled.

In 2014, Judge Goosen handed down a judgment in Madzodzo ordering the Minister to respond to the endemic furniture shortages in the province. That judgment was significant in its reaffirmation that education is an immediately realizable right and that adequate provision of classroom furniture forms part of that right. It also highlighted that resource and budget constraints are not an acceptable excuse where a constitutional right is being violated. While the 2014 judgment directed the Minister to deliver all furniture required by schools in the province by May 30, 2014, the court also gave the Minister an opportunity to approach the court for an extension of the timeframe. The court order handed down last week is a combination of the Minister’s application for an extension, and the CCL’s counter application for systemic relief.

All too often court victories, however hard fought, do not mark the end of an injustice. If rulings handed down by judicial authorities are not properly implemented on the ground, the transformative potential of litigation in advancing economic and social rights is undermined. For this reason, CESR is working to foster greater synergies between litigators and monitoring experts. “Monitoring the implementation of judgments and settlements is a major challenge of our work”, noted Cameron McConnachie, attorney at the LRC. “In exploring the role that OPERA could play in meeting this challenge, partnering with CESR has prompted us to think more comprehensively about the type of data needed and more creatively about the tools and approaches we use to collect it”.

Posted by Allison Corkery on February 4th, 2016

Promising the World: Accountability and the SDGs

This blog by Kate Donald, Director of CESR's Human Rights in Development Program, was originally published by the Health and Human Rights Journal.

From a human rights perspective, there is little doubt that the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a huge improvement on their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). However, there is one critical area where it seems lessons from the MDG era have remained frustratingly unlearned: accountability.

Amid the fanfare of the SDGs’ adoption in September 2015, it was easy to focus on the goals and targets themselves, and overlook the three pages hidden deeper into the ‘2030 Agenda’ which are intended to outline a framework for ‘follow-up and review’. Despite some important references to state-citizen accountability, participation, and respecting human rights, the vision is astonishingly vague and timid. The document offers no clear picture on how SDG progress will be monitored and reviewed or what the lines and channels of accountability will be, and includes only very tentative and under-ambitious proposals and guidelines.

This is not an accidental omission. Throughout the negotiation process, it was clear that there was very little political will for underpinning the new agenda with accountability. From the very start, many government representatives displayed a conveniently narrow understanding of accountability, claiming that it could not possibly be relevant because the goals would not be legally binding. These reservations led the ‘monitoring and accountability’ chapter to be renamed ‘follow-up and review’. Further into the negotiations, some states tried to end the use of the ‘A word’ entirely, and warned ominously that ‘finger-pointing’ and ‘naming and shaming’ would be counterproductive.

As the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) has argued since we co-published Who Will be Accountable? in 2013, underpinning the new agenda with a web of accountability mechanisms is essential to ensure the new commitments are credible and honored in practice. Unfortunately, despite constructive proposals and strenuous advocacy from civil society, these ideas remained politically unpalatable. Some states (including many EU countries, Mexico and Peru) did champion more robust accountability arrangements, but the consensus was against them and no one state or negotiating bloc with real leverage power was willing to make the issue a priority or red line. As a result, in the haggling over final language, the mere suggestion that countries may conduct a review of progress at least every four years was removed. It is indeed a sorry sign that this was considered too ambitious.

Some countries (in particular those with a history of receiving aid accompanied by a laundry list of onerous conditionalities) see any monitoring that takes place beyond the national level as infringing their sovereignty and policy space and exposing them to scolding from rich countries and the UN. This has made the negotiations over the global level of SDG ‘follow-up and review’ (which is envisaged to have national, regional and international components) all the more difficult.

There is already a designated forum for the purpose of reviewing SDG progress and challenges: the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), which was established at the Rio conference in 2012 and has been a somewhat aimless annual gathering at the UN since 2013. This year, it will assume its real purpose; but it is still unclear what form the reviews and discussions might take, and whether they might be able to deliver anything approaching accountability. There will be thematic reviews on goal areas and cross-cutting issues such as inequality and health; as well as country reviews where specific countries will step forward to discuss their progress and challenges. However, their efficacy and meaningfulness will likely be severely constrained not only by their voluntary nature, but also by the fact that the HLPF only meets for eight days each year and is hugely under-staffed and under-resourced.

Although the rhetoric from decision-makers is strongly welcoming of civil society participation in the HLPF reviews, it remains to be seen what this might mean in practice. It now seems unlikely, for example, that civil society will be given an official channel to submit ‘shadow reports’ which might complement or call into question states’ official presentations. Without consideration of such independent accounts, the legitimacy of these reviews will be highly questionable, and may not rise above the level of the MDGs’ toothless ‘Annual Ministerial Reviews’, which amounted to little more than a best practices showcase. The process to develop global indicators has also delivered warning signs that measurement of progress at the global level may well distort and undercut the priorities enshrined in the SDGs, especially the more contentious ones around resources, inequality and governance.

Many were counting on the UN Secretary-General to deliver a shot of ambition with some innovative new proposals on how the HLPF reviews might operate. However, on first analysis his recently published recommendations remain somewhat lackluster. For now, it is wise for civil society to dedicate energy to developing innovative and ambitious accountability mechanisms (and indicators) at the national level. Here too, some governments will inevitably drag their feet, but pressure from advocates and activists could make a real difference. Health is a thematic area (and of course a stand-alone SDG) where there are perhaps the most promising precedents to build on. This is true both at the global level—see for example the Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health, discussed by Paul Hunt—and at national/local levels, where social accountability initiatives focused on health services have proliferated in recent years led by communities, civil society and occasionally government actors.

It will also be imperative to pay close attention to the accountability gaps above and beyond the state where the deficits are particularly acute. For example, the role and impact of the private sector will require special vigilance especially given the uncritical fervor many governments are adopting for Public-Private Partnerships in development. Meanwhile, in our globalized world the transnational ‘spillover’ impacts of one country’s policies (for example, tax, trade, environmental or investment) on another’s development can be profound, and some measure of awareness and accountability is desperately needed in this arena.

The years 2015-2030 offer an unmissable opportunity to address the accountability gaps that have plagued development policy and practice for decades. For civil society and social movements, there is a lot of hard work to be done to ensure the potential of the SDGs as a vehicle of human rights realization and accountability is not squandered.

Posted by Kate Donald on January 25th, 2016

Malaysia: new report on right to education for disabled children has important lessons for government

Children with learning disabilities are among the most disadvantaged in Malaysia, and many thousands of them find themselves unable to access even basic education. The National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) is determined to confront this longstanding injustice, however. With the support of the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) it is working to ensure these children are not left behind in efforts to achieve universal primary education.

Malaysia, which has ratified both the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), is currently progressing towards universal primary enrollment through its “2013-2025 Education Blueprint”. Effective monitoring by civil society organizations and, crucially, the Human Rights Commission will be essential if the plan is to achieve its goal of ensuring equal access to quality education for all children.

CESR has been working with SUHAKAM to ensure the government’s plan reaches children with learning disabilities, and this collaboration has now culminated in a new SUHAKAM report. ‘The Right to Education for Children with Learning Disabilities’ was developed with guidance from CESR as part of a joint initiative between the Center and the Asia Pacific Forum aimed at strengthening the role of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) in protecting economic and social rights. This project, which has supported collaborative partnerships with NHRIs in the region since January 2012, has already aided the New Zealand Human Rights Commission’s work to monitor human rights after the Christchurch and Canterbury earthquakes, and that of Palestine’s Independent Commission on Human Rights, in ensuring the Palestinian Authority’s National Development Plan realizes economic and social rights.

The new SUHAKAM report aims to increase the number of children with learning disabilities receiving inclusive and quality primary education by raising awareness of the challenges they experience in this regard, and identifying the gaps in information about education for these children. It is also designed to help build connections between government agencies and civil society to promote more participatory, transparent and accountable education policy. The document examines challenges to realizing the right to education for children with learning disabilities, including logistical difficulties in accessing learning facilities, inconsistent implementation of screening and assessment processes, the lack of adequate funding for programs, and the lack of adequate support in learning institutions. It also makes recommendations aimed at helping the government effectively improve access to education for this community. 

SUHAKAM’s research utilizes the four-step OPERA Framework for uncovering patterns of socio-economic rights deprivation and linking these deprivations to weaknesses in design or implementation of government policies. The analysis builds on a series of workshops in which SUHAKAM’s staff was introduced to OPERA’s tools, including the identification of indicators and benchmarks, gathering primary and secondary data, and analyzing budgets. Researchers at SUHAKAM deployed OPERA to clearly articulate the government’s legal obligations and to examine the current challenges that exist in realizing the right to education for children with learning disabilities. The project was spurred by concerns that a large number of children with learning disabilities appear to be excluded from primary education, while little accurate data is readily available in this regard.

A recurrent theme in the report is the need for the government to gather and make available accurate disaggregated data on children with learning disabilities, along with related budgetary information. The report therefore recommends that the government collect such data and statistics on access to education among children with learning disabilities, at both the primary and secondary levels, and that the collection of this data be systematized and shared among all relevant government agencies.

Having already presented their findings to the Ministry of Education – which has recognized the validity of the concerns raised – SUHAKAM is now planning follow-up discussions to monitor progress in addressing them. The report will also be presented to the National Council for Persons with Disabilities, with a view to garnering its support, and there are plans for further school visits around the country in 2017.

  • To learn more about CESR's partnership with the APF, see here.
  • To learn more about our work with National Human Rights Institutions, see here.
  • To learn about CESR's monitoring work and the OPERA Framework, see here.

Posted by Holly Stubbs on January 15th, 2016

This Human Rights Day, it's time multinationals pay their fair share

By Niko Lusiani, Director of CESR's Human Rights in Economic Policy Program

Not so long ago, speaking of tax as a matter of human rights would lead to, at best, strained looks, and at worst, outright antagonism.

Soaring levels of inequality have become one of
the defining social ills of modern times.
Yet today, on Human Rights Day 2015, the tax justice and human rights movements are more in sync than ever before in the fight to ensure sufficient, equitable and accountable resource mobilization for human dignity and a zero-carbon future. This week all over Latin America and the Caribbean, advocates have come together to reclaim and promote tax and climate justice.

Almost every day, news reports emerge which show how corporate tax avoidance and evasion deprive countries around the world of billions of dollars in public revenue – money that could have been used to fund quality health and education for all, or for the public investments necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. While all of us are affected, developing countries are the ones paying the highest burden for these harmful practices. But this loss of precious financing is not just a threat to governments’ starving revenue base, but also undercuts their redistributive capacities to reverse growing economic and gender inequalities. Corporate tax abuses also deepen mistrust in how fiscal policy is governed and thus how effective it can be, especially for the most disadvantaged. And crucially, these abuses limit governments’ ability to regulate companies for their environmental and climate impacts.

On this Human Rights Day, the interwoven challenges of climate change and deepening economic inequality are two of the most important threats to human rights in the 21st century. It is no coincidence that the industries serving the wealthiest sectors of the wealthiest economies bear the lion’s share of responsibility for carbon emissions today. Over 50% of the world's carbon emissions come from the wealthiest 10% of the global population, and just 90 multinational companies reportedly caused two-thirds of the world’s carbon emissions. The average carbon footprint of the richest 1% of people globally could be as much as 175 times that of the poorest 10%. Meanwhile, deepening economic inequalities within and between countries disproportionately expose the poor and most disadvantaged to the harmful effects of climate change, even though the poorest half of the global population – around 3.5 billion people – are responsible for only 10% of total global emissions attributed to individual consumption.

Fair taxation – especially fair corporate taxation – is a key element in addressing both human rights threats. Perhaps more important than any other social responsibility a company bears is its duty to pay its fair share of taxes. Yet, many multinational companies continue to profit from astounding levels of tax abuse. Between 2004 and 2013, $6.5 trillion of illicit flows stemmed from company trade fraud. In parallel, developing countries are estimated to lose $212 billion per year in direct revenue from various cross-border tax avoidance techniques.

How has this occurred? A large industry of facilitators – tax lawyers, accountants and auditing firms – has emerged over recent decades enabling multinationals to shield themselves from their national tax liabilities, out-compete domestic companies and operate where there might not otherwise be a feasible business model.

So what can be done? In simple terms, governments should ensure corporate tax practices respect human rights law. Indeed, high-profile UN officials and bar associations are increasingly invoking human rights norms and principles to challenge unjust tax policy, and company tax abuse in particular. The measures governments should take are manifold – from tax transparency to stronger enforcement against tax crimes. Most importantly, perhaps, is to confront the enabling conditions of corporate tax abuse. Among the most important external factors is the availability of offshore financial secrecy – both in traditional tax havens but also in countries like the United States. Some modest proposals for how human rights law should be adhered to in these financially secretive countries are listed here:

First, countries are obliged to respect human rights that may be put at risk due to corporate tax abuse. This would imply that those countries:
i. Implement corporate tax and financial transparency, including public registries of ultimate beneficial ownership, country-by-country reporting, and automatic exchange of tax information;

ii. Conduct systematic human rights impact assessments to monitor the spillover effects of their tax policies and agreements overseas, as the Netherlands and Ireland have already done. These should be periodic and independently-verified, with public participation in defining the risks and potential extraterritorial impacts. These impact assessments should analyze not only the revenue implications, but also the distributive and governance spillover effects of a country’s tax regime abroad.

iii. Address any harm found. If and when the main problems are identified, these impact assessments should trigger legal and policy action by including explicit recommendations for responsible parties, and clear deadlines for remedies and redress of any negative impacts discovered.

iv. Put in place robust whistleblower protections to ensure that individuals who want to share information about corporate tax practices which harm human rights are allowed to do so free of fear or recrimination.

Second, countries have a legal duty to protect against human rights harms stemming from corporate tax abuse. This would imply that, at a minimum, they mandate integrated reporting guidelines for large companies, including due diligence requirements on the human rights risks of their tax and financial arrangements. These due diligence requirements should include the users, but also the market makers and suppliers of tax abuse schemes (tax lawyers, accountants, financial intermediaries). This would simultaneously provide greater transparency and access to information for tax authorities to better do their jobs. These requirements could be streamlined into governments’ national action plans on business and human rights.

In a fairer world, companies should compete in the global economy on the merit of their innovation, product quality and ability to improve people’s lives, rather than on the ingenuity of their tax attorneys, the opacity of their financial intermediaries, and the impunity afforded them by their governments.

  • To learn more about CESR's work on human rights in tax policy, click here.
  • For updates on events taking place across Latin America and beyond as part of the tax justice campaign, click here. You can also follow the action on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #paguenlojusto.

Posted by Niko Lusiani on December 11th, 2015

Big business and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda

This post is based on a presentation given by Kate Donald, CESR’s Director of Human Rights in Development, at the UN Business and Human Rights Forum in November 2015.

A tax justice activist in Senegal calls on multinationals to
pay their share. Photo: Global Alliance for Tax Justice
The build-up to the agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was characterized by enthusiastic engagement with the private sector by member states and to some extent, the UN. In many of the discussions and negotiations, the private sector was recast as an agent of development and a white knight financier.

This uncritical stance generated much concern from many of the civil society organizations involved, including the Human Rights Caucus.  This concern arose from experiences of seeing first-hand the negative, sometimes devastating, impacts that some private sector projects can have on human rights and the environment.

Overall, it is fair to say that from a human rights perspective the SDGs are a big step forward from the MDGs. As we’ve written before, however, there are two big elephants in the room: financing and accountability. And both of these have major implications for the role of the private sector.

Regarding the former, there is general agreement that the SDGs cannot be financed through a business-as-usual approach. Current financing flows, economic policies/systems and business behaviors simply will not suffice. We are seeing a prevailing shift in focus away from aid, towards the idea of funding development through ‘domestic resource mobilization’. This is probably a good thing, particularly when one considers a country’s sovereignty over their own development choices, self-determination, and sustainability. However, it is crucial to recognize that poor countries are not trying to mobilize resources in a vacuum or on their own terms. Instead, they are operating in a global economic system in which their ability to raise resources domestically is constrained by the global economic environment, systems and rules. 

What does this mean for business, especially big corporations and multinationals (which are those primarily being envisaged as sustainable development partners)? There is a lot of talk about how business can best contribute to the new goals and sustainable development generally. While tools like sustainability strategies, impact assessments and environmental reporting can certainly be useful, by far the most powerful tool businesses have at their disposal is a relatively simple one – to pay their taxes! Corporate tax avoidance costs developing countries many billions per year, more than they receive in aid. Meanwhile, tax revenues are crucial to realize a range of rights and finance sustainable development. So, if multinational corporations really want to contribute responsibly to SDG achievement, the best approach would be for them to curtail practices like shifting profits to tax havens and lobbying for tax incentives, particularly in low-income countries that badly need revenue. This should be understood as a core part of a company’s responsibility to respect human rights, as set out in the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The second elephant in the room is accountability. Despite the fact that lack of accountability was acknowledged as a major reason for the shortfalls of the MDGs, this is a glaring weak spot in the SDGs also. The monitoring and review framework currently envisaged is vague and voluntary – and this shortfall extends also to the role of corporations. There is no real provision for monitoring, review or accountability of corporate sector activity, despite the fact that they are foreseen as playing a major role in delivery.

Civil society groups consistently argued that (as per the obligations of the state to protect from and provide remedy for human rights violations related to corporate activity) safeguards and accountability for private sector involvement in the SDGs must be built in. This is particularly important in the context of growing enthusiasm for public-private partnerships (PPPs) and privatization (despite the often concerning human rights and economic evidence against both). The Human Rights Caucus and other civil society groups argued for measures such as careful regulation and safeguards on corporate activity; ex-ante assessments of the suitability of private sector actors as partners in sustainable development initiatives, based on their compliance with human rights and environmental standards; and due diligence and impact assessments. Crucially, these must extend extra-territorially, in accordance with states’ obligations to protect human rights abroad from negative impacts of corporations headquartered in their territory.

However, in the final agreement (and in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda) there is a minor reference to the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, but nothing else to address these concerns. So what hope is there now? At this point, it is really up to states to integrate such safeguards and corporate accountability mechanisms within their national plans and processes. Pressure from civil society (and hopefully, encouragement from the UN) will of course be a necessary precondition. Much of the most important monitoring and review work will take place at the national level, so for example, the domestic processes and mechanisms set up to review national SDG progress should also include assessments of the impact and effectiveness of PPPs. Countries should also integrate their National Action Plans on business and human rights with the SDG process.

Another potentially important way to integrate corporate accountability into the SDGs is to ensure critical measures of corporate activity/contribution are included in the indicators which will measure progress towards the targets. However, the current draft global indicator framework is almost entirely lacking in any indicators of the private sector’s impact. Indeed, under target 17.17 (‘Encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships’) the only indicator currently agreed is on the amount of US$ committed to public-private partnerships, seemingly based on the uncritical assumption that PPPs are an unalloyed good and can stand in as a proxy for all other types of partnerships.

In conclusion, it is crucial that all types of institutions – NGOs, governments, the UN - stop working in silos when it comes to the SDGs. This applies to companies also. For those corporations looking to play a positive role in sustainable development, it’s not enough just to say they are providing jobs, and therefore contributing to development. Firstly, it is necessary to ask whether these jobs represent decent work and whether they pay at least a living wage. Companies also need to look at their impact across their operations and departments. For example, what about their tax liabilities and contributions? What about their family leave policies? Goal 5 on gender includes a target on addressing women’s unequal share of unpaid care work; here employers can clearly play a very important role in progress, in providing their employees with adequate, paid maternity and family leave (for both parents).

At the same time, states need to seriously and critically examine when and where (and what kind of) private sector involvement can be truly beneficial to sustainable development and human rights enjoyment.

Posted by Kate Donald on December 8th, 2015

Falling at the last hurdle? Human rights and accountability in the Sustainable Development Goals

By Kate Donald, Director of CESR's Human Rights in Development program

With talks over the post-2015 framework now entering the final
strait, greater ambition is needed to achieve a transformative agenda
The post-2015 negotiations have finally moved into the endgame, with the release in early June of the ‘zero draft’ outcome document. This is the co-facilitators’ first attempt at the final package that will be adopted by world leaders at the UN Summit in September. It will consist of four components: a Declaration, the Sustainable Development Goals and their accompanying targets, a description of the Means of Implementation for the goals, and an outline for how States will ‘Follow-up and Review’ progress towards the goals.

Among the members of the Post-2015 Human Rights Caucus, there is striking consensus on the basic elements of the zero draft that should be strengthened:

  1. Stronger human rights language in the Declaration

    Happily, there is some eloquent human rights language in the draft Declaration text.  However, human rights are deployed mostly as a rhetorical flourish rather than being framed as legally binding commitments and standards which should guide the implementation of the agenda. The Millennium Declaration provides a good model in this regard, and it would be sad indeed to see a political declaration on development in 2015 backsliding from the words used in 2000.

  2. Rule out discrimination on any ground

    The zero draft states that the agenda will work to ensure that rights are “enjoyed by all without discrimination on grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, culture, migratory status, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic situation, birth or disability.” This ‘closed’ list is not consistent with agreed language on discrimination in human rights standards and elsewhere, and indeed is even less comprehensive than the language in the Open Working Group outcome document. For example, discrimination on grounds of age, sexual orientation and gender identity are conspicuously excluded in this formulation, despite the visibility civil society groups have given these issues in the post-2015 context. Discrimination on any ground is unacceptable, and the post-2015 Declaration must recognize this by naming other relevant grounds of discrimination (at the least, reverting to the list used by the Open Working Group which is more comprehensive despite important deficiencies) and ensuring that the list is ‘open’ - ending with the words ‘or other status’.

  3. A robust framework for accountability in the ‘follow-up and review’ section

    Civil society has been consistent in demanding that a meaningful and participatory monitoring and accountability architecture is an essential component of the post-2015 agenda, necessary for more effective and empowering implementation that can truly ‘leave no one behind’. Unfortunately, the zero draft does not deliver a clear or ambitious vision on this front. CESR and many other members of the Human Rights Caucus and civil society have responded with calls for:
(a) Corporate accountability: the role of the private sector in financing the agenda is uncritically endorsed in the zero draft, but with no reference to any regulation, monitoring or accountability as to the impacts of their actions and activities.

(b) Recognition of the role of human rights mechanisms: although the zero draft does flag the need for utilizing existing monitoring platforms and processes at the national and international levels, the potentially powerful roles of National Human Rights Institutions, regional human rights bodies and the international human rights mechanisms (such as the UPR and the ‘treaty bodies’ that monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties) are not mentioned.

(c) Fleshing out the guiding principles: the ‘principles’ outlined to guide the follow-up and review don’t set a high bar. Important principles like universality and transparency get very short shrift, and adjectives like ‘participatory’ and ‘inclusive’ are used without any real definition or standard. Here, human rights principles and standards will be crucial – for example, national level reviews are very unlikely to be ‘robust’ or ‘inclusive’ if the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and association are not upheld. Even something that has seemed like a fairly basic and non-controversial demand - official channels for civil society ‘shadow’ or alternative reports (at national and international levels) -  is only tentatively suggested.
Unfortunately, the negotiations last week demonstrated very little appetite for improving the draft along these lines. Although several Member States spoke favourably about retaining or strengthening the human rights references, the African Group criticized the ‘disproportionate emphasis’ on human rights in the current draft, insisting that human rights have their own pillar at the UN and therefore should not be mixed up in a sustainable development agenda. After several decades of human rights ‘mainstreaming’ and the human rights-based approach to development, it is profoundly troubling that we still hear these kinds of statements in the halls of the UN.

As for follow-up and review, a majority of Member States insisted that the zero draft was ‘too prescriptive’, which is perplexing given the draft only rather vaguely outlines a review architecture that would likely fall far short of what is required. (By way of example, it includes only two sentences on national review, hedged with phrases like ‘we encourage’ and ‘Member States could…’.) Frustratingly, the aversion to anything concrete seems partially designed to kick the can down the road indefinitely. If the September outcome doesn’t include a clear vision as to the who, where, what and how of post-2015 monitoring and review, it is difficult to understand where and by who these decisions will be made – especially given that several states objected to the co-facilitators’ idea of asking the UN Secretary-General to provide guidelines. They insisted it should be a decision taken in the intergovernmental space, while failing to use the intergovernmental space provided to them to agree or propose anything clear or workable.

The 2015 High Level Political Forum is now underway at the UN, which from next year onwards is envisaged as the ‘apex’ of the SDG monitoring and review system. It seems unlikely to be able to fulfil such a role in a meaningful way unless real political will and resources are devoted towards that end. Certainly, the HLPF ‘roundtables’ this week don’t offer much promise of reaching decision on a clearer mandate and working method.

The UN, its Member States and civil society have expended unprecedented energy and resources on shaping and deciding this agenda. We must fervently hope that the lack of ambition and political will around review and monitoring signals only a failure of imagination rather than a corresponding (mal)intention to simply neglect the goals and targets as aspirational but ultimately meaningless words on paper. Nevertheless, the lack of robust monitoring and clear lines of accountability will inevitably weaken the efficacy and equity of implementation. For those Member States who want to listen and want to avoid this profoundly wasteful outcome, there are plenty of imaginative, constructive proposals out there for them to be inspired by.
  • To learn more about CESR's work on the Sustainable Development Goals, click here.

Posted by Kate Donald on July 2nd, 2015

Human rights in the global partnership for sustainable development: 7 misconceptions

In 2012, governments agreed at the Rio+20 conference that all decisions on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda would be both consistent with international law and respect the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) and respective capabilities. The zero draft of post-2015 agreement, as well as the Open Working Group’s outcomes which preceded it, reiterate their grounding in the UN Charter with full respect for international law, including (implicitly at least) international human rights law. In the latest iteration of the Addis Ababa Accord on financing for development (FfD), meanwhile, governments unambiguously commit to respect all human rights, including the right to development.

Maria Kiwanuka, Minister of Finance, Planning and Development
of Uganda, addresses the General Assembly debate on Implementation
of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Photo: UN Photo/Loey Felipe
Are these any more than amorphous and un-actionable commitments to abstract global ideals? What might it mean in practice for governments around the world to fully respect international human rights law in sustainable development? Considering our fundamentally interdependent world with vast disparities in power, what does international law stipulate with regard to the tricky business of delineating common but differentiated responsibilities to particular actors for the means of implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals?

This is precisely the question the Center for Economic and Social Rights, in partnership with the Third World Network, attempted to answer in our recent publication, “Universal Rights, Differentiated Responsibilities: Safeguarding human rights beyond borders to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”. International law—anchored in the UN Charter and various international human rights treaties and jurisprudence—affirms that states have certain human rights duties that extend beyond their own territory.

Though rarely invoked in post-2015 and Financing for Development debates, these ‘extraterritorial’ human rights obligations can shed useful light on current discussions around international cooperation and financing. They provide normative grounding for the commitment to ‘policy coherence’ under SDG 17 on the global partnership for sustainable development,  while buttressing the principle of CBDR, reaffirmed since the 1992 yet still so hotly contested by some powerful states in the context of the ongoing post-2015 and financing negotiations.

In our discussions with negotiators and UN agencies, seven common misconceptions tend to cloud the debate about upholding these standing extraterritorial human rights obligations (ETOs) in development practice, thus detracting from the immense potential of invoking these legal standards in this new era of a universal sustainable development agenda.

Misconception 1: Human rights duties are just one among many sets of international legal obligations, and therefore must adjust to the reality of a new economic and geopolitical order.

In point of fact, governments’ obligations under the UN Charter—including those relating to human rights—enjoy primacy over other subsequent international instruments, including bilateral and multilateral trade, investment, double-taxation or other development agreements. Whenever these international economic agreements conflict with states’ pre-existing duties under the UN Charter and international human rights treaties, these economic development agreements must be brought into harmony with human rights, not vice-versa.

Misconception 2: Human rights norms are merely an instrument of aid conditionality, limiting the policy space of poorer countries to meet their legitimate development needs.

Universality cannot mean conditionality. Governments are not permitted under the UN Charter and international law to invoke their extraterritorial obligations to justify undermining the policy space needed by other states to fulfill their domestic human rights commitments. Instead, upholding one’s extraterritorial obligations under international law first and foremost implies assessing and addressing the impacts of the most powerful states and transnational private actors in either constraining or enabling sustainable development. Wealthier and more influential governments, in other words, will have to ensure first and foremost full policy coherence with sustainable development, turning the stale dynamic of North-South conditionality on its head.

Misconception 3: Invoking extraterritorial obligations is a simple ruse to pass the blame to rich countries for what are domestic deficiencies.

Human rights obligations of a domestic and extraterritorial nature are concurrent, not mutually-exclusive, duties. That is, extraterritorial human rights obligations in no way negate state sovereignty or domestic human rights duties, especially in the national implementation of sustainable development plans. States are not permitted, in other words, to invoke the transboundary actions of other states to “pass the blame” and therefore evade their own domestic duties.

Misconception 4: This ETO talk is really just about tapping wealthy countries  for more aid.

International human rights law includes a duty of international cooperation and assistance, of which providing financial development assistance is of course a major component. However, the duty is far broader in nature than just supplying aid. It implies an obligation to avoid undermining or nullifying human rights in other countries, and to contribute to an international enabling environment for the full realization of human rights. This duty increases proportionally with the capacity, resources and influence of the state in question. Giving discretionary development assistance, in other words, does not let governments off the hook.  Charity cannot offset other actions—such as facilitating egregious tax practices which strip poor governments of development capacity—which undermine human rights overseas.

Misconception 5: Human rights duties don’t apply to decisions governments take within bilateral agreements nor international financial institutions.

Governments can also erode human rights overseas through their bilateral and multilateral conduct, in particular within international and regional institutions. ETOs remain binding no matter how collective a harmful decision may be. While the attribution of state responsibility may be more directly and comprehensively asserted for domestic actions which undermine human rights, states carry their human rights duties into their decision-making conduct within bilateral agreements and international institutions. State responsibility for any human rights harm resulting from multilateral conduct will be by definition shared, yet attributed and delineated based on each government’s respective influence or effective control. In this sense, all governments, but especially those with most influence, must do all they can to ensure international institutions act in consistency with human rights.

Misconception 6: The UN Charter and international human rights law are ill-equipped to address the challenges posed by the enormous influence of transnational business entities.

International law is a thoroughly state-based order. Many decry this as an outdated historic relic of the post-World War II period, in contrast to the power and reach of the market in the 21st century political economy. Yet, the centrality international human rights law gives to states as the primary duty-holder is in useful recognition of the essential role governments must have in driving sustainable development, correcting market failures and protecting human rights and the public good against private interests. Indeed, one of the fundamental duties of government – as reaffirmed in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – is to protect people’s human rights against business-related abuses, including those which occur under the banner of ‘sustainable development’ in name only.

Misconception 7: Sustainable development should be about action, not about blaming others. Addressing ETOs is polarizing and will inevitably lead to development paralysis.

Finally, assessing the responsibilities of different development actors over the enjoyment of human rights extraterritorially is not about assigning blame, but instead accounting for the far-ranging and sometimes inadvertent real-world effects of government conduct outside of its borders. Without a sober and evidence-based assessment of the external obstacles countries face, and who is responsible for them, solutions can be only piecemeal and discordant at best.

The Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, said way back in 1930, “Every reality unknown prepares its own revenge.” Whatever post-2015 and FfD monitoring and review mechanisms are put into place, it is essential that governments conduct independent assessments of the impact their laws, policies and practices have on the achievement of sustainable development and human rights in other countries. Our briefing illustrates various examples of governments conducting such extraterritorial impact assessments of complex areas such as tax policy. These should be an essential part of ensuring policy coherence in sustainable development.

Remaining knowingly blind to the spillover effects powerful countries have on sustainable development may well undercut the very object and purpose of the post-2015 agenda.

Posted by Niko Lusiani on June 25th, 2015

Breaking the accountability taboo in sustainable development negotiations

Kate Donald, Director of CESR's Human Rights in Development program, reflects on recent dynamics in the post-2015 talks.

Member states gathered at the UN from 18-22 May to discuss how they would ’follow-up and review’ progress once implementation of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda begins. For CESR and many others, accountability for the post-2015 commitments has become a core priority, given the stark failures of accountability in the context of the MDGs. As a result, civil society was out in force at the negotiations, keeping pressure on states to agree a monitoring and review architecture that can contribute to more effective, empowering and rights-realizing implementation.

The context is a challenging one, where even the word ‘accountability’ has become controversial.  After the co-facilitators queried which terminology to use during the negotiations, the G77 + China group declared that there was no place for ‘monitoring and accountability’ in the post-2015 context, preferring the more anodyne ‘follow-up and review’. However, this does not seem to be a uniform position; some  G77 countries did in fact use the taboo ‘A word’ in their public and private remarks.  For many, the fear of ‘accountability’ stems not from dislike of the concept of people-state accountability per se, but rather state-to-state accountability; the idea that the new goals could provide an excuse for new avenues of conditionality and paternalistic finger-wagging from rich countries. (For CESR, real accountability should mean nothing of the sort, and indeed we see the post-2015 goals as an opportunity for greater accountability for the role of the developed countries in constraining or enabling sustainable development internationally.) For the EU countries and their allies, ‘monitoring and accountability’ seems to roll off the tongue more comfortably, but their stance is, likewise, far from consistent. In the negotiations building up to the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa in July, the EU and other rich countries are firmly resisting moves to create an autonomous body to strengthen follow-up to the FFD measures.

Much of the discussion focused on what kind of process or mechanism would be put in place at the High Level Political Forum to monitor progress at the global level. Various civil society voices (including CESR, Save the Children and the Women’s Major Group) and a number of states urged consideration of a robust peer review process, but on the whole the appetite for anything more than rudimentary was lacking.  Instead, states spent a lot of time warning against anything ‘punitive’ or ‘finger-pointing’, and urging a ‘lean not mean’ approach.

Certainly, we need a constructive review process based on collaboration, rather than conditionality or naming-and-shaming; but a process which simply allows states to present reports and little more – without sharing setbacks or allowing for alternative or ‘shadow’ reports – will fall woefully short.  To ensure the credibility, ownership and effectiveness of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, it would be much more worthwhile to commit a little more time and resources - and a lot more political will - to an honest and holistic global monitoring and review process.

The need to use existing monitoring platforms and mechanisms was also a common refrain, and to this end the UN Secretariat put together an overview (which rightly includes the human rights mechanisms, albeit not consistently across all the goals where their recommendations and findings would apply). Making good use of existing thematic mechanisms such as the human rights treaty bodies and the Committee on World Food Security makes good sense in weaving a web of accountability for post-2015 development. However, these entities will need to be strengthened and given the requisite capacity, and in order to avoid MDG-style silos it will  be essential to ensure integration and coherence, including through a systematic flow of information between these bodies and the SDG-specific processes.

At the national level, it will also be important to find institutions and mechanisms that can play a ‘bridging role’ between different goal areas, policy spheres, departments and ministries – as well as people and governments. In this regard, the potential value of National Human Rights Institutions was highlighted, including at a side-event co-hosted by CESR, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Center for Reproductive Rights and Human Rights Watch.

Another key gap is the question of corporate accountability. The post-2015 and FFD negotiations are awash with uncritical assumptions about the benefits of private financing for sustainable development, without any reflection on how corporate activity – from resource extraction to tax evasion – can have severely detrimental human rights and environmental impacts. Many civil society groups are speaking up to challenge this misguided consensus, insisting that while the private sector may have an important role to play in sustainable development, there must be safeguards in place.

Speakers at a side-event on this topic discussed the dangers of privatizing public service delivery, drawing on examples from developed and developing countries in the water, health and education sectors, and presented some proposals to regulate corporate activity and increase accountability in the post-2015 context. These included excluding public-private partnerships (PPPs) from the delivery of essential public services, conducting spillover assessments and developing ex-ante criteria to determine the suitability of any specific private sector actor for partnership in pursuit of post-2015 goals. The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were also mentioned as an important normative source to be cited in the respective outcome documents, and to guide financing and implementation decisions at the national level. However, it remains to be seen how willing states are to explicitly put people’s rights before corporate profits, and to put meaningful regulation and safeguards in place to this end, especially given the proliferation of free-trade agreements and investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms.

More positively, during the debates all states did accept  - at least in principle - that the review processes and mechanisms at all levels must be participatory and inclusive of civil society and the most disadvantaged, marginalized people. The question is how far they will go in implementing these ideals. For an agenda with the imperative to ‘leave no one behind’ at its heart, it is unthinkable that the voices and experiences of the poorest and the most disadvantaged people might be excluded from monitoring and review platforms – which is exactly what will happen if proactive steps (including providing financial resources) are not taken to include them.

The fatal flaw running through development over the last few decades (and one of the main reasons we’ve seen many so-called development projects violating rather than realizing rights) has been the failure to prioritize and enable true participation, or to ensure that those who hold the power and purse-strings are held accountable. It would be a tragic waste if the SDGs were to repeat the same mistakes.

Posted by Kate Donald on June 2nd, 2015

'The global partnership for development': tackling the accountability deficit

By Kate Donald, Director of CESR's Human Rights in Development Program

In order for the post-2015 agenda to be rights-realizing and effective, it will need to include a meaningful recognition of globalization and the importance of global-level actions, governance, systems and institutions. The potential of actions or omissions in this arena to severely undermine efforts at national levels is just too stark. This is long overdue, given that the Millennium Declaration posited “the central challenge we face today is to ensure that globalization becomes a positive force for all the world’s people.”  

Unfortunately, since 2000 the ‘long crisis of globalization’ has only deepened, manifested in economic, social and ecological crises including financial shocks and austerity; deepening inequality; and rampant environmental degradation and climate change. All of these have had a severely detrimental effect on human rights enjoyment, with the poorest and most socially excluded people both within and across countries suffering most.

This week, Member States at the United Nations HQ in New York have been discussing how the post-2015 sustainable development agenda will be implemented and, in particular, financed. This is a very big question indeed, given that the SDGs are likely to require resources of over a trillion dollars per year. It is a divisive issue and the political crux of the entire post-2015 agenda: developing countries (134 of which form the ‘G77 plus China’ bloc) are unlikely to commit to implementation unless there are meaningful financial commitments on the table from the richer countries. The legacy of the Millennium Development Goals is in some ways a bitter one: low-income countries feeling that the MDGs left all the hard work to them, while the wealthy countries were not obliged to cut poverty in their own countries, nor were they held to their commitments to provide funds to the developing world and ensure a global policy environment conducive to development.

Universal rights, differentiated responsibilities

One of the main faultlines in the post-2015 and Financing for Development (FFD) processes is Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), first enshrined in the Rio Principles of 1992. Developed and developing countries disagree over how far CBDR applies, with the G77 seeing it as broadly relevant across the agenda, while the majority of ‘Global North’ countries argue it is a narrow concept that only relates to the environment and climate change mitigation. From a human rights perspective, it is clear that high- and low-income countries do have differentiated responsibilities when it comes to financing sustainable development.

All States – no matter what their GDP – have a common responsibility to allocate the maximum of their available resources to realizing the economic, social and cultural rights of people in their territory, and to do so without discrimination. However, rich countries have additional and special responsibilities for financing sustainable development beyond their borders, as part of their human rights obligation of international assistance and cooperation (enshrined in several major human rights treaties and the UN Charter).  In particular, extra-territorial human rights obligations can serve as a useful yardstick to assess whether governments are upholding their common but differentiated obligations across all sustainable development dimensions. (See CESR and Third World Network’s new briefing Universal Rights, Differentiated Responsibilities) This is a legal duty and also a moral one: not just because they have the means to help, but also because they have often arrived at this wealth by exploiting the resources of the poorer countries –including in the present day through exploitative and unfair international tax and trade rules. Every year developing countries lose many times more to illicit financial flows (most of which benefits individuals and corporations in the Global North with access to tax havens and expensive accountants) than they gain via aid (official development assistance). 

In order to make a new sustainable development agenda possible, rich countries will have to recognize their special and differentiated responsibility, by stepping up with concrete financial commitments. This starts with honouring longstanding pledges to dedicate at least 0.7% of GNI to ODA (which only a very few countries have so far done), in addition to dedicated climate finance. But there are many other measures they will have to take to gain the trust and partnership of the G77, as well as to meet the demands of civil society. These include commitments to fairer international tax rules, forgiveness of odious foreign debt, tackling illicit financial flows (for example by shutting down the tax havens they preside over), overhauling the trade and debt regimes, and reforming the undemocratic structures of global economic governance that profoundly disadvantage developing countries. Taken together, such measures could mobilize well over $1.5 trillion for sustainable development.

Accountability for the global partnership

It is not enough to merely make these pledges on paper. After all, the MDGs included provisions for ‘the global partnership for development’ (MDG8), but this languished neglected at the level of rhetoric - hamstrung in particular by lack of clear responsibility and accountability. We simply cannot afford another political commitment to ‘partnership’ between developed and developing countries that is more about window-dressing than real change.  In order to go beyond this, we must learn the lessons of the MDGs and put in place robust follow-up, monitoring and accountability for the ‘global partnership’, as an integral part of the post-2015 agenda and FFD commitments.

The first step towards such accountability will be measurable, time-bound commitments with clear lines of responsibility, which should be affirmed at both the July FFD conference in Addis Ababa and at the September Post-2015 Summit in September. But the second and likely even bigger challenge will be to create channels, mechanisms and forums to foster real accountability for those commitments.

Next month, States will discuss the ‘follow-up and review’ of the post-2015 agenda in New York. It is crucial that the monitoring mechanisms and accountability architecture decided have the mandate to cover the responsibility of donor countries under the global partnership (housed under Goal 17). In particular, the High-Level Political Forum should be given a meaningful role (and the necessary time and resources) to review the state of the global partnership at the international level, and to ask individual States to answer for their role in it. This would include not only the extent to which they are fulfilling their direct commitments to finance sustainable development overseas, but also the more indirect ways in which their policies and actions may be helping or hindering progress beyond their borders. One practical way in which States can take responsibility in this regard is to conduct ‘spillover assessments’ of the impact of their tax policies and agreements (for example with regard to corporate taxation) on the achievement of human rights and sustainable development goals in other countries. There is also a strong push now for an autonomous follow-up mechanism specifically for the Financing for Development process, which could be another important step towards cross-border accountability for sustainable development financing.

For both political and substantive reasons, the ‘global partnership’ between countries to finance and implement sustainable development is arguably the most important piece of the post-2015 puzzle. If we don’t want to waste this opportunity, we must concentrate not only on securing clear, concrete financing commitments, but also focus strenuous efforts on ensuring multiple channels for meaningful monitoring of these promises. The only ‘partnership’ worth having is one that is transparent, equitable, and accountable to those it purports to serve – otherwise it is not a partnership at all.

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Posted by Kate Donald on April 23rd, 2015

Spain reverses course and partially restores undocumented migrants’ access to health services

Gaby Oré Aguilar is Deputy Executive Director at CESR

Three years ago, in April 2012, the Spanish government issued Royal Decree 16/2012, declaring the need to adopt “urgent measures to guarantee the sustainability of the national health system.” This effectively put an end to the universality of health service provision that this country had previously enjoyed. One of the principle measures contained in this decree was the suspension of all health services to undocumented migrants living in the country, with the exception of emergency services for children and pregnant women.

As a consequence of this decision, the government revoked health cards – the documents that ensure access to public health services in Spain – for more than 870,000 people, thereby excluding them from access to health services and medications, including treatments for serious and infectious diseases.

“We are willing to take a step”

Yesterday Spain’s Ministry of Health announced in an interview with a news agency that undocumented migrants in the country would once again be provided primary health care by the National Health System (SNS), but it also announced that the health cards revoked in 2012 would not be restored. As such, universal access to health care has not been restored. Moreover, it affirmed that the decision was a response to “matters of public health”, to “not saturate emergency rooms” and because “it’s more practical”.

The reluctant tone of the announcement and the restrictions expressed by the Ministry have provoked skepticism, particularly among organizations working for the protection of migrants’ health, associations that protect public health services, and unions, which have highlighted the insufficiency and opportunism of the move.

The measure is a step in the right direction and, for many undocumented migrants; it represents a potentially life-saving opening to access health services, but without health cards, access to specialized treatments, medications, nor any guarantee of continuity. As such, restoration of the right to health of this sector remains a pending task in Spain.

As has been affirmed by Red ACOGE, “the right to health care is still not guaranteed in Spain.” Médicos del Mundo has meanwhile stated that “this measure in no way represents the restitution of the universal model of our health system, nor does it restore the rights which were eliminated by RDL 16/2012”.

Furthermore, the Spanish government has not explained why the exclusion of undocumented migrants was deemed both urgent and necessary for the sustainability of the national health system, nor indeed why it is now prepared to backtrack for reasons that have little to do with the motives of austerity and economics that were previously cited.

National and international pressure

The Spanish government’s u-turn has not come about by chance. It has found itself obliged to give in – albeit in a partial manner – as a result of two preponderant factors: the sustained and growing pressure, at both the national and international levels, about the discriminatory and regressive character of the measure; and the current pre-electoral political context in Spain. The opposition and new political actors which have emerged from the popular discontent generated by austerity measures, have made it clear that they will include the restoration of universal health in their electoral agendas.

The adoption of RDL 16/2012 by the Spanish government has been repeatedly and severely criticized by various United Nations bodies, such as the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts; by the European Committee on Social Rights, and most recently by more than a dozen countries participating in the Human Rights Council. These voices have repeatedly denounced the discriminatory and regressive character of the health exclusion of undocumented migrants as a violation of international human rights law.

Since 2012, the Center for Economic and Social Rights has worked together with a broad coalition of organizations to generate the evidence and arguments necessary to provoke recommendations and directives from international human rights mechanisms regarding the negative impacts of austerity policies in the country. Similarly, it joined the efforts of its national partners – Médicos del Mundo, Red ACOGE and Amnesty International – to denounce the exclusion from health services of one of the most vulnerable and hardest hit sectors in the context of the economic crisis. The joint campaigns and advocacy actions of these organizations have placed these concerns firmly on the political and media agendas, and more recently on the electoral agendas of the political parties.

RDL 16/2012 has also been brought before the courts. Various autonomous communities – the Basque Country, Navarra, Asturias and Andalucía – have considered that this law violated the Spanish Constitution, that it invaded their territorial competency, that it was not justified as an emergency measure, and consequently filed complaints in opposition to the decree. These complaints are now pending a ruling by the Constitutional Court.

Recently, Red ACOGE and CESR presented a demand against a Ministerial Order issued by the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality (SSI/Orden 1475/ 2014) which establishes fees and requirements for persons excluded from the public health system by Royal Decree 16 to buy alternative health insurance giving them access to basic care through “special agreements” with the health administration. The petition argues that said norm was unconstitutional, in the same way as the Royal Decree from which it is derived (RDL 16/2012). The fees established by the norm are comparable to those of private health insurance. The government did not take into account the impact that the charges would have on the population at which it was targeted. Moreover, the norm introduces tougher access requirements than the law which created these “special agreements”. The National Court admitted the claim, which is now pending resolution before the same body.

What remains to be done

Access to universal health care is a human right that must be restored in Spain. This means providing health cards to those from whom they were revoked in 2012, in order that they have access to health services whether these be primary or specialized. From a legal standpoint, it means repealing or modifying Article 3 of Royal Decree 16/2012 which divides the population among insured and beneficiaries, and excludes undocumented migrants from accessing health services. The government, through its spokesperson in the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality Alfonso Alonso, has not shown any inclination to implement any of these steps.

On the contrary, in announcing the restoration of primary health care services for undocumented migrants the Minister has declared himself to “be opposed” to undocumented migrants having access to health cards, saying that this would give them a right that “no other country in Europe” provides. 

The Minister overlooks the principle of universality contained in the European Charter of Social Rights, which obliges member states to provide access to health care to the entire population without discrimination and independently of their administrative status. The European Committee on Social Rights reminded Spain in 2014 that RDL 16/2012 transgressed Article 11 of the Charter, to which the country is a signatory, indicating that said article obliges states to ensure universal access to health. That is to say, that the health system must be accessible to the entire population without discrimination of any form.

In the immediate term, it is important to make sure that the implementation of the restoration of primary health services is effective and compliant with the fundamental rights of this collective. In the medium and long term, CESR will continue working with its national partners for the restoration of the rights of universal access and health coverage in Spain.

Posted by Gaby Oré Aguilar on April 2nd, 2015

The ‘data revolution’: of the people, for the people?

Subjected to scrutiny, the data ‘revolution’ has always seemed more like savvy branding than an accurate description of any actual phenomenon. As one commentator has wryly observed, “the data revolution may be the first revolution in history not to feature any people”. Nevertheless, since being heralded in the report of the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, the idea of the data ‘revolution’ has been taken up with great enthusiasm. Recently, it was further enshrined and elucidated in the report of the UN Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) on the Data Revolution, ‘A World That Counts’.

If the ‘data revolution’ is to bring real social transformation
it must be empowering and accessible to all
CESR engaged with the IEAG’s report because we know that data -and the processes of collecting and using it - can have a wide range of human rights impacts; and that high-quality data can illuminate human rights problems (not least socio-economic inequalities) and help to identify potential policy solutions. Our interest as human rights advocates is that this so-called ‘revolution’ lives up to its name in terms of being empowering, bottom-up and accessible rather than yet another top-down technocratic development exercise – no matter how many colorful infographics and interactive crowd-sourced maps are produced.  Although data may seem by its very nature to be inhuman, in fact development data should be deeply human and humanizing. Not only does it provide and aggregate information about people, it should also be used for and by people to help them shift power imbalances, claim their rights and procure the services to which they are entitled to realize those rights.

Our experience of human rights monitoring has underlined the difficulties in assessing progress or backsliding in human rights enjoyment without the right kinds of data and information being collected and made available. This is a pressing challenge across many different contexts. In our work on tax and human rights for example, we share the frustration of many economists and tax justice campaigners at the dearth of accurate information on illicit financial flows, tax evasion, beneficial ownership and corporate tax incentives. We know that economic inequality is growing worldwide, but in fact the scale of this inequality is still underestimated, because much of the wealth of the top 1% is hidden. Similarly, although it is easy to observe that gender inequality is rife, we still lack good data illuminating how resources are shared within households, or how a nation’s tax burden is shared between women and men. Meanwhile, millions of people worldwide are absent from official records and from official accounts of progress (because they are marginalized or hard to reach), and are therefore denied their rights. This might not only lead us to underestimate these inequalities and their root causes, but also blind us to some potentially important policy solutions.

More positively, we felt it was important to share insights derived from our work on monitoring public policies from a rights perspective (for example in Guatemala).  Despite the challenges outlined above, in recent years CESR and other human rights advocates have developed creative methods for using available socio-economic data and applying it to human rights questions, while experiences of human rights monitoring show that it is possible to analyze progress in many areas of development traditionally thought of as unquantifiable, such as accountable governance.  

Despite the woefully inadequate time window for civil society consultation on the IEAG’s report, the exercise did demonstrate the importance of seeking this feedback, as the final report was a significant improvement on the draft. In particular, the final report addressed some of the concerns CESR and others expressed by exhibiting a greater sensitivity to and more nuanced understanding of human rights.  It acknowledges that “human rights cut across many issues relevant to the data revolution”. This was in contrast to the draft, which had a narrow vision of the relationship between rights and the data revolution in which the latter could negatively threaten the former - understood mostly as privacy rights. It also states that any institutions, mechanisms or partnerships set up to mobilize or regulate the data revolution must respect, protect and fulfill human rights.  In addition, the authors introduced the importance of supporting and investing in civil society’s ability to collect, use and analyze data; the need to prioritize gathering data on especially vulnerable and marginalized populations and on various grounds of discrimination and inequality; and the need for national statistical offices to be more transparent and establish more links with the public.

The report still has considerable weaknesses (see here for one analysis). From our perspective, the most pressing of these is the report’s complacent assumption that data will improve accountability (“data are… the raw material for accountability”), without exploring the necessary stepping stones. How will ordinary citizens use this data to seek progress, justice and redress? For example, accessible accountability mechanisms will need to be in place, and these mechanisms - such as courts and human rights bodies - need capacity-building to be able to use and analyze data more effectively. In addition, more robust language overall on government transparency – the State’s duty to actively provide all relevant information to its people, including on budgets, financial and tax policies – would have been welcome. Right to information laws don’t even get a mention.

The experience of the MDGs has taught us that what can be measured and quantified gets more political attention - and more funding.  High-quality accessible data – combined with important shifts in how we collect and use it - could certainly play a role in improving human rights enjoyment, empowerment and accountability. For instance, a meaningful commitment in the post-2015 sustainable development goals to tackle inequalities and leave no one behind, combined with data systems that can really pinpoint who is being excluded, and the extent and nature of their deprivation, could be a major step towards tackling these unacceptable disparities within and between countries . However, transformative change is still ultimately a question of political will and power. We must not be seduced by the idea that data is a quick fix to solve global poverty and inequality. This misconception may partly explain the enthusiasm for the ‘data revolution’ in policy and development circles – it gives us the false comfort that perhaps it is all about stats and numbers after all, rather than messy politics and real human beings in all their complexity. Data does not equal empowerment, and it does not inevitably result in accountability, as the report seems to suggest. No amount of data is going to overcome the thorny and very contextual development challenges we face, and it can certainly never be a substitute for really engaging with communities and ensuring they have the means to challenge development injustices.

Posted by Kate Donald on November 24th, 2014

SDGs merely dead letters without fiscal justice and human rights

We are at a crossroads in defining the future of sustainable development. Over the summer, UN member states hashed out some agreement on a proposed set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets, and simultaneously devised a ‘menu of options’ for financing these universal goals. The UN Secretary General’s office is at the grind now to synthesize these proposals and many more into a workable set of recommendations for what the post-2015 sustainable development framework could and should look like.

A sustainable development framework for the post-2015 era
will be agreed at the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly
As the post-2015 process now starts to harden and faultlines become more pronounced, experts and activists from the development, environmental and human rights communities are converging around a fairly straightforward argument. (The short list of recommended reading starts here: the UN Millennium Campaign Africa, Oxfam, Save the Children, Global Financial Integrity, Action Aid, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Christian Aid and my organization the Center for Economic and Social Rights, alongside a wide array of academics and other experts).

Unless governments agree to concrete tax and budgetary commitments which ensure robust, equitable and accountable fiscal foundations for sustainable development, the SDGs will end up merely dead letters.

Why is fiscal justice—that is, ensuring the sufficiency, equality and accountability of financing—so central to delivering sustainable development? Much more money will need to be mobilized for sustainable development—on the order of a trillion dollars a year. According to our recent findings, a range of complementary domestic and global fiscal commitments—from ending harmful corporate income tax exemptions, to boosting financial transparency to taxing illicit financial flows and carbon emissions to name just a few—can unleash at least US$1.5 trillion per year in additional, stable and predictable public funding to end poverty, inequality and environmental destruction.

Equality in the burdens and benefits of sustainable development financing within and between countries meanwhile is as important as the total amount raised. “Collecting taxes is not enough,” as the Head of the Uruguayan Tax Collection Agency recently said, “what matters is how and from whom.” Concrete post-2015 commitments to reduce economic inequality within countries through enhanced use of progressive taxation on income and wealth, while simultaneously augmenting investments in marginalized regions and amongst disadvantaged groups would provide a needed boost to reducing corrosive levels of socio-economic inequality in all countries.

Lastly, robust and truly equitable fiscal policy—as any government official or budget analyst would say—is inherently vulnerable to being undermined by politics. At the heart of many development financing challenges lie stark imbalances of (public and private) power in domestic and trans-national decision-making over how resources are raised and spent. Good intentions are not enough to push back against this potent driver of political and economic inequality. Ensuring poor and disadvantaged communities have the right to access timely, accessible and relevant fiscal information, enabling effective and meaningful participation in the design, implementation and monitoring of budget, tax and fiscal policy and ensuring effective remedy for fiscal harms is thus a third essential pre-condition for an effective sustainable development financing strategy.

The struggle for fiscal justice post-2015 won’t be easy, and will need all the help it can get. So, how might existing human rights standards and accountability mechanisms help overcome some of the obstacles to ensure robust, equitable and accountable fiscal foundations for sustainable development?

First, ensuring adequate public funding for sustainable development will require a step-change in international cooperation. While some of the proposed targets (say boosting the capacity of public revenue authorities) could be acted on by states individually, the grand majority of the actions needed to ensure sufficient resources for sustainable development will require concerted action by many governments North and South. Poor countries could commit to a universal domestic resource floor of 20% tax/GDP by 2020, for example, but this would be unachievable in most cases while the finances flowing in and out of their countries remain illicit, and the countries benefitting from the current system refuse to propose collective sanctions for private and public actors refusing to cooperate cross-border tax abuses, let alone conduct spillover analyses of the impact of their tax practices on sustainable development.

Despite varied attempts to obfuscate the facts, several human rights treaties do indeed require by law that governments cooperate internationally, commensurate with their capacities, resources and influence. These legal duties—founded in the UN Charter and other key sources of international law—imply that governments must collaborate with, and not undermine, other governments’ efforts to mobilize the maximum of available resources for human rights and sustainable development. Government laws and policies which have the effect of preventing other countries from resourcing rights in equitable ways (e.g. supporting cross-border tax evasion, improper regulation of abusive private financial actors, private creditors or other business enterprises, aid or trade conditionalities, and unjustifiable constraints on deficit financing) clearly work against the achievement of human rights and sustainable development goals. In this way, human rights can help recast the basic principles of the global tax regime away from tax competition and systemic regulatory arbitrage towards international cooperation and equality before the law.

A second key obstacle to ensuring the SDGs actually deliver fiscal justice, pointed out most recently by Alex Cobham, is the resistance from some quarters to including specific fiscal policy measures and national responsibilities as targets or indicators in themselves. National ownership of sustainable development is essential for legitimate and lasting progress. Yet, tackling global fiscal challenges will be impossible without making clear who should do what, and who will be ultimately accountable if global fiscal commitments (such as on “reducing illicit financial flows by x%’) are not achieved. Without including specific needed policy efforts (on beneficial ownership of companies, trusts and foundations; automatic tax information exchange; mandatory fiscal policy spillover analyses, to name a few), the outcome-oriented targets will remain nebulous, elusive and ultimately un-delivered. Human rights standards, in this context, impose obligations of conduct as well as of result. Governments in other words are accountable not only for the outcomes they achieve but for the policy efforts they make, supporting the case that the targets and indicators used to measure sustainable development, especially on fiscal policy—should be policy-sensitive as well as outcome-oriented.

Effective fiscal accountability remains another challenge which can be more fully addressed through recourse to human rights. While on the surface it might seem that the struggle over whether or not to include SDG targets on political participation, freedom of assembly, right to information and access to justice are far afield from financing development, these fundamental human rights lay at the very foundation of fair fiscal policy. Fiscal accountability—characterized by the right to access timely, accessible and relevant fiscal information, meaningful and organized participation in the design, implementation and monitoring of fiscal policy, and the provision of effective remedies for fiscal harms—is a key determinant in strengthening tax compliance and tax morale and essential to ultimately carrying through on promised development commitments. What’s more, it is a human rights imperative. As such, an array of human rights mechanisms—from constitutional courts to national human rights commissions to UN treaty bodies—are being increasingly invoked , particularly in the context of the economic crisis and austerity. These human rights bodies have a still-untapped potential to protect peoples’ fundamental rights to transparency, information, participation and accountability in fiscal policy decisions at all levels.

Lastly, framing fiscal justice as a human rights issue takes it beyond the elite technocratic sphere into the arena of legitimate public scrutiny, debate and mobilization around fundamental values of equality, solidarity and justice. This can help not only check the near-hegemonic influence of private interests over tax policy, but also broaden the platform to a broader range of social actors not yet engaged in tax advocacy, such as budget analysts, corporate accountability campaigners, social movements, litigators and academics. Sustained alliance-building will be required in the coming years to turn human rights principles into a coherent, universal and enforceable body of fiscal policy standards, respected in practice by governments, international institutions, multinational businesses and their advisers/financiers.

Financing sustainable development adequately, equitably and accountably remains a significant challenge which the UN post-2015 agenda and next year’s Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa is well-placed to address. Far from a political lightning rod, human rights standards and mechanisms can be dynamic tools in this struggle.

This article, originally written for the Righting Finance Initiative, was adapted from the author’s presentation at the event, “Human rights and tax policies in the post-2015 development agenda: Towards a transformative partnership?” on June 16th 2014 at UN Headquarters.

Posted by Niko Lusiani on September 10th, 2014

Human rights 'non-negotiable' on post-2015 agenda, says global civil society

Human rights continue to take centre stage at UN discussions over the future of global development. Thousands of civil society organizations from all over the world gathered for a major conference at the UN headquarters in New York have issued a strong call for human rights to be at the heart of the sustainable development agenda to be agreed next year.

Violet Shivutse of Groots, the Kenyan Grassroots Women's Movement,
addresses the event 'Human Rights: (Really) Leaving Noone Behind'
The NGO Conference hosted from 27 to 29 August by the UN Department of Public Information (DPI) and CIVICUS is a major civil society gathering aimed at contributing to the ongoing process to agree the new goals. The conference Outcome Declaration outlines the expectations of civil society worldwide for a truly transformative agenda that “ensures that sustainable human development aspirations are set in the context of existing human rights standards and norms.”

In light of the tense debates around human rights at the July session of the Open Working Group, which produced a draft of the Sustainable Development Goals for negotiation over the coming year, the NGO Declaration reaffirms that human rights cannot be compromised nor considered up for negotiation. “Our rights cannot be questioned, traded, or violated. Along with economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, any successor framework must include commitments to protect freedom of association, expression, assembly and political participation if it is to ensure an enabling environment for an empowered civil society.”

Reflecting inputs by CESR and other members of the Post-2015 Human Righs Caucus, the Declaration includes strong language on the need for rigorous monitoring and accountability arrangements, firmly rooted in human rights standards and mechanisms. Echoing the recommendations in a recent briefing by CESR and Christian Aid on the Post-2015 Fiscal Revolution, the Declaration stresses that these arrangements must address accountability for fiscal policy, including taxation, so as to ensure that sufficiency and equitable distribution of resources for development. In light of the SDG’s emphasis on development partnerships with the private sector, the Declaration calls for greater commitments to hold business more accountable through legislative, regulatory and mandatory impact assessments.

Anne Poorta (left) of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs
shares a lighter moment with CESR's Ignacio Saiz
At the conference, CESR’s Executive Director, Ignacio Saiz, moderated a roundtable on ‘Human Rights: (Really) Leaving No One Behind’, which assessed progress and challenges in integrating human rights and equality perspectives in the SDG process so far.  Speakers from the Kenyan grassroots women’s rights movement, the International Disability Alliance, the International Labor Organization, Lawyers with Borders, the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth and the Netherlands mission highlighted the need to ensure explicit inclusion and meaningful participation of groups facing poverty and discrimination in the SDG content and process, the importance of a holistic approach to human rights embracing social, economic, civil, political and environmental dimensions, and the need for advocates working on different dimensions of human rights to work in closer coordination. 

To this end, CESR has led the creation of a Human Rights Post-2015 Caucus as a space to share strategies, coordinate joint interventions and amplify the human rights voice in post-2015 debates.  Co-convened by CESR with Amnesty International and the Association for Women’s Rights in Development  (AWID), the Caucus has issued a ‘Human Rights Litmus Test’ to assess whether proposals for the SDGs meet the essential requirements of human rights standards and principles.

As the NGO conference declaration highlights, continued civil society engagement in the ongoing SDG negotiations and related processes is critical. Yet there are well-founded concerns that this will be contested and increasingly restricted at both the national and global levels. The strong affirmation at the DPI conference that human rights must be made central to the sustainable development agenda, and the increasingly coordinated efforts of human rights groups to bring about this goal, are important steps forward in ensuring that the gains made in the process so far are not compromised but built on in negotiations over the coming months.

Posted by Luke Holland on August 31st, 2014

Gaza's humanitarian crisis: what comes next?

“Nowhere in the world does humanitarian assistance alone make up for the denial of dignity and rights.” These words, spoken by the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), provoke deep reflection about how to grapple with the formidable challenges that will face Gaza in the coming months.

A group of Palestinian children searches among the rubble of their
home for whatever can be salvaged. Photo: Shareef Sarhan / UN Photo
The announcement of a long-term ceasefire on Monday draws to a close seven weeks of violence. Yet the staggeringly high cost of the war is just starting to become visible. Not only is the death toll – approximately 2,100 Palestinians and 71 Israelis - notably higher than previous military operations, the cumulative destruction of civilian infrastructure has been unprecedented. Much of the damage from previous operations in 2008/9 and 2012 remains unaddressed. On top of that, economic, social, and political conditions in Gaza before the recent military operation were at their worst in decades, a result of the blockade imposed by Israel since 2007 and the closure of tunnels by Egypt in the past year.

Gaza’s 1.8 million residents face conditions of destitution. Some 80% of them are refugees, half are under the age of 18 and 70% are women and children. Latest estimates indicate that 40% of the population is unemployed, 80% lives below the poverty line, 60% is food insecure, and four in five are dependent on aid.  In this context, the impact of the military operation on the economic and social rights of the people of Gaza has been truly devastating. Oxfam tweeted that the extent of destruction was the worst they’d seen in nearly 20 years of working in Gaza. A quick stocktaking confirms this:
  • Housing: an estimated 50,000 homes have been totally or partially destroyed, leaving at least 380,000 people displaced.
  • Water and sanitation: Gaza's sewerage treatment facility and power plant, as well as dozens of wells, pipelines, and reservoirs, have been damaged by bombing; some 15,000 tons of raw sewerage fills the streets and water pumping stations are on the verge of running out of fuel, creating the conditions for a major health crisis.
  • Health: with high civilian injuries, overcrowded hospitals are struggling to function without regular access to adequate amounts of fuel, medicines and medical supplies, as well as spare parts for medical equipment.
  • Work: roughly 250 factories have reportedly been rendered inoperable, leaving some 60,000 people out of work.
  • Education: 230 schools have been directly affected by shelling and are in need of repair. Further, as schools are providing refuge for the displaced, it impossible to imagine they will be able to open when the academic year begins in a few weeks time.   
Speculation about the scale of the reconstruction efforts needed in Gaza is already beginning. Palestinian officials estimate that rebuilding could cost $6 billion, while UNRWA has said it would take 15 years or more to rebuild if the current regime were not relaxed.  There have been talks of a donor conference being planned by Norway and Egypt for September. Although opinions about how to move forward will no doubt vary, there is a sense that returning to the way things were is now unacceptable.  Resolving the underlying issues at stake in Gaza is now more urgent than ever.

Complying with international human rights law is a starting point for this undertaking. As the process of repairing homes, schools, hospitals, electricity and water systems begins again—for the third time in six years—the people of Gaza will have particular needs which call for specific protection and assistance.

Ending the Blockade on Gaza

A crucial and immediate step will be the lifting of the seven-year blockade on Gaza. This policy has led to severe deterioration and retrogression in the realization of economic, social and cultural rights in the territory. The current ceasefire eases but not lifts Israeli restrictions on travel and trade, allowing construction materials and humanitarian aid to enter Gaza in large quantities for a major rebuilding effort, however.  

The socio-economic devastation caused by Israel’s blockade has been well documented.  For example, the most recent report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories notes the following: Curbing the availability of fuel at affordable prices in Gaza has led to severe power shortages, resulting in shutdowns of water and sanitation systems and disruptions to health services. Restricting access, often with excessive force, to areas of the sea and on land, has profoundly affected the lives of Palestinian fishermen and agricultural farmers and their households. Severe limitations on movement into and out of Gaza have had adverse impacts on the rights of Palestinians in Gaza to education, health and work. In addition, severe restrictions on exports and limitations on imports accentuate the impoverished conditions that prevail in Gaza.

Continuing the blockade after the end of Operation Protective Edge would cripple efforts to rebuild Gaza’s economy in the wake of this most recent round of violence, imprisoning its residents in perpetual aid dependency. Actively preventing reconstruction efforts—for example by preventing the entry of materials needed to rehabilitate hospitals or to repair Gaza’s only power plant—amounts to collective punishment in violation of both international human rights law and humanitarian law. It has been reported that donors, led by Norway, are making the relaxation of the blockade a condition of aid, which is an encouraging sign.

Protecting rights in relief and reconstruction

Of course, the Israeli Government isn’t the only actor with human rights obligations in this context. It is crucial that the human rights of the people of Gaza are respected by all competent authorities working in the territory, including the new national unity government, humanitarian agencies and NGOs, and international donors. If relief and reconstruction in Gaza is not based on  human rights, there is a risk that the focus will be too narrow and factors important for meaningful and sustainable recovery will be overlooked. Three key human rights principles are worth highlighting:

First, the principle of non-discrimination and equality must be upheld. In practice, this means that humanitarian action should be based on assessed need and provided to all persons affected without adverse distinction of any kind. Measures should also be taken to grant priority access to such vulnerable groups as minorities, single-headed households, older persons, people with disabilities, and separated children.

Second, the meaningful participation of rights holders must be ensured. For reasons of perceived efficiency, there can be a tendency to centralize decision-making in relief and reconstruction efforts. Those affected, and in particular those displaced, can find themselves excluded from decisions on matters central to their daily lives. Not including Gaza-based representatives in reconstruction planning has been a major error made by donors in the past.  

Third, transparency and accountability must be institutionalized in the reconstruction process. All relevant budgetary information should be public; so as to allow civil society and the independent human rights commission to monitor the reconstruction effort. Following Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9 , $14 billion in pledges were made. Yet the dire situation in Gaza today, in which infrastructure and people still suffer from the damage inflicted in previous military operations, raises questions as to what proportion of the funds was ever received, and how and where those resources were disbursed. In fact, to this day, there has been no comprehensive accounting of these funds, according to Omar Shaban of the independent Gaza-based think tank Palthink .

Ensuring accountability for violations of economic, social and cultural rights

In late July, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed Resolution S-21/1 establishing an independent commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of international humanitarian and human rights law associated with military operations conducted since 13 June 2014, particularly in Gaza. The recently appointed three-person panel will report to the Council in March 2015. The last such mission—led by Richard Goldstone in 2009—examined the violations of economic, social and cultural rights arising in the context of Operation Cast Lead.  The current commission of inquiry should also give due weight to these rights.

Just as important as the findings of the commission, will be the steps taken to act on them. The 2009 mission was “struck by the repeated comment of Palestinian victims, human rights defenders, civil society interlocutors and officials that they hoped that this would be the last investigative mission of its kind, because action for justice would follow from it”. One of the report’s conclusions is that failures of accountability reinforce impunity. Its calls for credible, independent investigations into the violations documented were never implemented.

A reconstruction approach that respects, protects and fulfills the rights of those affected by the military operation can help to create the conditions needed for brokering a sustainable solution to the ongoing conflict and securing a life in peace and dignity for the Palestinian people. Ending the blockade, protecting rights in Gaza’s reconstruction, and ensuring accountability for the full range of violations that have occurred during the most recent crisis, including economic, social and cultural rights, are three concrete ways of pursuing such an objective.

CESR is currently partnering with Palestine’s Independent Commission on Human Rights (ICHR), an official body mandated to protect and promote human rights in accordance with the Palestinian Basic Law and the international principles of human rights.  This collaboration, facilitated through a joint initiative with the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions, seeks to strengthen the capacity of the Commission to monitor economic and social rights

Posted by Allison Corkery on August 27th, 2014

Will High-Level Forum rise to accountability challenge?

As the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) meets at the UN’s New York headquarters, CESR has weighed in on one of the most critical and contentious issues on its agenda; accountability.

Malians vote in Presidential Elections. Meaningful participation
will be crucial to the success of the SDGs. Photo: Blagoje Grujic, UN

The HLPF, a new body established under the Rio+20 outcome document, has been set up to monitor and review implementation of the new sustainable development commitments to be agreed in 2015. While the question of accountability is just one of a number of difficult challenges it must address between now and July 9, when its second round of meetings draws to a close, past experience has shown that development commitments mean little if they are not backed up with effective accountability mechanisms.

CESR’s Luke Holland, speaking at a morning session with civil society hosted by the President of the Economic and Social Council, outlined five essential characteristics of an effective post-2015 monitoring and accountability framework.

The success or failure of future development efforts hinges on whether all development actors are held accountable to their human rights obligations under a truly universal framework. Governments must be held accountable to the commitments they make, both to their own citizens and to each other, as part of a new Global Partnership for Development. And with the private sector playing an ever-increasing role in development processes, it is likewise essential that corporations be held to their human rights responsibilities, as set out in the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Moreover, if the HLPF is to become an effective catalyst for just and transformative development, it should be at the center of a multi-layered ecosystem of accountability in which a broad spectrum of mechanisms, spanning the global, regional, national and local levels, work in synergy. New mechanisms specific to the sustainable development goals should work in complementarity with existing accountability systems, including parliamentary, judicial and administrative bodies.

Real accountability must also be people-centered, which means creating enabling conditions of citizens’ participation, both around the HLPF itself and in other monitoring and accountability processes set up at the national and regional levels. These voices must be heard and acted upon. The HLPF can also support meaningful participation by promoting participatory processes at the national level, and spurring access to data and information, At a time when freedom of expression, association and information are under attack in many countries, these issues are more pressing than ever.

Similarly, the HLPF must deliver transformative accountability. Given that reporting to the Forum will be voluntary, it is all the more important that review processes are rigorous, interrogating policy efforts, resource allocations and international commitments, and ensuring corrective action where necessary.

Taken together, these elements represent the difference between an accountability system that is merely ceremonial, and one that is genuinely rights-based. Human rights offer a universal, multi-layered, people-centred framework for transformative accountability. By anchoring the SDG accountability framework in human rights, the HLPF can powerfully incentivise the achievement of the goals, and thereby ensure they do not go down in history as another set of unfulfilled promises.

Posted by Luke Holland on July 7th, 2014

Strictly business: national rights institutions and the private sector

In an age when major corporations play an increasingly powerful role in global affairs, it is essential that the private sector be called to account for its impact on the human rights of people and communities.  Being conscious that National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) have a critical part to play in this endeavor, CESR participated in the Annual Seminar for NHRIs, which focused on the topic of Business and Human Rights, in New York recently.

CESR’s Allison Corkery addresses the UNDP-hosted seminar
Organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in partnership with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the seminar sought to expand discourse on the relationship between human rights and business and the corresponding role of NHRIs. Framed within the global debate on the post-2015 sustainable development goals (SDGs), and in light of the third anniversary of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (Guiding Principles), the event facilitated a timely discussion on how to strengthen corporate accountability for human rights.

Drawing on our recent publication A Post-2015 Fiscal Revolution, Allison Corkery, Director of CESR’s Rights Claiming and Accountability Program, stressed the potential for NHRIs to play a key role in ensuring accountability for the ways that corporate activity influences states’ fiscal policy.  Through their promotion and protection functions, NHRIs can for instance, advocate for greater transparency of the state’s fiscal data, as well as analyze how tax policies might enable businesses to indirectly harm economic and social rights. She also proposed a number of strategies NHRIs might employ to strengthen their capacity to advance economic and social rights. For example, forming alliances with tax inspectors and economic think-tanks could support them to undertake innovative budget and policy analyses, reinforcing their advocacy in this area.

Professor Alan Miller, Chair of the Scottish National Human Rights Commission, suggested that the future success of the Guiding Principles would depend heavily on whether or not they are integrated into the post-2015 SDG framework. Their inclusion, however, will not be the end goal; it will be crucial to measure how and where the Guiding Principles generate real change in the realm of human rights and business. Although it has only been three years since Professor John Ruggie authored the Guiding Principles, the demand for quantifiable evidence of their impact is growing. If we can’t show they’re making a difference, the international community may need to consider a legally-binding treaty. A potential treaty on business and human rights was first proposed by Ecuador in August of 2013 at the Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The critical role of National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights (NAPs) in implementing the Guiding Principles was a dominant theme throughout the presentations and Q&A discussions. Well-designed NAPs lay the foundation for states to assess the human rights impact of business activity, as well as for comprehensive monitoring and remedies for human rights violations committed by the business sector. Nevertheless, there is still a lack of consensus on best practice for NAPs, for example the particular indicators and methods for measuring progress.

In closing remarks, OHCHR highlighted the pressing need to ensure strong accountability mechanisms for the post-2015 SDGs. Voluntary reports on progress will no longer suffice; concrete reporting measures are necessary to ensure responsibility, answerability, and enforceability of human rights standards at the local and national levels, including of business.

The timely event also included valuable contributions from Anita Househam, UN Global Compact Program Manager, and Lauretta Lamptey, chair of the African Network of NHRIs and Chairperson of the Ghana Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice.

With the private sector playing an evermore influential role in social and economic policy, it is essential that NHRIs effectively address the human rights implications of this trend. CESR will continue to support the work of these key bodies as they confront this challenge.

Posted by on June 25th, 2014

European rights chief warns of austerity's 'lost generation'

That young people represent the future may seem like a hackneyed platitude, but in an age when their human rights are under siege as a result of the economic crisis and the austerity measures imposed in its wake, it is deserving of renewed consideration. This is not lost on the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, who has warned that the continuing assault on young people’s economic and social rights following the crisis may lead to a ‘lost generation’ of Europeans, and serious consequences for social cohesion and political stability.

Drawing on the recently-published Council of Europe issue paper ‘Safeguarding Human Rights in Times of Economic Crisis’, commissioned from CESR, Muiznieks issued a statement this week highlighting how young people have been one of the groups hardest hit by the economic crisis in Europe. Youth unemployment, described as "the most common pathology of many countries implementing austerity measures", is now twice as high as the overall average in the EU, with particularly hard-hit countries, such as Greece and Spain, showing youth unemployment levels of over 50 per cent. Unjust cuts to education, health and other public services are likewise prejudicing youth and older persons disproportionately. What’s more, young people’s right to participation in political life has also been eroded, both through opaque policymaking and a crackdown on dissent in many countries, leading many young people to lose faith in current structures of governance.  

The Commissioner calls for ¨a rights-based approach [to] replace the current neglect of young people in discussions about the crisis.¨  Citing the recommendations of the recent issue paper, he argues that measures tackling youth and long-term unemployment should be given priority in labour policies and that any temptation to lower labour standards and social protection when employing young people must be resisted. He stresses the role of national human rights commissions and equality bodies as a channel through which state institutions can be made more responsive to the concerns and grievances of young people and others hit hardest by the crisis. The Commissioner also highlights how new and existing legal instruments can strengthen protection against age discrimination and safeguard the rights of all people across the life course.

The statement is a welcome follow up to the CESR-commissioned issue paper, which warns that cuts to social spending, regressive tax hikes and the weakening of labor protections in the face of the crisis are in many cases incompatible with international human right law, and are penalizing the most vulnerable sectors unfairly. Safeguarding Human Rights in Times of Economic Crisis also proposes a set of actionable recommendations for governments to align their economic recovery policies with their human rights commitments, for example through progressive tax reforms, the implementation of human rights and equality impact assessments, the provision of adequate social protection and ensuring access to justice.

The economic logic of austerity is increasingly being challenged, as continued waves of cutbacks fail to deliver meaningful improvements in national economies. Being mindful of the potential long-term consequences, Europe’s decision-makers would do well to question the logic and legality of trampling on young people’s human rights as well.

  • ‘Safeguarding Human Rights in Times of Economic Crisis’ is available in English, Spanish, French and Greek.
  • To learn more about CESR's work on human rights and the economic crisis, see here.

Posted by Luke Holland on June 5th, 2014

OPERA in the Occupied Territories

While the human rights situation in Palestine is profoundly shaped by the situation of occupation, the welfare of ordinary people in the territory is also contingent on the effectiveness of development policies implemented by the Palestinian Authority (PA). With this fact in mind, CESR has been working closely with Palestine’s Independent Commission on Human Rights (ICHR) to support its efforts to ensure the PA’s development plans serve to realize the human rights of all those under its authority.

CESR's Allison Corkery and Niko Lusiania (front row, first and
second from left) with members of the ICHR in Ramallah

The ICHR is the most recent member of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions to participate in a pilot project on economic and social rights monitoring, as part of a joint initiative between CESR and the Asia Pacific Forum aimed at strengthening the role of these institutions in protecting these rights.

The pilot began with a four-day program, held in Ramallah from 11 – 14 May, to explore strategies the Commission can incorporate when analyzing development-related policies from a human rights perspective. Approximately 30 staff from the Commission’s headquarters, West Bank and Gaza field offices, participated in a two-day training workshop led by CESR's Allison Corkery and Niko Lusiani.

Over the course of the workshop, participants were introduced to OPERA, an accessible four-step framework for uncovering patterns of socio-economic rights deprivation—such as preventable disease, malnutrition, illiteracy, or homelessness—and linking these deprivations to weaknesses in design or implementation of government policies. In addition, participants undertook activities to familiarize them with the tools and techniques underpinning the framework, including identifying indicators and benchmarks, gathering primary and secondary data, and analyzing budgets.

The training workshop was followed by two days of facilitated discussion with directors and managers of the Commission’s programs and field offices. ICHR plans to use the skills shared in the training to track progress in the implementation of the PA’s National Development Plan, which sets out a broad and ambitious policy agenda for the coming three years. The Commission's role in monitoring implementation of the plan will be crucial to ensure the aspirations it contains are effectively translated into real improvements on the ground.

Members of the ICHR tackle one of the group exercises

National Human Rights Institutions have a critical role to play in holding all relevant actors and authorities accountable to their human rights obligations in the development context. Effective monitoring is essential for ensuring such accountability; highlighting when laws and policies create, perpetuate or exacerbate deprivations of economic and social rights. Combining quantitative and qualitative evidence—including statistics and data, policy and budget analysis and the personal stories of affected communities—will enable ICHR to pinpoint the challenges in achieving equitable development in Palestine´s constrained context, and to promote human rights centered reforms. Staff from CESR will provide ICHR’s team with methodological support and advice during the course of the project.

Like ICHR, many other national human rights institutions in the Asia Pacific have highlighted their desire to more effectively monitor economic, social and cultural rights in their respective countries. NHRIs across the region—in emerging economies such as Indonesia, India, the Philippines and Thailand, as well as in transitional countries such as Nepal, Palestine, and the Maldives—have been vocal advocates for the adoption of a human rights-based approach to development. To respond to this need, the APF and CESR will develop a comprehensive training resource to support APF member institutions to plan and undertake this crucial work.

  • To learn more about CESR's partnership with the APF, see here.
  • To learn more about our work with National Human Rights Institutions, see here.
  • To learn about CESR's monitoring work and the OPERA Framework, see here.

Posted by Luke Holland on May 30th, 2014

UN Financing Committee hears call for post-2015 fiscal revolution

CESR has urged the UN Committee tasked with devising a post-2015 development financing strategy to tackle the fiscal injustices undermining sustainable development and human rights.

Committee member Mohammad Reza Farzin, from Iran, reads CESR
and Christian Aid's new briefing 'A Post-2015 Fiscal Revolution'
Speaking at the interactive dialogue of the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing (ICESDF), which held its third session on 12 May, CESR´s Executive Director Ignacio Saiz addressed the question of what it would mean in concrete terms to integrate human rights into a post-2015 financing strategy.

“The central challenge is not the lack of resources, but the unfair way in which resources are currently generated, allocated and governed,” said Ignacio. “Placing human rights at the foundation of sustainable development financing should serve to make public financing for development more sufficient, more equitable and more accountable at the national and global levels.”

Drawing on CESR´s recent briefing published jointly with Christian Aid, A Post-2015 Fiscal Revolution, Ignacio highlighted a range of actionable fiscal reforms which could be put in place to unleash between US $1.5 and $3 trillion per year in additional public funding, countering the myth that states cannot generate sufficient resources for development and so must rely increasingly on partnerships with the private sector. Proposed reforms include international commitments to tackle tax evasion and other illicit financial flows, as well as concrete efforts to increase domestic resource mobilization through progressive taxation.

Fiscal policies introduced as part of the financing strategy should also be aimed at tackling inequality and halting current trends that see us returning to 19th century levels of wealth concentration. The strategy should enable more effective monitoring of who benefits from the way resources are raised and spent, drawing on the experience of rights-based gender and disability budgeting.  The post-2015 strategy should also aim to create a new culture of accountability in fiscal governance at both the national and global levels. This means strengthening fiscal transparency, increasing access to information and ensuring meaningful and democratic participation in how fiscal policy decisions are made and reviewed.

“We hope the Committee will not shy away from making bold and ambitious recommendations commensurate with the scale of the challenge we face,“ said Ignacio. “The failure of our action so far calls for radical new approaches. Human rights provide a mandate, if not for revolution, for a profound transformation in the way financing for development is conceived and governed.”

Other civil society panelists and respondents addressed the Committee on the need for reform of economic governance, private sector regulation and accountability. They also tackled the issues of safeguarding the rights of indigenous peoples and people with disabilities, the experience of solidarity economy initiatives, and ensuring the participation of people living in poverty in policy design, implementation and monitoring. The Committee co-chair, Mr. Mansur Muhtar, said the civil society inputs would inform the deliberations of the Committee, which is due to report in September 2014.

  • For more on the ICESDF, see here.
  • For the full version of Ignacio's statement, see here.
  • To learn more about CESR's work on human rights and the post-2015 development agenda, see here.

Posted by Luke Holland on May 14th, 2014

Accountability moves to the fore of the Post-2015 debate

CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz addresses the Inter-Active
Dialogue on Monitoring and Accountability for a Post-2015 Agenda
As negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals intensify at the UN, attention is increasingly turning to the question of accountability, and the monitoring and review systems needed to ensure the new goals are met.

CESR's Executive Director, Ignacio Saiz, spoke at the Inter-Active Dialogue on Elements for a Monitoring and Accountability Framework for a Post-2015 Agenda convened by the President of the General Assembly on 1 May at the UN headquarters in New York. Contributing to the opening panel on "Concepts for a new accountability framework", chaired by the Secretary General´s Special Adviser on Post-2015, Amina Mohammed, Ignacio argued that the post-2015 accountability architecture should be grounded in human rights principles, and buttressed by human rights accountability mechanisms.

Speaking to the findings of CESR's in-depth study, Who Will Be Accountable? Human Rights and the Post-2015 Development Agenda, published with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2013, he spelled out how human rights could reinforce the three constituent elements of accountability: responsibility, answerability and enforceability. Human rights standards can help clarify the differentiated responsibilities of states and other actors on the development stage. They set out the freedoms and capabilities that must be safeguarded if those in power are to answer to those facing poverty and deprivation. And a range of human rights enforcement mechanisms at the national, regional and international levels can act as avenues for accountability in the development sphere.

While highlighting the role that existing administrative, legislative and judicial mechanisms can play as part of a new ecosystem of accountability, Ignacio highlighted the need for more effective instruments to hold wealthier states, international institutions and the private sector answerable for the human rights and environmental impacts of their policies and practices, as these had proven the biggest accountability gaps under the MDGs.

Here Ignacio (right) is seen with the rest of the panel.
in the UN's Economic and Social Council Chamber
The event was addressed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who called for an inclusive, robust yet flexible framework whereby all actors could be accountable for honouring their commitments. Speaking on a second panel on "Learning from existing review mechanisms", the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, spoke of the need to ensure an enabling environment for accountability, and of the positive lessons that could be learnt from the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council.  The meeting heard from other civil society advocates, including Roberto Bissio from Social Watch, who said that accountability is only meaningful if the powerful countries, intergovernmental institutions and transnational corporations can be brought to account. 

These points were echoed in the interventions of some of the member states present. For example, Bolivia, speaking on behalf of the G77 (the largest grouping at the UN) said that a central feature of the accountability framework should be to ensure developing countries are enabled to achieve their objectives, through capacity building, technology transfer and more effective development cooperation. Accountability and mechanisms for delivering can be expected to remain a controversial issue in negotiations going forward, however.  These issues will continue to be debated via a new thematic consultation convened by UNICEF and UN Women, with the support of Peru, South Korea and Canada.
  • Ignacio's statement to the Inter-Active Dialogue is available here.
  • The video of the meeting is available here, with Ignacio's presentation beginning at 1 hour 6 minutes.
  • A recent joint civil society statement on human rights and the post-2015 development agenda can be found here.
  • For more on CESR´s work on human rights and accountability in the SDGs, see here. 

Posted by Luke Holland on May 7th, 2014

Civil society rallies to prevent privatization of post-2015 process

After a lengthy process of consultation and deliberation, talks over the post-2015 sustainable development agenda are now moving into the cut and thrust of practical negotiation. As the process enters this more overtly political phase, there is a very real threat that the voice of powerful actors, especially those from the private sector, may drown out global civil society’s demands for a human rights-based framework, and with it the possibility of a genuinely transformative agenda.

At key UN meetings last week in Helsinki and this week in New York, debates intensified on the role of public-private partnerships in the future sustainable development framework. Many governments, along with leading figures from the corporate sphere, are pushing hard for the private sector to be placed in the driving seat. In an age of deepening political and economic inequality worldwide, shifting the already-skewed balance of power even further towards such private actors would dramatically undermine the chances of a just and sustainable development agenda with human rights at its core, however.

Debate on the role of partnerships in post-2015 development
gets underway in the UN Trusteeship Council Chamber
Proponents of  such partnerships argue that in a world of increasing resource scarcity it is precisely because of the immense capital they control that private companies should be enabled to drive the development process. Yet this standpoint fails to recognize the role that widespread corporate abuses have played in undermining efforts to meet development and human rights commitments. It also fails to take into account the game-changing potential of funding sustainable development through public resources that are currently untapped, in large part thanks to tax evasion, avoidance and competition driven by the very same profit-seeking institutions seeking to finance the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The experience of the last few decades suggests that the types of legal or policy incentives in the playbook for boosting an investor-friendly environment--tax holidays and exemptions, weakened labor and environmental protections, abusive stability and investment clauses, risk guarantees, increased lobbying influence on public policy, biased market liberalization and deregulation, especially in the financial sector– are precisely some of the same policy instruments which have undercut the foundations for sustainable development, driven deeper inequality and undermined human rights and the environment.

Without a clear-eyed assessment of the real risks of privatizing post-2015 and strong regulatory provisions to prevent them, corporate capture of the post-2015 process threatens the key human rights principle of accountability, which will be crucial to any development framework that is truly inclusive. In years gone by, transnational corporate power has all too often used its influence to avoid accountability rather than bolster it. What’s more, rather than furthering the cause of just development and human rights, multinational corporations have frequently been involved in human rights abuses themselves. This has taken place both directly, through the activities of the extractive sector for example, and indirectly, through tax avoidance and policy manipulation.

With only months leftbefore the new sustainable development framework is agreed, civil society is rallying to wrest control of the post-2015 process from the hands of corporations and return it to where it belongs – under the purview of capable and legitimate governments acting in transparent and democratic multilateral forums and in close partnership with civil society.

Throughout the past week, organizations from around the world urged UN member states to reaffirm their role as primary protectors and guarantors of human rights rather than mere enablers of private sector development. At both official sessions and civil society side events this week, advocates from Brazil, India, and Uruguay exposed the realities of power imbalances and conflicts of interests inherent in private sector-led development partnerships. In a statement to the Helsinki meeting issued by the Righting Finance Initiative, CESR and allies proposed a clear set of ex ante criteria to guarantee primacy of a public post-2015 process and to determine under what conditions private sector actors are fit to be post-2015 partners. These criteria should examine, at the least:
  1. whether the private actor has a history or current status of serious allegations of abusing human rights or the environment, including in their cross-border activities;
  2. whether the private actor has a proven track record (or the potential to) deliver on sustainable development commitments emerging from the post-2015 process;
  3. whether the private actor has previous involvement in acts of corruption with government officials;
  4. whether the private actor is fully transparent in its financial reporting and fully respecting existing tax responsibilities in all countries it operates, and not undermining sustainable development through tax avoidance;
  5. any conflicts of interest in order to eliminate potential private donors whose activities are antithetical or contradictory to the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the SDG framework.
Governments moreover should commit to take immediate measures at all levels to ensure that businesses, at the very least, respect human rights and the environment, including by mandating independent, rigorous and periodic human rights and environmental impact assessments of large businesses.

Some governments are beginning to speak out against the growing corporate capture of the sustainable development agenda. Speaking at the civil society side-event, “Privatization of the post-2015 Development Agenda”, co-sponsored by CESR in New York earlier this week, Sergio Rodrigues from Brazil´s Permanent Mission to the UN warned that corporate influence over the post-2015 process could determine the future of the development agenda for years to come. He cautioned that this debate was at its core a battle over the future of the UN itself, and confirmed that his government would be among those pushing for stronger mechanisms of accountability and guidelines to regulate corporate engagement in development partnerships.

There is no doubt that the private sector does have an important role to play in driving economic dynamism and a healthy job market, but it is only when such profit-seeking activity is balanced by a strong and stable regulatory and accountability frameworks, on a level playing field and in equal partnership with the other actors involved, that we can realistically expect it to contribute to the world we all need.

Indeed, as many advocates reflect on the week past, it’s an open question whether the UN as an institution could ever recover from the reputational shock of its new chief private financiers being simultaneously the chief violators of its most cherished principles.

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Ireland: Post-crisis Constitutional Convention calls for economic and social rights

In the world of human rights advocacy, with its many challenges and setbacks, it is important to take note of the very tangible impact we often have in our society. National and international activists working to protect human rights in the context of Ireland’s economic crisis can take satisfaction in recent events, which have opened the door to economic and social rights standards being incorporated into the country’s constitution. This would be a momentous step to ensure that human rights no longer become the victim of economic downturns.

After six years of austerity budgets and a generational retrogression in economic and social rights in Ireland, a decision-making forum set up to explore amendments to the constitution has overwhelmingly recommended that these rights should be reinforced in the country’s foundational legal document. The Constitutional Convention – which comprises 66 citizens and 34 parliamentarians – has called for the protection of some economic and social rights protections to be strengthened. As can be seen in the results of its final ballot, members of Convention called for the rights to housing, social security, and essential health care to be “expressly stated” in the constitution, along with the rights of persons with disabilities, linguistic and cultural rights, and all rights set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The government now has a period of four months in which to respond to the recommendations and, if they agree to carry them forward, set a timeframe for a referendum. While far from a fait accompli, the recommendation represents a major achievement for civil society organizations such as Amnesty International Ireland that have campaigned tirelessly to bring these issues onto the agenda. Indeed, when the idea of a Constitutional Convention was being mooted in 2011, CESR spoke to Irish non-governmental organizations and sources at the Department of Justice, with both confessing to deep pessimism about the political feasibility of moving the ESCR agenda forward through this process. Three years later, the members of the Convention have responded to the calls of human rights advocates, with 85 percent voting in favor of just that.

“When the government set up the Constitutional Convention it looked relatively toothless, with the government itself setting the first eight items of the agenda and no choice for the Convention itself,” explained Mary Murphy, Acting Chair of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, in an interview with CESR. “There was cynicism, because people felt citizens should be able to set the agenda of what would be in the Constitution, and eventually the government agreed that the Convention could add two items to the agenda itself. There were regional meetings and consultations, and through creative use of that space, public campaigning and coalition building with both NGOs and trade unions, it was agreed that enhancing parliamentary effectiveness and economic and social rights should be the two extra items. The campaign to get ESCR on the agenda was very much a ground-up effort, driven by NGOs.”

CESR is proud to have been able to contribute to this process, with our report ‘Mauled by the Celtic Tiger’ being cited as an important contribution to the advocacy efforts of domestic NGOs.

Over the coming months, human rights advocates will turn their attention to making sure the Convention’s crucial recommendation is indeed implemented by the government. The current Fine Gael-Labour coalition is thought to be receptive to the proposal, but there will be significant opposition, not least from Ireland’s conservative judicial sphere. A delicate political context must also be navigated, with a plethora of other amendments, some of them highly controversial, also to be voted on in a country that is already suffering “referendum fatigue”.

These facts notwithstanding, it must be recognized that, thanks to the work of economic and social rights defenders, Ireland now has a rare and unique opportunity to further social progress for both this and future generations. With the centenary of the 1916 Rising within sight, and its incipient recovery ongoing, Ireland finds itself at a crossroads that is ripe for reflection on both its history and its socioeconomic future. It is to be hoped that the Irish government will rise to the challenge of delivering the constitution ordinary people in Ireland deserve.

Posted by Luke Holland on March 31st, 2014

Putting rights at the centre of 'data revolution'

31 January 2014

CESR's Allison Corkery has put human rights squarely on the agenda of the conference on 'Data and Accountability for the Post-2015 Development Framework' organized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in New York on 29-31 January. 

The conference brought together data experts, statisticians and civil society groups from around the world to discuss how to bring about the ‘data revolution’ called for last year by the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The Panel concluded that the purpose of the data revolution was to promote trust between states and citizens by promoting transparency and accountability. While there is broad agreement that new digital technologies and the greater use of "big" and open data can have a potentially transformative impact on accountability in development, few have explored the implications of the "data revolution" from a human rights perspective.

As part of a panel on international frameworks for accountability in development, Allison's presentation Human Rights and the Data Revolution: Catalyst or Casualty? explored the central role of human rights in the post-2015 sustainable development agenda and the critical need for better data to secure greater human rights accountability in this context. The human rights framework can contribute to a genuinely transformative data revolution by offering guidance on what data should be prioritized: how data should be collected, analyzed and disseminated; for what purpose; and who the ultimate users of data are.

Individuals and communities facing poverty and deprivation must be enabled to meaningfully participate in data collection initiatives, opening up official statistics and harnessing big data. Real change can only come about if such data serves to empower those affected to claim their rights through effective mechanisms of accountability. It is also critical to strengthen the capacity of human rights accountability mechanisms at the local, national and international levels to use and interpret such data.

"There are high expectations around the post-2015 framework", said Allison, who leads CESR's program on monitoring and accountability. "Its accountability infrastructure must be more than a weak system of voluntary monitoring and crowd-sourced opinion polls, but must serve to reinforce a web of robust accountability mechanisms. A real power shift comes from recognizing people as citizens and rights-holders, not as mere users and consumers of data."

The event took place just before the final session of the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals, the inter-governmental forum tasked with drawing up the framework to succeed the Millennium Development Goals when these expire in 2015. According to UNDP, the outcomes of the meeting will "lead to a common roadmap for coherent follow-up actions and advocacy to integrate data and accountability in the Post-2015 development agenda."

* To learn more about CESR's monitoring work, see here.

Posted by on

Power of Numbers initiative offers important insights for post-2015 agenda

As the debate gets underway on a new set of sustainable development goals, targets and indicators to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015, an initiative led by CESR board chair Alicia Yamin and CESR board member, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr offers some timely and important guidance on the implications of target-setting and measurement of progress from a human rights perspective.

'The Power of Numbers: A Critical Review of MDG Targets for Human Development and Human Rights' explores how global goal-setting under the MDGs has shaped international development priorities and thinking. It analysis both the empirical effects of the MDG targets on policy priorities and their normative effects on policy discourses around the means to achieve important human development objectives.  

An overview document sets out the findings of the initiative, coordinated by Alicia Yamin (Lecturer on Global Health and Director of the Program on the Health Rights of Women and Children at the Franςois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University) and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr (Professor of International Affairs at The New School). Eleven MDG-related targets were studied in depth by 17 scholars from around the world. The project finds that, as well as mobilizing attention and effort around important poverty-related objectives, quantitative goal-setting under the MDGs has had unintended consequences, such as distorting priorities by displacing attention from other objectives, disrupting on-going programs as well as advocacy alliances, creating perverse incentives and undermining alternative analyses and policy strategies.  

The authors recommend that both positive and negative lessons from experience be kept in mind in the design of new goals and targets under the post-2015 agenda. These lessons are set out in more detail in a complementary paper, 'Lessons for Setting Targets and Agreeing Indicators'. It finds that the criteria which guided the selection of MDG goals, targets and indicators were insufficient and often in direct conflict with human rights principles and priorities. It analyses the criteria proposed in the Rio+20 Outcome Document as well as by the Un Secretary General´s High Level Panel, and outlines the desirable characteristics of any future goals, targets and indicators from the perspective of the different functions they are intended to serve, whether political mobilization, programming, progress monitoring or strengthening human rights accountability. It recommends the adoption of metrics more capable of monitoring the human rights dimensions of development progress, including equality of outcomes as well as opportunities; vulnerability, insecurity and exclusion; and meaningful participation, voice and accountability.

The initiative is a particularly valuable contribution to the debate on measurement in relation to sustainable development and human rights objectives. It is also very timely, as the UN´s Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals meets to discuss these issues.

For more on the outcomes of the recent Open Working Group session on human rights, and CESR´s advocacy around it, see here.  CESR´s proposals regarding the criteria that should inform the selection of goals, targets and indicators are discussed in the publication, 'Who Will Be Accountable? Human Rights and the Post-2015 Development Agenda', published with OHCHR in May 2013.

Posted by Luke Holland on December 20th, 2013

Human rights take centre stage at UN post-2015 debate

Last week’s meeting of the Open-Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) provided firm evidence that the call from civil society from all corners of the globe for human rights to be at the heart of the post-2015 agenda are being heard. One after another, member states meeting in New York declared that human rights norms and standards, including the right to development, should be firmly incorporated into the new framework.

CESR Senior Researcher Niko Lusiani speaks at the side event
‘Human Rights at the Core of Sustainable and Just Development’

The sixth session of the OWG, which took place  from 9-13 December at the United Nations headquarters, heard repeated calls for the interdependence of human rights to be recognized in the post-2015 agenda. The vast majority of state representatives in attendance reiterated the necessity of delivering both freedom from want and freedom from fear, and of enabling an empowered civil society to ensure achievement of the new goals. Moreover, the crucially important issue of accountability figured prominently, with many of the diplomats calling for a global mechanism to monitor all development actors, including those from the private sector, so as to guarantee their actions help facilitate, rather than hinder, progress. In a similar vein, many developing countries argued for the extra-territorial impacts of policies in areas such as trade, finance and taxation to be subjected to human rights monitoring.

In their concluding remarks, the OWG Co-Chairs stated that one of the key consensus messages emerging from the meeting was that "human rights are cross-cutting and must be mainstreamed" throughout the post-2015 agenda. "Good governance based on human rights, the rule of law, access to justice and to information, transparency and accountability is a prerequisite for sustainable development", they said.

After many months of frenetic campaigning to get human rights included in the post-2015 debate, the statements made at last week’s OWG represented a welcome development. It has now become clear that governments can no longer ignore the international clamor for human rights norms and standards to be fully incorporated.

Major obstacles to the achievement of this objective remain, however, and with this fact in mind civil society organizations including CESR continued their advocacy efforts both before and during the OWG meetings. A joint statement, endorsed by over 300 civil society groups from all over the world, was submitted to the Co-Chair as dialogue got underway on Thursday morning. CESR, together with its partners Amnesty International, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Human Rights Watch, and RESURJ, organized a side event on Friday entitled “Human Rights at the Core of Sustainable and Just Development.” This timely dialogue, which was sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Denmark to the United Nations, offered an opportunity to explore in more detail the concrete implications of anchoring the post-2015 framework in existing human rights norms.

It was just one of a series of activities organized by civil society and other actors determined to further the cause of human rights in the continuing post-2015 process, however. For example, on Wednesday CESR took part in a side-event convened by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights entitled “More than a vision: How to integrate Human Rights into the Post-2015 Agenda” which examined how human rights standards should guide the choice and formulation of goals, targets and indicators. Other events addressed similarly important issues such as how the necessary financing for sustainable development could be raised, and how human rights norms relate to the environmental dimensions of the agenda.

Success in delivering a post-2015 sustainable development agenda that fully harnesses the transformative power of human rights is far from a fait accompli, however. Powerful interests that would prefer to avert such an outcome remain in place, and renewed efforts and determination will be required if the encouraging statements made last week are to be reflected in the final agreement. The difficult task of building consensus on how best to harmonize policies in different areas, both nationally and internationally, and to ensure accountability for extraterritorial human rights obligations, will have to be dealt with head on. What’s more, there is a pressing need to raise awareness among governments on how human rights metrics and indicators can be integrated into the goals.

Here at CESR, we and our partners are now setting our sights on these challenges. It would appear that the first stage of the battle has been won, but final victory, in the form of a truly transformative and human rights-centred post-2015 sustainable development framework, is far from guaranteed. In order to maintain the momentum, CESR is calling for further endorsements to the Joint Civil Society Statement before 31 December 2013. If you would like your organization to be included, please email CESR Communications Coordinator Luke Holland at with your organization’s name and logo (if available).

Posted by Luke Holland on December 17th, 2013

CESR pays tribute to Nelson Mandela

As the world mourns the passing of South Africa's first democratically-elected president Nelson Mandela, CESR board member Geoff Budlender, who served as Director-General of the Department of Land Affairs under the iconic leader, pays tribute to his unparalleled contribution to the global struggle for social and economic justice.

CESR board member Geoff Budlender (right) with Nelson Mandela and
former President of the South African Constitutional Court Arthur Chaskalson
I had the privilege of serving as head of a government department during Nelson Mandela's presidency.  I learnt at first hand that he saw civil and political rights as indivisible from social and economic rights. He took the view that one of the purposes of political democracy is to achieve social and economic justice, and that social and economic justice is the best guarantor of political democracy.    

In the forward to a 2003 volume on housing rights, he argued with characteristically simple eloquence that the full range of human rights needed to be defended with equal vigour in order to meet the challenges of our globalized world. His words, as relevant today as they were ten years ago, stand as a fitting tribute to Mandela's enormous legacy to the human rights movement:  

"Wherever we go today, we hear talk of the globalisation of the economy and its impact on States. Globalisation has become a dominant feature of the analysis of international and national development. There is, however, another form of globalisation which could and should also have a fundamental impact on States. That is the globalisation of human rights.  

"Today, when we talk of human rights we understand that this discussion should not be limited to the traditional civil and political rights. The international world has gradually come to realize the critical importance of social and economic rights in building true democracies which meet the basic needs of all people. The realization of these needs is both an essential element of a genuine democracy as well as essential for the maintenance of democracy… In formulating our Constitution, we learned from the experiences of people in other countries who have struggled with similar problems. In this way and in other ways, our Constitution demonstrates the growing globalisation of the struggle for human rights."  

Nelson Mandela, from the foreword to National Perspectives on Housing Rights (edited by Scott Leckie, 2003)

Mandela's vision has been an inspiration to CESR's work over the last two decades. We celebrate the life of this great figure and will continue to strive for a world in which his vision is realized.  

* Geoff Budlender is a South African constitutional and human rights advocate, co-founder of the Legal Resources Center and former Director-General of the Department of Land Affairs under President Mandela. He is a member of the board of the Center for Economic and Social Rights. 

Posted by Geoff Budlender on December 7th, 2013

Egypt rights activists take struggle to Geneva

Human rights defenders working to forge a better future for the people of Egypt traveled to Geneva last week, as the North African country came under the scrutiny of a United Nations human rights treaty body for the first time since the Arab Spring. In the run-up to the 51st session of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, CESR joined forces with a broad coalition of Egyptian civil society organizations to make sure this important and timely event has a real impact in the lives of ordinary people.

Heba Khalil (left) and Allison Corkery prepare to deliver
a statement to the Committee in Palais Wilson
On the morning of Monday 11, Allison Corkery (Center for Economic and Social Rights) teamed up with Heba Khalil (Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights) to deliver a statement to the Committee outlining the current situation of economic and social rights in Egypt. This well-received presentation was followed by a private briefing on Wednesday 13, when members of the Committee attended a meeting with civil society advocates to discuss the situation in Egypt in more detail. Representatives from CESR, ECESR, the al-Shehab Center for Comprehensive Development, the Egyptian Center for Civil and Legislative Reform, and the Housing and Land Rights Network all gave presentations, before Abdel Nasser Al-Sherif described his family’s experience of being forcibly evicted from their home. Members of the Committee then questioned the speakers on a variety of issues where they needed more information in order to more effectively assess the government’s compliance with its obligations.

The value of the information provided by civil society groups to Committe members was much in evidence on Thursday, when the Committee interrogated representatives of the Egyptian government over the country’s performance in meeting its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Many of the issues raised by the Committee echoed those addressed in its interactions with civil society. A more detailed elucidation of these concerns was also provided in a joint NGO report, prepared by CESR and ECESR and endorsed by 56 other Egyptian civil society organizations, which was submitted to the Committee in advance of the session.

Over the course of a full day of questioning, the Egyptian government was challenged over a variety of rights, including housing, education, employment, health care and water and sanitation. The government was also roundly criticised over its failure to provide up-to-date data in many areas. Indeed state representatives were forced on several occasions to admit they couldn’t adequately answer the questions put to them, repeatedly pledging to supply information afterwards. The transversal issue of non-discrimination meanwhile led to a tense exchange, with state delegates insisting that Christians should not be defined as a minority, and even that the burning of churches could not be attributed to religious discrimination.

The Chair of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
exchanges a glance with the head of the Egyptian state delegation

Meanwhile, civil society efforts also continued on the day of the Committee’s evaluation. Making good use of the two-hour break between the morning and afternoon sessions, CESR and its partners briefed journalists at a special press conference organized by Habitat International and the Association of Correspondents Accredited to the United Nations.

Last week’s events in Geneva came as human rights and social justice advocates in Egypt continued to navigate a delicate and uncertain transitional process. Nearly three years after the Arab Spring revolution, the promise of a better and fairer Egypt has failed to materialise, and the demands of international lenders have been prioritized over those of protesters around the country.

In the coming days the Committee will issue a set of recommendations which Egypt will be required to implement in order to meet its international human rights obligations. CESR and its partners will be working hard to monitor implementation of these recommendations. To this end, a special strategy meeting was organized the day after the Committee session, at which the civil society organizations present in Geneva discussed how best to move forward and ensure the recommendations translate into meaningful improvements on the ground. The first part of this important process has come to an end, but a new phase in the struggle to realize the economic, social and cultural rights of all Egyptian people has just begun.

  • To learn more about CESR's work in Egypt, see here.
  • To download a pdf version of the Joint Civil Society Report, click here (For Arabic version, see here).
  • To download our Egypt Factsheet, which provides a concise graphical illustration of rights retrogressions in the country, see here.

Posted by Luke Holland on November 23rd, 2013

FTT: Robin Hood advocates undeterred by challengers

The most important battles are generally the hardest fought. Such is the case of the financial transactions tax (FTT), a crucial element in the creation of a more just global financial system, which is facing renewed opposition from those who want to maintain the failed economic architecture of the past.

Campaigners take to the streets in Brussels
Photo courtesy Oxfam Belgium
Just a few months ago, the establishment of a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ in Europe seemed imminent, as France, Germany and nine other EU countries agreed to implement the measure with the dual objectives of reducing market instability while also raising revenue for poverty reduction and to fight climate change. It is estimated this tiny levy - just 0.1 percent - on the exchange of shares and bonds would raise approximately 57 billion euros if deployed across the EU. Earlier momentum now seems to be faltering, however, as states debate collection systems and, crucially, how the revenue gathered should be used.

Progress towards the FTT has also been challenged by the Legal Service of the Council of Europe (LSCE), which issued a paper last month affirming the mechanism was not compatible with jurisdictional requirements set out in existing EU treaties. Thankfully, the office of the European Union Tax Commissioner moved swiftly to reject this position, with a spokeswoman stating that the LSCE argument was just one of a variety of opinions on the matter, and adding: ”We stand firm that the proposed financial transaction tax is legally sound and fully in line with the EU treaties and international tax law.” Meanwhile, Germany’s Social Democrats, who are about to enter coalition talks with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, are pushing to make implementation of the FTT a precondition for participation in a European banking union.

While it is to be welcomed that the proposing countries – Austria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain – seem resolute in their determination to push ahead with the plan, the LSCE paper has emboldened opposition from the UK and the United States. The importance of overcoming such obstacles cannot be overstated. The limited European FTT will be crucial to disprove the arguments of finance sector lobbyists, who doggedly insist it will undermine competitiveness and provoke mass relocations by financial firms. These affirmations fly in the face of the experience of many countries – including the UK and France along with fast-growing economies such as Brazil and India - where such mechanisms are already in use, but fear-mongering from the finance sector continues nonetheless. Should those who are seeking to block the European FTT succeed, campaigns pushing for similar measures in the US and further afield could find their task more difficult.

In this uncertain context, human rights defenders and social justice advocates are continuing their campaign efforts on both sides of the Atlantic. On October 30, a coalition of some 160 organizations in the US will stage a march on Capitol Hill before holding a briefing for members of Congress. This initiative follows just a few weeks after the Occupy Wall Street movement celebrated its second anniversary by renewing calls for the FTT to be implemented in the US. In Europe, meanwhile, FTT campaigners are currently designing strategies for further mobilizations around key dates in the political calendar.

The potential of the financial transactions tax to generate innovative resources for sustainable development was repeatedly highlighted when member states gathered at the United Nations recently to discuss the process for agreeing a new post-2015 global development agenda. And these points were reiterated again just a few weeks later at the High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development.

Support for the Robin Hood Tax is spreading, but those who oppose it are powerful and determined. In the months ahead, it will be critically important to ensure the coalition of European states moving forward with the FTT stays the course. Effective civil society mobilization will also be necessary to make sure revenues generated by the mechanism are indeed used for tackling poverty, realizing rights and averting catastrophic climate change, rather than wasted on pay backs to private bondholders. Beyond this, continued efforts will be required to achieve the goal of implementation in the rest of Europe, the United States and beyond. The road so far has proven that achieving these objectives is unlikely to be easy. But then, Robin Hood never was one to avoid a fight.

This blog article was written by CESR Researcher and Communications Coordinator Luke Holland for the website of Righting Finance: A Bottom-Up Approach to Righting Financial Regulation

Posted by Luke Holland on October 23rd, 2013

Accountability in the Post-2015 Development Framework: What role for National Human Rights Institutions?

Video: UNDP seminar 'Twenty years later: The Paris Principles and the national human rights institutions'

Last month, CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz joined a panel discussion on the way forward for national human rights institutions (NHRIs) in the post-2015 development agenda. Hosted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the panel was part of a seminar for NHRIs to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the Paris Principles, the normative framework that defines the role, composition, status and functions of these institutions.

CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz (right) looks on as
Amina Muhammad, Special Advisor to the Secretary General on
Post-2015 Development Planning, speaks at the UNDP event
Accountability gaps have impeded the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). And while NHRIs have often been cited as key mechanisms for filling these gaps, their comparative strengths and weaknesses in this regard have only recently been explored in depth.

As debates on what the post-2015 framework should look like progress, there are clear expectations that NHRIs will form part of the accountability infrastructure supporting it. But what should NHRIs do specifically? CESR suggested four broad proposals for NHRIs to consider:

  1. Contributing to global decision making on the post-2015 framework: Most immediately, NHRIs can more actively contribute to debates about the content of the new framework. The positions of member states are currently being defined. NHRIs, individually and collectively, can seek to influence the positions drawn up by their countries and other relevant actors, so as to ensure that the new development commitments are firmly grounded in international human rights standards.

  2. Engaging in the process of tailoring goals, targets and indicators nationally: There is increasing consensus that while a framework of internationally-agreed goals should be universal, targets need to be ‘tailored’ to the national level. NHRIs can ensure that this tailoring exercise is undertaken through a participatory process and that it takes their country’s human rights commitments fully into account. Specifically, NHRIs can ascertain that their country’s national targets are ambitious and achievable within a defined timeframe and can develop indicators and other monitoring tools to measure whether policies are effective and that outcomes are distributed equally among all sectors of society.

  3. Monitoring and reviewing progress on agreed commitments: The importance of establishing robust country-owned monitoring mechanisms to periodically review progress (or lack of) towards agreed goals and targets is broadly recognized. This kind of periodic review would fit well with the reporting mandate many NHRIs’ already hold, and they are well-placed to actively contribute to such mechanisms, for example by facilitating community participation or submitting their own ‘shadow’ reports. At the international level, too, NHRIs can play a key role, as an independent source of information for any new international monitoring mechanism and by encouraging greater scrutiny by existing human rights mechanisms such as treaty bodies and special rapporteurs.

  4. Enforcing accountability and enabling access to justice and remedies: NHRIs have not only a monitoring role but also an enforcement function. Their enforcement powers may derive from NHRIs’ quasi-judicial complaint mandates, investigative capabilities or even by strengthening other enforcement mechanisms through training and guidance. This is important for backstopping and reinforcing accountability, ensuring access to justice for people whose rights are denied because of a failure to meet development commitments.

It is clear that NHRIs have a lot to contribute to the post-2015 development framework. Their unique placement between the government and civil society, their legal mandate and the powers that derive from it, as well as their particular human rights expertise gives them huge potential to guarantee that the post-2015 framework has human rights at its core and that states can be held accountable for their commitments under it.

Despite many good practice examples—some of which are highlighted in the report Who Will Be Accountable?—experience of NHRI engagement with the MDGs and with development policies more generally shows uneven results. The degree of success an institution will have depends on a number of legal, political, financial and social factors that affect it both internally and externally. CESR continues to work with NHRIs and their networks across the world to build internal capacity, as well as strengthen their external relationships, so as to help them meet the expectations placed on them in the post-2015 context.

Posted by on August 14th, 2013

Accountability Not Austerity Can Help Prevent the Next Financial Crisis

Alongside weak, biased financial regulation and growing inequality, systematic failures in accountability also played a significant role in causing the global financial meltdown. Justice and accountability—not reckless austerity policies—are essential now more than ever to prevent its repetition.

Just this week, the UK Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards—hardly a bastion of radical thinking—supported robust judicial accountability and personal responsibility for senior bankers involved in financial misconduct. The US Securities and Exchange Commission for its part finally decided to require those involved in egregious financial misconduct to actually admit wrongdoing, rather than just pay a nominal fee.  Could these be baby steps towards justice for prompting the deepest economic crisis in a generation?

Finance protester in New York. Photo: Scott Lynch
It’s been almost six years since the global financial crisis struck, and as time passes, we’re beginning to understand better the structural causes of the calamity. Growing income and wealth inequality has emerged as a key contributing factor to the financial crisis. Low- and middle-income working families in the US experienced stagnating income through the decades between the 1960s and the 2000s, despite the doubling of GDP per capita over this period. To cope with falling real income, credible reports argue, household debt levels skyrocketed, doubling in the 1980s to over 100% of GDP before the crisis broke. In the meantime, the top 1% of the population doubled its share of the national income in this period to almost 16% - the highest level of wealth inequality since 1929 and the Great Crash. Top earners could not consume all the disproportionate increases in wealth, and so funneled some of their gains into increased supply of debt. It was the combination of this rapid accumulation of capital at the top, and the simultaneous explosion of debt at the bottom, which generated a level of financial fragility and risk not seen since the Great Depression, a key contributing factor to financial crisis as soon as debts became unsustainable and debt defaults started.

Much has also been made of the role of de-regulation, or rather biased regulation favoring financiers over working people, in undercutting the ability of governments to implement their duty to protect people against both individual financial abuses, like predatory lending, and systemic risks posed by poorly regulated financial actors.

Yet, the systemic lack of accountability of financial actors—while related to regulation—is less discussed for its role in sparking the financial crisis. Moral hazard, flawed incentives and the abdication of personal or institutional responsibility for the downside costs of financial activities is no doubt a related contributing factor to the financial crisis. Financial actors feared no meaningful sanctions or corrective actions enforced either by the market or the State. Financial industry professionals assumed correctly that the State would ultimately assume the downside hazards for the risks inherent in their financial dealings, while they would continue to enjoy the upside gains. The failure of government to establish an effective and predictable system of risk and remedy management and accountability systems to prevent and deter extreme risk-taking further exacerbated this problem by freeing financial actors from having to directly bear the costs of their own misconduct. Financial sector players felt free to leverage themselves to excessive levels, to an extent they never would have had there been predictable consequences. The financial market actors responsible for aggressive speculation, unethical lending practices, and promoting the type of de-regulation which fuelled the crisis have by and large not been held to account for their actions, certainly not criminally. Even where proper regulations were in place, such as criminal offences or fraudulent malpractice (e.g. in the writing of sub-prime mortgages), regulatory agencies lacked the will or capacity to effectively enforce them, leading to a dearth of meaningful accountability. Even the most powerful attorney in the world, US Department of Justice Secretary Eric Holder, more or less admitted that big banks were too-big-to-jail, a position which the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill did little to change. Justice, in other words, is not blind.

So, it was not only the inadequacy of pre-distributive, redistributive and regulatory policies that were at the root of the crisis. It was also the absence of robust mechanisms of accountability and predicable punishments and remedies for misconduct that could have preempted the displacement of private risks onto public accounts, obliged risk-takers to absorb the consequences of their own actions, and protected those groups who too often find themselves at a disadvantage, particularly low- and middle-income taxpayers who have been forced to bear the brunt of the crisis.

In this sense, effective remedy for the social costs of the financial crisis is not only about making those responsible pay the price for their role. Justice and accountability is essential in order to prevent foreseeable harms financial institutions will continue to pose in the years to come.

If we are going to get real about preventing another systemic financial collapse, concerted action by governments—individually and in cooperation—to exercise their regulatory, redistributive and remedial roles in the economy is now more important than ever.

This blog article, by CESR Senior Researcher Niko Lusiani, was originally written for the joint civil society initiative Righting Finance: A Bottom-Up Approach to Righting Financial Regulation. Photos courtesy of Scott Lynch (Flickr).

Posted by Niko Lusiani on June 25th, 2013

Major advance for social justice as 'OP' comes into force

It is often observed that good news tends not to attract quite so many headlines as more negative events. Human rights defenders and social justice advocates the world over had reason to celebrate on May 5, however, as the long-awaited Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights finally entered into force.

Committe on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights member
Maria-Virginia Bras Gomes chats with CESR’s Ignacio Saiz
at one of the OHCHR panel events on May 10

The new mechanism represents a crucial step forward for economic, social and cultural rights, as it allows individuals and groups whose rights have been violated to file a complaint with the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights if their own government fails to provide a remedy. This means that fundamental rights such as health, education, housing, food, work, water and sanitation are now better protected at the international level.
Implementation of the ‘OP’ sends an important message to national governments, reaffirming their obligations under international human rights law. It also places economic, social and cultural rights on an equal footing with civil and political rights, which have enjoyed the protection of similar mechanisms for nearly 40 years.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the Optional Protocol confirms that economic, social and cultural rights are fully justiciable and that those responsible for violations can and must be held accountable through legal structures. While the OP is designed to complement, rather than replace, national mechanisms, it will serve an important function in furthering understanding of the duties that flow from states’ economic and social rights obligations. It will also, of course, offer a vital avenue for vulnerable people to hold their governments to account.

On May 10, leading economic, social and cultural rights defenders from around the world met up with High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at the United Nations New York headquarters for a series of activities to mark the entry into force of the OP. The activities staged to celebrate the Protocol’s arrival included a panel discussion on human rights indicators in the post-2015 framework, in which CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz participated.

While the Optional Protocol has been a long time in the making, with discussions going back as far as 1990, Uruguay effectively opened the door for it to become a reality when it provided the tenth ratification in February this year. The minimum threshold of ten States Parties was thereby passed and the way cleared for implementation. So far, the OP has also been ratified by Argentina, Spain, Ecuador, Mongolia, Bolivia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovakia, El Salvador and Portugal. Over 30 more countries have already signed up to the new mechanism, however, and it is to be hoped that they, along with all others, will soon take the final definitive step of formally ratifying it.

The video below, which was produced by the global network ESCR-Net, brings together the voices of member organizations all over the world on the occasion of the Optional Protocol's entry into force:

Posted by Luke Holland on May 13th, 2013

Financial crisis deepens: will the lessons be learnt?

In this guest blog posting Martin Khor, Executive Director of The South Centre, examines the unfolding crisis in Cyprus and asks whether the lessons of the past will ever be understood.

This time it is Cyprus’ turn to face bitter financial crisis as bank depositors get hit and capital controls are imposed.  Will the lessons about these crises ever be learnt?

The Cyprus crisis has again shown that over-dependence on the financial sector and an unregulated and liberalised financial system can cause havoc to an economy.

The particular manner in which a financial crisis manifests itself may be different from country to country, depending on the ways that country became financially over-reliant or over-liberalised, and also on how ever-changing external conditions impact on the country.

For the past two weeks, Cyprus hit the headlines because of the rapid twists and turns of its crisis, the terms of the bailout it negotiated with its European and IMF creditors, the hit that bank depositors are forced to take, and finally the “capital controls” that the government has imposed to prevent bank runs and capital flight out of the country.

Depositors with more than 100,000 euros could lose more than half their savings.  Bank customers can only withdraw 300 euros cash daily; cashing of cheques is prohibited; transfers of funds to accounts held abroad or in other credit institutions are prohibited; transfers due to trade transactions above 5000 euros a day require central bank permission; the use of credit cards overseas is restricted to 5,000 euros per account a month; and travellers can only take out 1,000 euros in cash or equivalent in foreign currencies per trip.

These capital controls, announced on 28 March, were highlighted in the media as the first to be imposed by a country belonging to the European Union.  It was like the slaying of a “sacred cow”, because the freedom to move funds out of and into the European countries has been treated almost like a human right.

But it is this total freedom for the flow of funds that has contributed or even been ultimately responsible for so many financial crises in so many countries in the past few decades.

This liberalised system of capital flows enables residents to place their funds abroad or to purchase foreign assets like bonds and shares.  It also enables foreigners to bring in funds either for short-term speculation and investment or longer-term investment and savings.

After the Second World War, capital controls were the rule; flows of funds to and from abroad were mainly restricted to activities linked to the real economy of trade, direct investments and travel. But from the mid-1970s the liberalisation of capital flows took place in the rich economies and then gradually spread to many developing countries.

The de-regulated flows whether into or out of the country can cause volatility and instability.  For instance, the huge flows of capital into emerging economies due to easy money policies in the United States and Europe have caused these countries’ currencies to rise (making their exports less competitive) and their housing and property prices to inflate.

The finance ministers of Brazil and other developing countries have been protesting against the easy-money policies in rich countries that have had adverse effects on emerging economies.

When the internal or external situation changes and investor perception changes with it, the inflow of funds turns into its opposite.  The sudden outflow of funds, and depreciation of the currency, can then cause an even more devastating effect on the economy.

In this reversed situation, the foreign reserves may fall to a dangerous level, and local companies and banks that borrowed from abroad because of the low interest rates face difficulties to service their foreign loans because the local currency has depreciated.

In the 1997-99 crisis, East Asian countries that had over-liberalised their financial system found that local banks and companies had borrowed heavily in US dollars and when their currencies depreciated, many of the borrowers could not service their loans.  The countries’ foreign reserves dropped to danger levels, forcing them to go to the IMF for bailout loans.

Malaysia fortunately had some controls then over the amounts local companies could borrow from abroad, which prevented it from falling into an external debt crisis.

But the large ringgit depreciation, huge outflow of funds and declining reserves almost landed the country into a crisis nevertheless. At that point the imposition of capital controls over outflows in September 1998  enabled Malaysia to avoid a financial crisis requiring an IMF bailout.

The immediate response from the IMF and the Western establishment was that the capital controls would destroy the Malaysian economy.  Today the economic orthodoxy has changed, and most analysts including at the IMF give credit to Malaysia for the capital controls.

The Malaysian controls included a temporary ban on foreigners transferring their ringgit denominated funds (for example in the stock market) to abroad, a limit to the funds local travellers could take out of the country, and limits to overseas investments by local companies and individuals. Outflows of profits by foreign direct investors and transfers of funds arising from imports and exports were allowed.

The controls were relaxed and then removed in a few years as the economic situation improved.

Today, the IMF itself has changed its position, saying that capital controls in certain situations are not only legitimate but may also be necessary.  It has partially recognised that unregulated capital flows can cause financial instability and economic damage.      

In the case of Cyprus, on hindsight the analysts now conclude that its growth model was flawed because it was too reliant on a bloated financial sector, having become a haven for foreign savers, especially from Russia.

But a major factor in its recent crisis was that the country’s biggest banks invested in Greek government bonds.  In October 2011, a bailout package was arranged for Greece by the European Union and the IMF.

Part of the bailout terms was that holders of Greek government bonds would take a “haircut” or loss of about 50%.  This Greek debt restructuring meant a loss of 4 billion euros for banks in Cyprus, a huge amount in a country whose GNP is only 18 billion euros.

Now it is Cyprus’ own turn to be reconfigured and re-created as part of a 10 billion euro bailout scheme. The two biggest banks, Bank of Cyprus and Laiki Bank are to be drastically restructured, with the latter to be closed.

The biggest innovation designed by the European Union and IMF creditors is that the bank depositors will have to take losses.  Deposits less than 100,000 euros are to be spared, after an original plan to also “tax” them by 6.75% was cancelled after a huge outcry and the fear of contagion, with bank runs in many European countries.

The final plan is for deposits over 100,000 euros in the two banks to take losses not by the originally planned 9.9% but by much more.  Big depositors may lose half of their money in the Bank of Cyprus whereas those in Laiki Bank may lose even more than that.

The big depositors are not only rich Russians who parked their assets in Cyprus but local institutions like the University of Cyprus which had its assets deposited in the two banks.

The new European policy of getting bank depositors to take a big hit in bailouts of banks will have big ramifications for public confidence in banks. The new perception is that money put as savings in banks is no longer safe.

The capital controls are another European first.  They are considered draconian, but necessary in the changed conditions of Cyprus.

The orthodoxy in finance and in economic policy is changing due to one crisis after another.  Sixteen years ago the crisis was in Asia; five years ago its epicentre was the United States and today Europe is in the grip of the crisis. 

The question remains: will the policy makers learn the real lessons from these crises?.  

Posted by Luke Holland on April 5th, 2013

UN conference hears resounding call for human rights-based governance post-2015

A major meeting on the post-2015 agenda has heard that human rights and accountability must be placed at the heart of governance at the national and global levels. Global civil society’s desire for more just forms of political and economic governance took center-stage as the final meeting of the United Nations Thematic Consultation on Governance and the Post-2015 Framework was held in Johannesburg last week.

Organized by the United Nations Development Program and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the meeting brought together some 170 participants from all corners of the planet, ranging from parliamentarians and academics to grassroots activists and civil society leaders, to discuss the role governance and accountability should play in a future development paradigm.

CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz addresses one
of the plenary sessions at the Johannesburg event
Addressing one of the plenary sessions, CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz highlighted key dimensions of just governance which had emerged from civil society discussions co-facilitated by CESR as part of the Beyond 2015 campaign. "A new vision of governance, grounded in principles of human rights, equality, participation, transparency, access to justice and accountability,  should be a cornerstone of the post-2105 sustainable development agenda", he said.

The meeting, one of a series of international thematic consultations feeding into the design of the new development agenda, will deliver a report synthesizing the views expressed to the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda and the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals.  A high point of the meeting was the address by High Level Panel member Graça Machel, who spoke of the panel´s commitment to ensuring that issues of governance, human rights and inequality were central to the new framework. There was wide consensus at the meeting that weak and unaccountable governance, including at the global level, is one of the key issues that must be addressed in a future framework, and that democratic governance must be predicated on respect for the full range of human rights.  

A newly-published position paper from Beyond-2015 sets out the core dimensions of "just governance" that should be incorporated into more equitable and human rights-centred vision of governance post-2015. The document, which was co-coordinated by CESR and the Global Call to Action Against Poverty in order to channel Beyond 2015´s input into the governance consultations, represents the consensus of over 500 organizations that are members of the worldwide campaign.

Ultimately, it will be up to the international community to decide the parameters of the successor framework when it gathers for the MDG Review Summit in New York next September. It is imperative that the worldwide civil society clamour for rights-based governance is heeded in the run up to this important event, which is likely to prove pivotal for the future of international development, and hence for the human rights of ordinary people everywhere.

To learn more about CESR’s work on the post-2015 development agenda, click here.

Posted by Luke Holland on March 4th, 2013

King, Keynes and Obama’s legacy at the IMF

‘True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.’  - Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967

‘The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping old ones.’ - John Maynard Keynes, 1935

If he were not assassinated while building a cross-racial, nationwide Poor People’s Human Rights Campaign for decent work and a living wage for all, Martin Luther King Jr would have turned 84 this week. As a testament to his legacy, President Barack Obama will be sworn in upon King’s very own copy of the Bible. But do the iconic human rights leader’s principles inform the President’s priorities? King’s last years were dedicated to economic justice for all, and he would surely be turning in his grave at the sight of private financial actors running roughshod over working people worldwide. What will President Obama—the one man ultimately responsible for holding Wall Street accountable, and with decisive voting power in the world’s primary public financial institution, the IMF—do to stem the tide of deepening deprivation and disparity at home, a European continent mired in the black hole of austerity, and a globalized financial system using US territory to concentrate wealth and power at the top? Is this too tall a task for an administration facing severe domestic constraints?

It remains to be seen whether Martin Luther King’s vision
of social justice will ever be reflected in IMF policy
Well, there’s one thing Obama could do on the first day of his second term: call up his friends at the IMF, and tell them to get serious about tackling the global economic crisis by dropping their antiquated ideologies, and allowing governments to use all the tools at their disposal to combat inequality through progressive taxation and regulate their financial systems to bring some discipline and stability to a floundering, free-for-all economy.

It would seem the International Monetary Fund has been experiencing something of an epiphany lately. Or so the story goes.

In a much-lauded study released by the IMF’s head economist this month, the institution admitted its fault for miscalculating how bad austerity-based economic policies would be for countries in crisis; two to three times as bad as previously estimated for Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, for example. Not only did every dollar of budget cuts or tax increases rob people of around a buck and a half of economic growth, the regressive policies also depressed investment and consumption even more than recognized, especially at the early stages of the crisis. This is not an academic exercise, let’s remember. IMF forecasts on growth determine to a large degree the price governments have to pay to borrow money in a crunch, and thus the cost of essential public services like health, education, jobs programs, unemployment insurance, and food assistance which are so necessary to prevent an even deeper human rights crisis in times of recession. Let’s leave aside for a moment the regressive conditionalities set by the IMF in its deals to bail out Ireland and Greece. By advising many other governments to roll back essential public services in dire economic circumstances, inaccurate IMF estimates cost people their livelihoods, and, in some cases, their lives.

Much damage has already been done. But let’s call a spade a spade, and extend a tentative bravo to IMF researchers for inching the organization toward shelving this antiquated ‘cut-to-grow’ myth. Indeed, this recent mea culpa precedes a body of work questioning a series of its most-cherished institutional positions, for example on capital controls, inflation targets, macro-prudential financial regulation, the effect of many free trade agreements on the ability of governments to regulate their financial markets, along with the role of income inequality in driving financial instability.

While attending the International Monetary Conference in Savannah, Georgia—not far from where Martin Luther King Jr. was born and lived most of his life—a deeply disappointed John Maynard Keynes spent what were to be his final days watching as his intellectual children, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, went awry in their 1946 inauguration, captured he feared by the might of the US’ newfound economic and military superiority. Inspired by the performance of the Sleeping Beauty he’d recently seen, Keynes wished some mythical fairy-godmothers would grant Master Fund and Miss Bank three gifts: first, a rainbow coat ‘as a perpetual reminder that they belong to the whole world’; second, vitamins to encourage ‘energy and a fearless spirit, which does not shelve and avoid difficult issues, but welcomes them and is determined to solve them’; and lastly, ‘a spirit of wisdom … so that their approach to every problem is absolutely objective.’

Will the IMF become an evolving, creative, evidence-based, wise, and truly global institution with everyone’s interest in mind, and a firm determination to fight back against the fiscal fallacies reproducing poverty, inequality and economic strife? Or will it continue to succumb to the inertia of old ideas, and remain a guardian of an ideologically-captured economic edifice owned by and acting for the economic elite, with only charitable crumbs for the poor?

Let us hope on this day that King’s legacy speaks across the ages to inspire the institution’s biggest vote-holder, Barack Obama, to make Master Fund’s fundamental aim the realization of economic and social rights for all.

This blog by CESR Senior Researcher Niko Lusiani was originally written for the Righting Financial Regulation website.

Posted by Niko Lusiani on January 20th, 2013

UN expert body warns world of austerity threat to human rights

When the cure is more damaging than the ailment, can we really speak of recovery? In the United States and much of Europe a bitter human price is being paid for the continuing austerity drive, while the massive bailouts afforded to financial insitutions have rendered little in the way of economic revival. And with meaningful recovery still remaining elusive, the logic of deficit reduction uber alles is finally being challenged not just on the streets, but also in the halls of political power.

In his recent speech to the UN General Assembly in New York, Mr. Ariranga Govindasamy Pillay, Chairperson of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, urged governments considering austerity measures to remember that protecting these rights is not just a legal obligation, it is also good economics.

Mr Pillay warned the General Assembly in New York
that austerity is threatening human rights.

"Many States are faced with difficult decisions that have to be made in the face of rising public deficit and poor economic growth," he said. "Yet taking retrogressive steps in relation to economic, social and cultural rights is not only contrary to one’s obligations under the Covenant, but is also increasingly acknowledged as a disincentive to growth and does not, therefore, constitute an escape route out of the crisis."

He went on to warn of the dangers of shortsighted retrenchment in social spending: "taking retrogressive steps can lead to social insecurity and political instability, and can often have a disproportionate impact on women, children, and especially disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups. I would, therefore, encourage States parties to our Covenant to ensure that policies dealing with the economic downturn are in line with their obligations to respect, protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights."

Under Article 2 of the Covenant, states parties are required to adopt and implement laws and policies to achieve improvements in universal access to basic goods and services such as health care, education, housing, and social security. These advances are to be achieved by deploying the maximum of available resources, and without discrimination. CESR’s research into the impacts of the crisis shows that such considerations have been ignored by many governments in the rush to implement austerity measures, which instead of promoting progress have steadily undermined some of the most basic dimensions of a life of dignity.

Moreover, the dominant discourse that draconian cutbacks are the only option for crisis-hit countries – which are also charged with creating the quagmire through profligate spending – is demonstrably false. The idea that leading central banks and international financial institutions are neutral bodies, and that they must be unencumbered by public scrutiny as they discharge a technocratic and apolitical role, has likewise been refuted.

The Committee has echoed the voice of civil society in affirming that human rights standards do not become dispensible in times of economic crisis. Instead, the principles underpinning economic and social rights, in particular, become all the more important when fiscal pressures threaten the well-being of ordinary people. Governments who have voluntarily ratified the Covenant  are obliged at all times to justify any cuts that might undermine people’s rights by demonstrating that they are reasonable in reference to the totality of rights. They are also required to fully explore alternative sources of revenue, such as tax policy reform, and to ensure the principles of transparency, public participation and accountability are provided for in the policy cycle. Had governments in countries like Ireland and Spain given more consideration to these obligations before implementing severe austerity programs, much of the human suffering engendered by their ill-conceived crisis response policies might have been avoided.

Civil society organizations have worked hard to provide evidence of the harmful effects of unchecked austerity measures in the context of the most recent state reviews before this body. During its 48th session held in May this year, and amidst growing concern over the legality of austerity packages in a variety of countries, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights took the unusual step of issuing an open letter to clarify the matter. The comuniqué reminded governments that the Covenant “provides certain important guideposts which can help States Parties to adopt appropriate policies that deal with economic downturn while respecting economic, social and cultural rights”. These guidelines make it clear that such policies should be temporary, non-discriminatory, necessary and proportionate in nature. They should also consider all possible measures, including tax reform, and provide for the minimum core content of rights affected, sometimes captured in the idea of a social protection floor.

Mr Pillay’s latest call for better protection of economic and social rights in the context of the crisis comes at a pivotal moment, as the IMF has admitted that it previously underestimated the pernicious impact of overzealous spending reductions, and its Managing Director Christine Lagarde has spoken out personally on the dangers of further cuts. Even European Commission Chief Juan Manuel Barroso, a staunch “austerity hawk”, has recognized the crucial importance of restoring growth to beleaguered European economies. There are also encouraging, albeit incipient, signs of private sector institutions such as credit ratings agencies being held to account for their role in fomenting a dysfunctional financial system.

As noted by Mr Pillar in his address, the human rights framework also has a critical role to play in achieving better development outcomes in the future. “Indeed, the promotion and protection of economic, social and cultural rights is the foundation for achieving the key ‘beyond-2015’ issues related to discrimination and inequalities, education, health, social protection, macro economic stability, intellectual property rights and many other issues,” he said.

In the same vein, here at CESR we believe the human rights framework represents more than a set of constraints on policy options; it also opens the door to justifying alternative approaches to economic downturn that offer a way out of the crisis while also protecting the fundamental dignity of all. Better financial regulation, equitable forms of  taxation like the financial transaction tax and greater emphasis on the duty of governments to cooperate in the mobilization of resources to prevent the need for austerity to begin with—especially by  combating corrosive tax evasion—are all foundations to a human rights-centered economic policy in times of crisis.

With the consensus among policy-makers finally beginning to swing away from austerity, we can see the human rights-respecting approach to the crisis beginning to finally emerge. The achievement of this goal is far from a foregone conclusion, however, and with unnecessary spending cuts continuing to undermine human rights all around the world, much work remains to be done. For this reason CESR and its partners will continue working to expose the fiscal fallacies underpinning austerity, and to promote policy alternatives and to seek justice for the systemic human rights consequences of the economic crisis. To learn more about our work, visit the ‘Rights in Crisis’ page.

Recent CESR ‘Rights in Crisis’ publications:

Posted by Luke Holland on November 8th, 2012

Europe moves forward on Robin Hood Tax while US balks

Europe’s much talked-about financial transactions tax has come one step closer after a coalition of 11 countries – including France, Germany, Italy and Spain – agreed to move ahead with the initiative despite the opposition of several other states. A number of countries, such as Britain and Sweden, remain opposed to the ‘FTT’, but at a meeting of European Union finance ministers on Tuesday its proponents decided to avail of the EU’s ‘enhanced cooperation’ facility, thereby clearing the way for officials to begin designing the mechanism.

Protesters in Belgium demand implementation of the FTT.
Photo courtesy of Oxfam Belgium.
Much work remains to be done if the FTT is eventually to become a more widespread reality, however, as certain key states remain reticent. Indeed representatives of the world’s largest economy have been accused to trying to convince other countries not to go ahead with it. In a joint letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner, CESR joined a large group of US civil society organizations such as ActionAid, Friends of the Earth US, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, National Nurses United and Tax Justice Network USA to call on the US government to stop discouraging other nations from considering an FTT. The letter was issued after a US official made misleading statements, insisting that the FTT was not feasible. Paul Bodnar—a  member of the US climate negotiating team—argued at a recent UN meeting on climate change financing that it would be all but impossible to implement the FTT globally, and that financial traders would find ways to circumvent it anyway. He also affirmed that finance for climate change mitigation — one of they central motivations cited by those advocating for the FTT – should be directly linked to emissions. His arguments are rebuffed in the joint letter, which was signed by some 63 civil society organizations. Such taxes do not have to be global to be effective, as demonstrated by the fact that they are already up and running in many countries, and international financial transactions are actually relatively easy to monitor. The idea that a tax must be directly linked to the source of taxation, meanwhile, is patently erroneous. The weight of the civil society initiative, led by Friends of the Earth, was reflected in extensive media coverage as influentia institutions such as Bloomberg reported on the letter.

Civil society has also targetted World Bank President Jim Yong Kim in a joint letter, calling on him to use his position to champion the ‘Robin Hood Tax’, as it has come to be known. CESR added its voice to that of 57 other organizations by signing the communiqué, which provided yet more evidence of the growing civil socity consensus on the practicality and importance of the FTT. The viability of the financial transaction tax is further underlined by the backing it has received from many prominent economists and political actors. Support from leading business figures like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett is mirrored in the endorsement of political and diplomatic leaders such as Kofi Annan, Al Gore and even IMF boss Christine Lagarde.

In a time when multiple crises are exacting a devastating toll on the wellbeing of ordinary people everywhere, political leaders would also do well to remember the human rights principles underpinning calls for the financial transactions tax. The measure would go some way to integrate a modicum of equality and progressivity into a system where these are sorely lacking. Keeping in mind the role high-frequency trading has played in provoking the food and fuel crises, not to mention ongoing economic quagmire in which the world finds itself, the FTT could also help in preventing human rights abuses by third parties, as is required by international human rights law.

But perhaps most obviously, the FTT is precisely the kind of common-sense measure that would help governments comply with their obligation to mobilise the “maximum of available resources” for the protection of economic and social rights. It is estimated that the European FTT could raise in excess of €57 billion (US $75 billion) a year for the protection economic and social rights, while an FTT rolled out across the G20 group of nations could mobilise in excess of $250 billion.

Photograph of FTT demonstrators in Belgium courtesy of Oxfam Belgium

Posted by Luke Holland on October 10th, 2012

Human Rights after Rio+20: failure is not an option

The Rio+20 conference on Sustainable Development was originally intended to achieve consensus on a framework for sustainable and just global development. As the conference draws to a conclusion in the eponymous Brazilian city, the only consensus in evidence is that the international community has once again failed to reach a meaningful agreement, despite the critical importance of the event for current and future generations.

‘The Future We Want’ was the slogan on banners promoting the meeting, but the resulting outcome document is unlikely to deliver anything on this worthy promise. The agreement appears to have sacrificed a swathe of key human rights and social justice concerns, prompting former High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson to brand it a ‘failure of leadership’. While commitments to certain economic and social rights, including food, water, education and health were ‘reaffirmed’ in the document, language on the critical issues of transparency and accountability is far too weak to ensure these affirmations translate into meaningful change. References to freedom of speech and association have meanwhile been omitted altogether.

Disagreement between various countries over how the costs of sustainable development should be borne, and by whom, has effectively blocked agreement on a more ambitious plan that could provide for the needs of the current generation, without undermining the ability of future generations to provide for their needs too. Against a backdrop of multiple crises, widening inequality and potentially catastrophic environmental degradation, the international community faces a moral and political imperative to find a way past this deadlock. Indeed, as UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon recently warned, the world runs the risk of sabotaging its future if it does not rise to this challenge.

The agreement hammered out in Rio does not mark the end of the road, however. As the dust settles on what has been a largely disappointing event from the point of view of social justice advocates, governments at the meeting have at least committed to creating a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs). If this new framework is to succeed in shifting the world onto a fairer and more sustainable development path, it is of fundamental importance that it be grounded in human rights.

Past experience has made it abundantly clear that the failure to include human rights norms and principles into international development frameworks can lead to the most fundamental rights of vulnerable groups being undermined rather than promoted. Development-induced pollution of air, soil and water resources all too often leads to people’s rights to health, housing, food, water and even life being put at risk. CESR’s work in countries such as Ecuador has illustrated the devastating impact irresponsible business activities can have on both human rights and the environment. Indigenous peoples’ land rights are often trampled on in the rush to exploit resources, while forced evictions are carried out to clear the ground for infrastructure projects and biofuel production displaces traditional agriculture, thereby threatening the right to food.

The integration of human rights norms and standards into development plans can not only avert such lamentable outcomes, but also ensure that the fruits of development are more fairly distributed while also protecting the environment. Proper participation mechanisms, in accordance with the provisions of international human rights law, can be incorporated into both the design and implementation of development plans and policies so as to ensure these efforts serve to protect and fulfill the rights of ordinary people.

In an age when economic crisis is being used as a pretext in many countries to cut the types of social spending and development cooperation needed to meet the Millennium Development Goals, decision-makers should remember that international human rights law mandates them to deploy the maximum of available resources for the fulfillment of economic and social rights. This includes the generation of resources, through progressive taxation and whatever other means may be available, and the fullest possible international cooperation by both donor and recipient states. It is likewise imperative that existing aid promises be fulfilled.

Operationalizing the principles of equality and non-discrimination in development policy can likewise guarantee that economic progress serves to protect vulnerable sectors and diminish the disparities in our society, rather than exacerbate them. Given that rising inequality both within and between countries was one of the key contributory factors to the global economic crisis, the importance of tackling this issue cannot be understated. Entrenched inequality is not only a moral question - it is also represents an economic blight as it manifests in a dearth of opportunities which in turn translates into the wasting of our most valuable resource: people.

Moreover, the standards that form the human rights framework apply to states not only in their domestic policy-making, but also through their international interactions and their membership of international governance institutions.

It is to be hoped that the weakness of the document that has emerged from last week’s negotiations in Rio will be compensated by a more meaningful set of “SDGs”. The process of designing these goals, that will get underway at the UN General Assembly in September, may have determinative influence on the future course of global development, and thereby on the lives and wellbeing of people everywhere. With the deadline for the MDGs just a few years away, and dialogue on a new set of objectives already in full swing, the SDGs will also serve as a crucial precursor to further development negotiations at a pivotal moment in our collective evolution. Amidst warnings from a panel of Nobel laureates, ministers and scientists that a business-as-usual approach may “trigger abrupt and irreversible changes with catastrophic outcomes for human societies and life as we know it,” our leaders should be fully aware of the magnitude of the responsibility they shoulder. It is not only our future, but also that of coming generations, that is at stake.

Images: First photo shows Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan at the opening ceremony of the Rio+20 conference. Second photo shows pollution from an industrial plant flooding a fishing harbour in Washington State. Both images courtesy of UN Photo.

Posted by on June 21st, 2012

Spain answers to UN for rights impacts of crisis response

Amidst the deep economic crisis in which it currently finds itself, the Spanish state has an important date with the United Nations on May 7 and 8 at which it must explain the human rights repercussions of its social and economic policies. When Spain appears before the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) for the first time in eight years it will be obliged to respond to the international community for its handling of the crisis and for the severe austerity measures adopted to confront it, which are putting the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights at risk.

The Committee is one of the international system’s mechanisms for defending and guaranteeing human rights. Lamentably, these are often unknown to much of society. The mission of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is to supervise the application of provisions in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by states that have ratified it. This international treaty – ratified by Spain in 1977 – includes binding legal obligations that states must respect, protect and fulfill with regard to the rights to decent work, social security and protection, protection of the family, and an adequate standard of living, along with the rights to housing, education, health, culture and rights at work. The Committee evaluates the degree of compliance with the Covenant, not only in terms of the national legal framework, but also with regard to the translation of these norms into public policies, the resources deployed and the corresponding impact of government action on the full enjoyment of these human rights.

Since the last time Spain appeared before the Committee in 2004, the situation of economic and social rights in the country has suffered a series of reverses, with the economic crisis as a backdrop: unemployment has reached historic levels, affecting almost 24 per cent of the population and half of young people under 25; child poverty is besieging one in four boys and girls; mortgage repossessions have multiplied, resulting in thousands of families losing their homes, and cutbacks are exacting a heavy toll on health and education.

For its part, civil society has produced a number of alternative reports providing evidence of this situation. One particularly strong example is the Parallel Report delivered by a coalition of 19 Spanish NGOs. Some of the organizations which participated in this coalition presented their conclusions and recommendations to the ESCR Committee in Geneva on May 7, in advance of Spain’s examination.

The conclusions of this report point to an extremely worrying situation, confirming the pernicious effects on economic and social rights of the austerity measures adopted by Spain to confront the economic and financial crisis. Similarly, it has become clear that inequality in the distribution of resources in Spain, which in turn leads to differences in and threats to these rights according to geographic location, has increased, while there is a marked absence of specific measures to protect the most vulnerable populations (women, immigrants, persons with disabilities, the Gitano community and children). The report also provides evidence of deficient accountability of the Spanish state and the absence of effective mechanisms to promote real and effective civil society participation in economic and social matters.

In accordance with Article 2 of ICESCR, Spain committed to adopt measures “to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means”. It can be affirmed, as indeed it was by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillar at the opening of the 48th session of the Committee, that “at a time of dwindling resources and shrinking national budgets, we must insist that such obligations be carried out. (The) Committee has a vital role to play both in discouraging the adoption of retrogressive measures that may negatively impact on people’s  social rights, and in helping to find viable responses to the crises in respect of international human rights law.”

Spain faces a crucial examination to determine whether it is complying with the human rights obligations by which it is bound; it must give account of its progress, or deterioration, in the field of ESC rights.

For more information, see the Joint Submission to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the United Nations, presented by the Center for Economic and Social Rights and 18 other Spanish civil society organizations in May 2012.  The sessions will be broadcast on the internet at:

Photo of anti-austerity protesters courtesy of Olmo Calvo.

Posted by Marga Lema Tomé on

Niñas y niños en un mundo urbano: Derechos negados, oportunidades desperdiciadas

Se avecina rápidamente el día en que la mayoría de los niños y niñas del mundo crecerán en zonas urbanas, tal como ya lo hacen más de 1.000 millones de ellos. Muchos de estos lugares se ven divididos por las desigualdades en el disfrute de los derechos, la distribución del poder y recursos y en lo más profundo, las posibilidades de los niños y niñas de seguir vivos y salir adelante.

Como señala UNICEF en el Estado Mundial de la Infancia 2012: Niñas y niños en un mundo urbano, la desigualdad urbana nos enfrenta a diario. Cientos de millones de niños, niñas y jóvenes padecen privaciones y vulnerabilidades en los mismos centros urbanos que albergan las élites comerciales, políticas y culturales. Son demasiados los niños y niñas que pasan sus días buscando algo que vender entre las basuras o fabricando ladrillos para los hogares de otras personas. Sus noches las pasan en viviendas improvisadas bajo la amenaza del desalojo forzado o en la calle.

En teoría, los niños y niñas que viven en la pobreza en zonas urbanas cuentan con todos los derechos económicos, sociales, civiles, políticos y culturales que reconocen los instrumentos internacionales. De ellos, el que ha sido ratificado más rápida y ampliamente es la Convención sobre los Derechos del Niño. En realidad, estos niños y niñas padecen las peores condiciones y son los habitantes de ciudades más necesitados. Es decir, se afrontan a las mayores violaciones de sus derechos.

Y las violaciones empiezan desde el primer día.

En teoría, cada niño tiene el derecho a ser inscrito al nacer y tener un nombre, y el derecho a adquirir una nacionalidad y a conservar su identidad. En realidad, más de uno de cada tres nacimientos en las grandes y pequeñas ciudades del mundo quedan sin ser inscritos. En las zonas urbanas de África subsahariana y  Asia meridional, no se inscribe casi uno de cada dos. Los niños y niñas carentes de una identidad oficial resultan invisibles, por lo tanto, están mucho más expuestos a la explotación y maltrato, por ejemplo, al verse obligados a participar en un grupo armado, trabajar en condiciones peligrosas o a contraer matrimonio a temprana edad. Aun para los niños y niñas que evitan estas dificultades puede resultar imposible tener acceso a servicios vitales como la educación.

Contar con un certificado de nacimiento no garantiza el acceso a los servicios ni a la protección contra los abusos. Pero las obligaciones que encierra la Convención fácilmente pueden pasarse por alto cuando se considera, a todos los efectos, que asentamientos enteros no existen y las personas pueden ser despojadas de sus derechos como ciudadanos por falta de documentos oficiales.

En teoría, cada niño y niña tiene el derecho a sobrevivir y desarrollar hasta alcanzar todo su potencial. En realidad, casi 8 millones de niños murieron en 2010 antes de llegar a la edad de 5 años a causa de la neumonía, la diarrea y las complicaciones durante el parto. Los niños que viven en asentamientos urbanos improvisados, hacinados e insalubres, como son los barrios marginales, son especialmente vulnerables. En Bangladesh, datos de 2009 arrojan que la tasa de mortalidad de niños menores de 5 años en los barrios de tugurios es un 79% más alta que la tasa urbana nacional.

Según establece la Convención, cada niño y niña tiene el derecho a una educación. En realidad, los niños y niñas provenientes de zonas urbanas pobres están en desventaja y es así desde muy pequeños. Aunque el 25% de los niños y niñas en las zonas urbanas de Egipto asistieron a centros de enseñanza preescolar en 2005-2006, apenas el 4% de los niños en los hogares más pobres disfrutaron de acceso a este servicio.

Entre las violaciones más generalizadas a los derechos de la infancia se encuentran las condiciones de vida inadecuadas. Carecer de una vivienda decente y segura, así como de la infraestructura para sistemas de abastecimiento de agua y saneamiento condena a millones de niños y niñas en zonas urbanas a deficiencias de salud, un desarrollo físico o mental caracterizado por la desnutrición crónica o a la muerte. Incluso a las personas con documentos de identidad se les niegan acuerdos de alquiler apropiados u otros medios de protegerse a sí mismos y a sus hijos contra el desalojo arbitrario. Como observan colaboradoras en el presente informe, las mujeres y los niños y niñas a menudo han de trabajar cerca de sus viviendas para estar a la mano en caso de que el propietario o las autoridades locales aparezcan con excavadoras o matones a sueldo. Cuando se elimina la amenaza constante del desalojo forzado, los niños y niñas comienzan a ir a la escuela y los padres se sienten más seguros para realizar inversiones en viviendas adecuadas.

Evidentemente, otorgar una tenencia segura a familias que viven en asentamientos improvisados debe ser una prioridad. La inscripción de nacimientos se debe ofrecer a todos, al igual que los servicios deben alcanzar a todos los niños y niñas, sin importar si tienen o no alguna hoja de papel u otra. Los niños no deben ser sacrificados en el altar de la burocracia,  ni ha de usarse esta como ardid con la cual privar a los niños de sus derechos.

En teoría, entre los derechos de los niños y niñas está el de participar en la formulación de decisiones que les afectan a ellos y a sus comunidades. En realidad, se les niega este derecho, sobre todo si da la casualidad de que son pobres o vienen del barrio o la comunidad étnica equivocados.

La representación y la participación son derechos, pero si con esto no basta, el informe proporciona ejemplos de varias ciudades que demuestran que cuando se han incluido a los excluidos en los procesos de planificación urbana y toma de decisiones, esto ha dado paso a avances, por ejemplo, en el alfabetismo, la infraestructura y la seguridad. En el informe, se recomiendan formas en que los gobiernos, donantes y organizaciones internacionales pueden promover una gobernanza y vivencias inclusivas para provecho de todos, empezando por los niños y niñas.

Este punto no debe dejar de hacer eco en aquellos predispuestos a los argumentos instrumentales, puesto que la negación del derecho a participar excluye a quienes más tienen en juego, y a menudo los que más pueden ofrecer, del proceso de hallar soluciones que mejoren sus vidas y las de tantos otros.

El autor de este blog, Abid Aslam, es director del informe principal del Unicef, ‘Estado Mundial de la Infancia’. Foto: Una niña en Kirkuk, Iraq, arrastra la chatarra que su familia va a utilizar para reforzar su hogar: un pequeño espacio con cortinas en lugar de paredes, situado en el piso superior de un antiguo estadio de fútbol. © UNICEF/NYHQ2007-2316/Michael Kamber

Las opiniones expresadas en este blog son del autor, no reflejan necesariamente la posición oficial de CESR.

Posted by Abid Aslam on February 29th, 2012

Children in an urban world: Rights denied, opportunities squandered

The day is rapidly approaching when the majority of the world’s children will grow up in urban areas, as more than one billion already do. Many of these places are riven by inequalities – in the enjoyment of rights, the distribution of power and resources and, most profoundly, children’s chances of staying alive and getting ahead.

As UNICEF notes in The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World, urban inequality confronts us daily. Hundreds of millions of children and young people endure deprivation and vulnerability in the very urban centres that are home to commercial, political and cultural elites. Too many spend their days picking through rubbish for something to sell or making bricks for other people’s homes. They spend their nights in makeshift dwellings under threat of eviction or on the street.

On paper, children living in urban poverty have the full range of economic, social, civil, political and cultural rights recognized by international instruments. The most rapidly and widely ratified of these is the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In reality, these children endure the worst conditions and have the greatest needs of any urban dweller. In other words, they face the greatest violations of their rights.

The violations begin on day one

On paper, every child has the right to be registered at birth and to have a name, the right to acquire a nationality and to preserve her or his identity. In reality, more than one in three children in the world’s cities and towns go unregistered at birth. In the urban areas of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, almost every other child is unregistered. Rendered invisible by the lack of an official identity, they are at vastly greater risk of exploitation and abuse: being forced into an armed group, hazardous work or child marriage, for example. Even those who avoid these perils may be unable to access such vital services as schooling.

Registration alone is no guarantee of access to services or protection from abuse. But the obligations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child can be easily disregarded when, in effect, entire settlements can be deemed not to exist and people can be stripped of their citizenship rights for want of papers.

On paper, every child has the right to survive and develop to her or his fullest potential, as well as the right to the highest attainable standard of living. In reality, nearly eight million children died in 2010 before reaching the age of five due to pneumonia, diarrhoea and birth complications. Those living in cramped and unsanitary informal urban settlements – slums – are particularly vulnerable. In Bangladesh, 2009 data show that the under-five mortality rate in slums was 79 per cent higher than the overall urban rate.

Under the Convention, every child has the right to an education. In reality, the odds are stacked against children from impoverished urban backgrounds – and from early on. While 25 per cent of children in Egypt’s urban areas attended kindergarten in 2005-2006, only four per cent of those from the poorest urban households enjoyed access to this service.

Inadequate living conditions are among the most pervasive violations of children’s rights. The lack of decent and secure housing and such infrastructure as water and sanitation systems condemns millions of children in urban areas to poor health, stunted physical or mental development, or death. Even people with identity papers may be denied proper rental agreements or other means of shielding themselves and their children against arbitrary eviction. As contributors to the report observe, women and children often must work near their dwellings so they are close at hand in case the local landlord or authorities appear with bulldozers or hired goons. When the constant threat of eviction is removed, children start going to school and parents feel more confident about investing in proper shelter.

Clearly, granting secure tenure to families living in informal settlements must be a priority. Registration must be extended to all – and services must be extended to all children regardless of whether they have this piece of paper or that. Children must not be sacrificed at the altar of bureaucracy, nor bureaucracy used as a ruse with which to deprive them of their rights.

On paper, children’s entitlements include the right to take part in making decisions that affect them and their communities. In reality, they are denied this right – especially if they happen to be poor or come from the wrong neighbourhood or ethnic community.

Representation and participation are rights, but if this were not enough in itself, the report provides examples from numerous cities that show that where the excluded have been included in urban planning and decision-making, advancements have followed – in literacy, infrastructure and safety, for example. It recommends ways in which governments, donors and international organizations can advance inclusive urban governance and life for the benefit of all, starting with children.

This point should not be lost on those more given to instrumentalist arguments; the denial of the right to participation excludes those with the most at stake – and often, the most to offer – from the process of finding solutions that improve their lives and those of countless others.

The author of this blog posting, Abid Aslam, is the  Editor of the UNICEF report ‘The State of the World’s Children: Children in an Urban World’. Photo shows girl in Kirkuk, Iraq, collecting scrap metal that her family will use to reinforce their home – a small space with curtains for walls on the top floor of a former football stadium. Image provided courtesy of Unicef. © UNICEF/NYHQ2007-2316/Michael Kamber

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the institutional position of CESR.

Posted by Abid Aslam on February 29th, 2012

7 down, 3 to go: Momentum builds for economic and social rights complaints mechanism

Greater accountability for the socio-economic wellbeing of vulnerable groups has come one step closer after Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bolivia ratified the Optional Protocol (‘OP’) to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Their commitment to the new human rights complaints mechanism brings the total number of ratifications to seven.

Their endorsement is significant, as the question of justiciability lies at the very core of the challenges facing economic and social rights. If the dignity and inherent human rights of individuals and communities are to be effectively protected, those individuals must have access to justice, and thus accountability mechanisms, when their rights are put at risk.

In an age when austerity-driven fiscal policies are undermining social protection systems, the Optional Protocol can offer an important tool for people to defend their economic and social rights (ESCR). Given that lacklustre accountability systems have also undermined progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, while a lack of effective monitoring and poor enforcement of human rights standards continue to impede progress towards these rights, the importance of the OP should not be underestimated.

Once it comes into force, the ‘OP’ will allow persons within States Parties whose rights have been violated to present complaints before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The existence and international backing of the OP will also serve to further the cause of justiciability of economic and social rights worldwide, and may thereby may have an effect in strengthening ESCR recognition at the national level as well.

Indeed, domestic implementation of the ICESCR has already led to changes in national laws and policies, including constitutional amendments, in many countries. In this way, greater awareness and recognition of states’ obligations to respect, protect, promote and fulfill economic and social rights has been achieved. Full implementation of the OP will help take this process one step further, providing these rights the full and equal status they deserve, and thereby reinforcing the indivisible and interdependent character of all human rights.

The OP must be ratified by ten countries before it comes into force, however. And even though some 39 countries have already signed it, thereby signalling their intention to ratify in the future, only seven have thus far taken the definitive final step. Ecuador, Mongolia and Spain were the first to do so, in 2010, before El Salvador and Argentina followed suit in 2011. There are high hopes that three more ratifications will be delivered before the year is out, though, after Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bolivia added their names to the roster in January. The Republic of Ireland may soon become the second European country to ratify, and eighth overall, having indicated this intention at its recent appearance before the Universal Periodic Review.

When the OP finally becomes operational, it will mark an important milestone in the advancement of economic and social rights. To this end, CESR will continue to collaborate with the NGO Coalition for the Optional Protocol to ICESCR to help narrow the long-standing gap in accountability and justice for economic, social and cultural rights violations.

 Photo of Haitian women collecting water by Marco Dormino, (c) UN Photo.

Posted by Luke Holland on February 7th, 2012

Time to address the economic and social rights deficit

An International Human Rights Day reflection

We live, it has been said, in an age of rights. Undoubtedly, the world is in many ways a more rights-respecting place now than when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted 63 years ago to the day. Thanks to the tireless efforts of local human rights defenders and global movements such as Amnesty International, today’s governments are much less likely to imprison people for their beliefs or opinions, subject them to the death penalty or allow perpetrators of political killings and atrocities of war to escape justice. Human rights have become a marker of legitimate governance, and are a central point of reference in the foreign policy and justice system of practically every country across the globe.

But we also live in an age of austerity, in which many governments are rolling back social welfare gains, weakening labour protections and curtailing economic and social rights in the wake of the greatest global recession since the 1930s. How to balance the fiscal deficit, regulate the volatile financial sector and promote sustainable economic recovery are among the key policy challenges of our time, with profound human rights implications. Yet human rights are largely absent from the debate on these issues, whether at national level or in recent international forums such as the G20, the Busan conference on aid effectiveness or the EU Summit discussions on the European debt crisis.  

When it comes to economic and social policy, our leaders seem more concerned to heed the will of the markets than to protect the economic and social rights of their people. In the words of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “political leaders seem to have forgotten that health care, education, housing, and the fair administration of justice are not commodities for sale to the few, but rather rights to which all are entitled without discrimination. Anything we do in the name of economic policy or development should be designed to advance these rights and, at the very least, should do nothing to undermine their realization.”

Economic and social rights are neither new nor optional. The 1948 Universal Declaration proclaimed the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including food, housing, health and social security, as well as the right to education and to decent work in just conditions, placing these rights on an equal footing with civil and political freedoms. Its drafters sought to consign to history the abysmal levels of poverty, preventable disease and chronic hunger of the post-war world, as lethally tyrannous and crushing of human dignity as conflict, dictatorship and political repression. They would surely be shocked to see the scale of deprivation and inequality that persists amid the unprecedented affluence of the 21st century.

All states have ratified at least one of the core international treaties addressing economic, social and cultural rights, thereby committing to honour the binding legal obligations these set out. Many have enshrined these rights in their national constitutions. Over the last 20 years there has been steady progress in claiming and enforcing the rights to health, education and housing (among others) through domestic courts and international bodies. The impact of legal enforcement has been literally life saving. A new UN complaints mechanism on economic, social and cultural rights, adopted three years ago today, is likely to enter into force next year - a major sign that states are committed to closing the gap in legal protection afforded to these rights.

But economic and social rights must be realized through policy as well as law. Ministers of finance and other key economic and social policymakers seem oblivious to the economic and social rights commitments their countries have signed up to. Yet these must serve as guiding principles of any economic recovery strategy. At the very least, human rights mark a set of red lines which should not be crossed even in times of economic recession: policy efforts should not have discriminatory effects or represent deliberate backsliding on rights; available resources should be maximized through progressive tax reform as well as more equitable spending; and certain minimums, such as guaranteeing a universal social protection floor, must be safeguarded and prioritized in all circumstances.

Matters of economic policy are not the sole preserve of technocrats. They cannot be shielded from citizen scrutiny and participation. There is an increasing clamour for a fairer alternative to the prevailing policy orthodoxy which dictates austerity measures for the majority while protecting the privileges of economic elites. Policymakers must heed these calls for a rights-centred approach to economic and social policy. If they do not, the age of rights may not survive these times of austerity.   

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CESR.

Posted by CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz on December 10th, 2011

Busan: mutual accountability isn’t a one-way relationship

World leaders have been meeting in the South Korean city of Busan this week for the 4th High-level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF4), where some 2,000 delegates have gathered with the aim of improving the quality of development assistance. With the enduring global financial and economic crisis pushing more than 64 million people into extreme poverty and forcing states to adopt extensive and sometimes excessive austerity measures, the stakes are higher than ever.

"Mutual accountability" is on everyone’s lips, yet until now the aid effectiveness agenda has largely centered on improving the accountability of recipients to donors, while the responsibilities of donor countries are either left aside or addressed solely in terms of official development assistance. Too little emphasis is placed on the many ways governments in the North affect and can better contribute to the universal fulfillment of economic, social and cultural rights, in accordance with their extraterritorial human rights obligations.

There are some incipient signs of change, however. The draft outcome document from high-profile meeting, building on the Paris Declaration and the Accra Agenda for Action,  affirms that promoting human rights, democracy and good governance are a key part of development efforts, and acknowledges the importance of transparency and accountability for delivering results, including both “mutual accountability and accountability to the intended beneficiaries of co-operation, as well as to our respective citizens, organizations, constituents and shareholders.”

Civil society is for the first time able to provide feedback to the draft statement, rather than being limited to participating as mere observers as in past fora. A civil society statement coming out of the Busan Global Civil Society Forum convened just before the HLF4 calls on donor states to meet commitments made in Paris and Accra on transparent and untied aid, ensure their own accountability to people, focus on building local capacity in countries, and ensure monitoring and evaluation mechanisms are based on human rights norms and standards. At the same time, civil society is demanding that a human rights based approach to development be adopted by recipient countries so as to ensure non-discrimination, empower vulnerable and marginalized groups to claim their rights, protect the space for civil society to participate in development processes, ensure sustainable and equitable outcomes and promote democratic ownership, decent work, gender equality, and women’s rights and empowerment.

Much remains to be done if human rights are to be transversally mainstreamed into the aid effectiveness agenda. The draft document suggests donor countries are seeking to avoid firm commitments to improve transparency and boost direct budget support, opting instead for non-binding statements of intent. All indications are that poor performance in meeting previous aid commitments will continue into the near future.

While backsliding in aid commitments, many donor governments are simultaneously making it more difficult to mobilize the maximum available resources for human rights fulfillment. Illicit financial flows out of developing countries surpass those of official development assistance by a 10 to 1 ratio, according to experts. Paradoxically, many wealthy, donor countries allow and at times actively encourage the use of their jurisdictions as tax havens, with Switzerland, the USA, Japan, Germany, the UK and Belgium amongst the top 15 on the Financial Secrecy Index. Financial secrecy and the use of tax havens in rich countries permits an international enabling environment prone more to corporate tax dodging and tax evasion and avoidance, than to human rights-based development.

There will no doubt be much discussion of a global partnership for development as initial efforts towards the design of a post-2015 MDG framework unfold. The aid effectiveness agenda should reinforce the key accountability relationships between human rights duty-bearers and human rights-holders to shape an effective, but also equitable, development architecture. Rich countries and poor countries each have duties regarding the universal fulfillment of economic, social and cultural rights. Mutual accountability after all isn’t a one-way relationship.

Photograph of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressing the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness courtesy of Eskinder Debebe, UN Photo. Photograph of Afghan child labourer courtesy of Jawad Jalali, UN Photo.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of CESR.

Posted by Luke Holland and Victoria Wisniewski on December 1st, 2011

G-20 and financial regulation: what’s at stake for economic and social rights?

By CESR Senior Researcher Niko Lusiani.

It’s time for the self-selected rulers of the economic and financial universe to meet once again, this time in Cannes, France, to debate amongst other things financial regulation. So what’s at stake for economic and social rights?

In the midst of growing public resistance to rising inequality and an economic recovery biased toward the financial elite, the Group of 20 governments will meet later this week to thrash out several issues of fundamental importance to economic and social rights, perhaps most importantly financial regulation. As part of our ongoing efforts to defend against austerity-driven cutbacks and promote human rights-centered economic policy alternatives, my organization the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) has joined the Center of Concern, Social Watch, CIVICUS and over 180 other social justice organizations from 54 countries to urge G-20 governments to meet their legal obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights by endorsing human rights-centered stimuli measures, preventing speculative activity that undermines the enjoyment of human rights, and preventing future financial collapse from harming public resources needed for human rights fulfillment. As part of their human rights duties, G-20 governments should also ensure financial institutions pay for the human rights costs of the crisis, and cooperate in increasing transparency and mutual accountability in the raising of revenue.

Human rights-centered economic stimulus measures

The global recovery so feted six months ago is now teetering, if indeed it ever really stood on its own feet. As we approach the brink of another global recession - this time driven largely by fiscal austerity policies and continuing financial instability  - peoples’ access to such basic rights as food, clean water, employment, affordable housing, quality education, social security, and a decent retirement - all of which are already under severe strain - are facing an ominous future. Participatory, transparent, accountable and non-discriminatory economic stimulus measures, on the other hand, can boost demand for goods and services (and thus economic activity) by putting resources into the pockets of people who have no choice but to spend them because of the immediate economic and social deprivations they face. In restoring economic activity (and thus revenue), stimulus measures can also provide the conditions to later pay down any unsustainable public deficits, while also contributing to the building of social, physical and human assets which are the pillars of a productive economy. And the options available to G-20 governments are not hard to find. They include gender- and environmentally-sensitive public infrastructure programs, transformational universal social protection systems, debt restructuring programs to relieve people of onerous housing or student debt burdens, and measures to increase the disposable income of the poor.

Gambling on famine: financial market speculation in commodities

Since the financial crisis, prices in certain commodities - oil and food in particular - have become more and more volatile. As a result, governments and the people they work for have been facing serious economic and social rights challenges, as more and more people are driven into hunger and malnutrition, thus eroding even further the prospect of achieving the MDGs by 2015. The 2008 food crisis, for example, was driven to a large extent by opportunistic commodity trading. The question that begs to be answered, therefore, is from whence has this volatility come? Study after study after study have shown that speculation in commodity derivative markets by globally-significant financial institutions like Goldman Sachs is a significant cause of this rights-threatening volatility. Even the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has attested to the links. While the US has taken some tentative regulatory steps to lightly reign in this speculation, a concerted global approach is needed. G-20 governments can make a start on meeting their obligations to prevent rights infringements stemming from financial speculation by bringing over–the-counter derivatives to public exchanges, establishing meaningful position limits on commodity derivatives, setting up of circuit-breakers, compulsory delivery or altogether banning certain types of derivatives trading in exchanges under their jurisdiction.

Which are too systemically important to fail: banks or human rights?

Over four years after the deepest financial crisis in 50 years, governments - and in particular the US administration - are no closer to guaranteeing that financial institutions will not pose a repeated threat to the global economic system. Will governments once again be forced to bail out banks with public funding at the expense of human rights? Large and complex financial firms, some of them operating in dozens of jurisdictions, have successfully resisted calls to reduce their complexity or size. They are able to profit from the tax and regulatory arbitrage that such a position makes possible, while their intricacy and enormity limits the chance they can be successfully resolved without disrupting vital banking activities in the event of a collapse.

This situation represents a tragedy of the highest order, and is an offense to governments’ legal obligations to take legislative and other steps to prevent and protect against foreseeable systemic human rights infringements by the financial sector. In order to fulfill their duty to protect human rights by preventing further systemic risks, the G-20 governments must undertake measures to reduce the size and complexity of systemically important institutions. This would mean breaking up large firms through direct regulatory intervention, if necessary. Banks cannot be allowed to gamble other peoples’ life-savings away, and so proprietary trading must be firmly separated from traditional banking services.

Governments must make a simple choice. Which are too systemically important to fail: individual private banks or fundamental human rights guarantees?

Bank capital requirements to prevent human rights harms

Like much in the era of liberalization and privatization, governments continue to rely on banks themselves to monitor and police their own capital requirements, in keeping with a model that still holds sway under Basel III’s new global regulatory standard on bank capital adequacy. The regulatory blind-eye afforded to banks, enabling them to hide the true extent of their risks (both to themselves and the global economy), was a significant contributing factor in the 2007 financial crisis which reeked havoc upon human rights worldwide, causing over 400,000 deaths of children in 2009.

Discipline and human rights protection can and must be instilled. In the short to medium term, governments should see regulation of banking services as one essential tool to enhance enjoyment of human rights for all. Instead of giving breaks to manipulative private financial institutions, governments should use regulatory tools to ensure substantive financial equality by protecting the poor and disadvantaged, and, where necessary, allowing for direct state engagement in the provision of banking services.

In the long-term, governments are going to have to replace the existing Basel III requirements with a framework for banking regulation that fully recognizes the duty of states to prevent, protect against and provide effective remedy for human rights infringements caused by irresponsible private financial activity. Stronger capital requirements will no doubt eat into the record profits of the financial sector, and so we can expect them to continue to fight and even blackmail everyday people by withdrawing credit from the economy. Nevertheless, there is little justification for their grievances when these institutions continue to enjoy record profits, pay record bonuses, and claim to operate on a highly efficient basis due to their artificially large size.

Tax justice: raising available resources for economic and social rights

Ask any government why it’s failing to live up to its legal commitments to fulfill the human rights to health, education, social security, work, or any other economic or social right, and they’ll likely tell you they’re broke. Yet, sources of financing are abundant. Governments are in fact obliged to expand their fiscal space under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in order to deploy the “maximum of their available resources” either domestically or through international cooperation to fulfill economic and social rights. What’s more, this obligation does not apply only to the resources under their command now; it also considers those resources which can come under their command in the future via more progressive taxation or financial regulatory policy, for example.

Unfortunately, quite the contrary has occurred over the last three decades, as freedom of capital and investment has generally led to more indirect and regressive tax policies which by definition disproportionately affect poorer and middle-income households. Instead of being held financially accountable for their role in the ongoing financial crisis, governments have for the most part failed to take an obvious first step by making banking and investment institutions and the rich pay their fair share. A once-in-a-generation deal on financial transaction taxes supported by Germany and France could raise substantial sums for desperately under-resourced economic and social rights programs, if it weren’t for the United States, Canada and surprisingly India blocking it. Illicit financial flows - estimated to add up to $1-1.6 trillion per year (more than 10 times worldwide foreign aid) - meanwhile continue to starve governments of essential sources of funding. Those states which facilitate tax evasion and corporate tax holidays, house tax havens, enable secrecy jurisdictions or are otherwise complicit with such illicit cross-border flows should live up to their obligations to cooperate internationally by putting an end to actions or omissions which prevent governments from raising the resources needed to fulfill their human rights obligations and get the economy back on its feet again.

The G-20 countries must acknowledge their responsibility to protect people against the vagaries of an out-of-control financial system, and act before it’s too late.

Niko Lusiani is Senior Researcher with the Center for Economic and Social Rights. Photo of Wall Street protester by Runs With Scissors/Ken Stein Photography. Photo of Mumbai slum by Luke Holland. Photo of President Obama at previous G20 summit courtesy of Downing Street, London. Photo of Afghan child drinking from water tap courtesy of United Nations Photo.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CESR.

The statement signed by CESR and 185 other social justice organizations can be accessed below:

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Civil Society demands ‘better aid’ on International Day for Eradication of Poverty

Nearly 20 years have passed since the United Nations General Assembly declared October 17 as International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. That more progress has not already been made on this issue is a sad reflection of the gap between rhetoric and practice in the international community's commitment to making poverty a thing of the past. Civil society’s determination to build a better future for poor communities remains as resolute as ever, though, and a new campaign is being launched to improve the quality and quantity of aid delivered to developing countries.

Over the past two decades the use of the human rights framework, to address poverty as both cause and effect of systemic violations of people's fundamental rights and dignity, has become a critical facet of the anti-poverty agenda. Challenging the inevitability and quasi-natural character of such deprivation has galvanized social movements and pushed the international community to adopt global political commitments and recognize - albeit timidly - the responsibilities of states and international actors in delivering effective and timely responses to poverty within and across countries.

Many less developed countries still depend heavily on aid to guarantee the basic economic and social rights of their population. Providing international cooperation and assistance to such countries is a human rights obligation, yet many wealthy states have yet to meet the modest aid targets they committed themselves to decades ago. As well as providing better aid - aid that respects human rights principles such as non-discrimination, accountability and participation - richer states must also ensure that their policies in areas such as trade, debt and financial regulation do not hamper the efforts of poorer countries to realize economic and social rights. 

In a time when financial crisis is combining with food emergencies and climate change to exacerbate poverty in many areas, it is crucial that every dollar of international aid is put to the best possible use. With the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals just four years away, it has become clear that even the target of halving extreme poverty is unlikely to be met in some regions.

With these facts in mind, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, of which CESR is a member, has joined forces with BetterAid and the Open Forum for CSO Effectiveness to launch a new initiative entitled “Better Aid for the World We Want”. The campaign aims to pressure governments to redouble their efforts and make sure aid reaches the people who need it most. Organizers have also organized a petition with the objective of pressuring political leaders who will come together for the High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in South Korea in November.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect ths position of CESR. Photo by Kibae Park, (c) UN Photo.

Posted by Luke Holland on October 17th, 2011

Ireland’s economic & social rights record under the spotlight at United Nations

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of CESR. Photographs courtesy of William Murphy and the United Nations.

Just a few days ago, Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister waxed lyrical to the United Nations General Assembly about his country’s heartfelt commitment to the organization. “The UN is the embodiment of freedom and equality,” declared Eamonn Gilmore before an audience of diplomats and politicians in New York. “It is our deep commitment to freedom and equality which places Ireland in the vanguard of international efforts… to eradicate hunger and under-development; and to put an end to human rights abuses around the world.”

Eamonn Gilmore meets Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at the UN in New YorkFine words, indeed, from the Irish politician. There may be some red faces on the morning of October 6, however, when his homeland is called upon to give evidence of this “deep commitment” to human rights at home before the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Ireland’s human rights commitments have been largely ignored in the government’s response to the ongoing economic crisis, and the economic and social rights of normal Irish people are being laid to waste as a result.

This week, CESR is participating in Ireland’s UPR, questioning the human rights impacts of Ireland’s economic recovery measures and illustrating some actionable alternatives.  Our summary briefing highlights the retrogressive impacts of the EU-IMF rescue package imposed on the country. The bailout deal, which is mirrored in the controversial National Recovery Plan (NRP), effectively socializes the losses of an irresponsible financial elite, imposing the costs on normal taxpayers and drastically undermining their social and economic wellbeing. Indeed when the bailout was unveiled in December 2010, the design and terms of the €85-billion package prompted Dublin-based think-tank TASC to declare it was “not a bailout for Ireland”, but rather “a bailout of the European banking system by the Irish taxpayer”.

In accordance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESCR), the Irish government must mobilize and allocate the “maximum available resources” towards progressively fulfilling economic and social rights,   including by making use of available tools to generate new sources of revenue, through taxation or monetary policy, for example. Since the Celtic Tiger economy was thrown into chaos in 2007, a series of austerity budgets have laid siege to economic and social rights in the country. Despite being one of the lowest-tax economies in Europe, with a corporate tax rate amongst the lowest in the industrialized world, Ireland has implemented a recovery program prioritizing cuts in social spending over common-sense progressive tax reforms which would raise the resources necessary to prevent retrogression in economic and social rights.   In this way the NRP fails to properly consider an alternative, human rights-centered economic recovery  in keeping with Ireland’s obligations under the ICESCR.

The Irish government’s apparent disregard for human rights principles is plain to see on the streets of Dublin, Galway and other parts of the country. Poverty is rising fast, as social welfare payments are drastically reduced, while the rate of long-term unemployment more than doubled in 2010. Ireland is also sliding down international rankings of literacy and competency in maths, as investment in education, which was already among the lowest in the OECD, is stripped away. An estimated €1.2 billion is to be slashed from Ireland’s already struggling health service over the next four years, and there have been warnings of a wave of homelessness as the crisis fuels mass mortgage defaults.

Perhaps more tellingly, the principle state agencies concerned with human rights were hurriedly dismantled or had the bulk of their funding withdrawn when it became clear the economy was about to enter stormy seas. The Irish Human Rights Commission - which is mandated to hold Ireland accountable to its human rights obligations - saw its funding slashed by 32 percent, while the Equality Authority (EA) was effectively hamstrung when 43 percent of its funding was taken away in 2008. The Combat Poverty Agency was meanwhile dismantled and absorbed into the Office for Social Inclusion, which was subsequently integrated into the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs.

In sum, these are bleak times for human rights in a country that, until so recently, seemed an indomitable economic powerhouse. Even during the boom years, relatively few resources were channeled into social and infrastructural investments that would have helped secure the long-term welfare of Irish society, however. And it should be remembered that the decision to guarantee Ireland’s failing banks, effectively socializing the losses they had incurred, was taken in the dead of night without even the Cabinet having a say. Where, one might ask, was the principle of participation when then-Finance Minister Brian Lenihan committed what was later termed the “costliest mistake ever made by an Irishman”?

It is to be hoped that we may see a different, more considered, side to the Irish government when they face the UPR on October 6. As emphasized by the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty after her visit to Ireland earlier this year, the government should undertake a thorough human rights review of all its recovery policies and measures. In particular, the Irish government should ask itself how it can effectively protect the most vulnerable, and how human rights principles can be integrated into the recovery effort. It should also consider ways to reverse cuts in social spending, by making progressive tax reforms, and restoring funding to the principal state human rights institutions.

The country’s supposed “deep commitment” to human rights could still translate into a revised recovery plan, placing human rights at its heart, in the wake of the review. Government ministers have previously promised they’ll do their best to protect the vulnerable. Thus far, however, their “best” has not been good enough.

  • A forthcoming CESR briefing will provide a comprehensive review of the factors behind Ireland’s economic quagmire and the retrogression in human rights provisions stemming from the government’s short-sighted recovery measures. A summary, which has been prepared for the UPR session, can be accessed below:

Posted by Luke Holland on October 4th, 2011

Supporting Equatorial Guinea’s embattled rights defenders

Luke Holland is a researcher and communications officer with the Center for Economic and Social Rights. This blog entry includes video interviews (in Spanish) with several of Equatorial Guinea's leading human rights defenders. To view these clips with English subtitles, click on the 'cc' icon at the bottom of the video frame.

Despite rates of economic growth that leave many wealthier countries in the shade, the majority of Equatorial Guinea’s population continues to live in poverty. The government of Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who seized power over three decades ago in a coup détat, maintains a vice-like grip on power while suppressing the activities of human rights and pro-democracy activists who seek to create a better future for both themselves and their compatriots.

With this stark reality in mind, CESR is collaborating with local rights defenders to help address such injustices. On Monday 12 and Tuesday 13 September we joined forces with EG Justice and several Equatoguinean NGOs to stage a capacity-building workshop in Madrid. The event was designed to provide activists from Equatorial Guinea with the knowledge and understanding they need to make better use of international human rights structures.

The two-day event, which was held behind closed doors due to the often-times brutal repression of social justice campaigners in Equatorial Guinea, focused on the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism. When the Equatoguinean government last appeared before the UPR in 2010, it agreed to implement more than 80 recommendations covering a broad range of economic and social provisions. Civil society organizations participating in the workshop learned about the potential usefulness of the UPR to propel change back home, and discussed the concrete indicators which can be used to evaluate their government’s compliance with the recommendations. Throughout, those in attendance shared their experiences of trying to protect human rights amidst the significant constraints in their homeland.

Supporting local efforts to promote economic and social rights is made all the more important by the Obiang regime’s apparent indifference to the wellbeing of most citizens. One might expect a country that has enjoyed spectacular levels of economic growth in recent years, largely thanks to the discovery of oil and gas reserves in the 1990s, to show corresponding improvements in basic social indicators. While GDP per capita climbed from US $7,600 in 2000 to US $35,000 in 2008, child mortality has actually increased, however.  

Now ranked as the wealthiest country in Sub-Saharan African, the almost total lack of transparency and staggering levels of corruption have led to the country’s extensive resources being squandered by a tiny elite. Both the news media and anti-corruption NGOs such Global Witness have documented the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the president and his inner circle. Indeed, the profligate spending of Obiang’s playboy son Teodorin has become notorious well beyond the borders of his own country, leading to a series of investigations in the US Senate, alongside police inquiries a legal case in France.

This undignified contrast between Equatorial Guinea’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is manifested in health and education statistics that show it lagging far behind many of its poorer African neighbours. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Equatorial Guinea ratified in 1987, obliges States Parties to devote the maximum available resources to the realization of economic and social rights, and to prevent retrogression in the provision thereof. With the country’s overflowing coffers being channeled into the building of luxury mansions and man-made private beaches, while budgetary allocations for basic social services remain among the lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is clear that the Obiang regime is ignoring its obligations under human rights law.

If Equatorial Guinea’s resource wealth is to translate into meaningful improvements in the lives of normal people, the determination and commitment of local civil society will be crucial. Effective monitoring and evaluation of UPR commitments, along with the preparation of detailed reports for consideration at the country’s next review in 2014, require the active participation of Equatoguinean rights groups.

When the workshop drew to a close on Tuesday afternoon, the participants agreed the event had been a success and that further capacity-building efforts should be arranged so as to ensure broader and more effective participation in the UPR process. It is CESR’s hope that its continuing support may play some small role in helping local activists overcome the obstacles they face in creating a more just Equatorial Guinea.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of CESR.

Posted by Luke Holland on September 20th, 2011

La democracia española, desposeída

Nicholas Lusiani es Investigador Senior del Centro por los Derechos Económicos y Sociales. Luke Holland es Investigador y Director de Comunicación de CESR. Imágenes, cortesía de Olmo Calvo.

"¡Democracia real ya!" se ha convertido en el lema de los manifestantes antiausteridad en España, que continúan con su campaña para revertir los recortes en servicios sociales básicos, que consideran injustos y antidemocráticos. La ira y la frustración en las calles de Madrid, Barcelona y otras ciudades españolas no parece estar influyendo en los dirigentes del país; sin embargo, una reforma de la Constitución, por la cual se establece un techo permanente a la capacidad del país para financiarse a través del déficit, ha sido llevada al Parlamento a una velocidad de vértigo. La medida atará las manos de los futuros gobiernos y limitará su capacidad para invertir en los derechos humanos básicos, como la educación, la salud, la vivienda y la seguridad social. Por otra parte, los principios de participación, de no discriminación y de rendición de cuentas en materia de derechos humanos se han ignorado abiertamente en medio de la prisa por apaciguar a los pesos pesados europeos y calmar la ansiedad de los mercados financieros.

Las dudosas justificaciones proferidas por los políticos para justificar esta medida extrema y a corto plazo varían de unos a otros. Algunos sostienen que la crisis exige medidas drásticas y asumen que la peor parte se la llevará la ciudadanía de la calle en lugar de las instituciones financieras o la élite económica. Mientras se pide solidaridad a las personas pobres, la evasión fiscal alcanza récords históricos y las principales instituciones financieras otorgan formidables bonificaciones a sus ejecutivos. Otros afirman que la enmienda evitará el tipo de rescate que la UE y el FMI han impuesto a Irlanda, Grecia y Portugal. Sin embargo, este argumento tampoco parece sólido, dado que las reformas fueron diseñadas e implementadas en respuesta inmediata a las exigencias del presidente francés Nicolas Sarkozy y la canciller alemana Angela Merkel. Anticiparse a la presión extranjera, rindiéndose a ella antes de que se intensifique, no representa ningún tipo de prevención en ningún sentido.

Uno de los aspectos más destacables de la reforma de la Constitución española es que se ha elaborado y se ha pasado por el Parlamento a la velocidad de la luz. La propuesta fue aprobada por el Congreso el día 2 de septiembre, con 316 votos a favor y 5 en contra; tan solo cinco días después  el Senado daba luz verde, con 233 votos a favor y 3 en contra. Esta "reforma exprés", como ya se ha dado en llamar, ha provocado una inevitable consternación generalizada tanto entre la clase política como entre los votantes, que han exigido saber el porqué de tan poca oportunidad de participar en una alteración del documento fundacional legal del país. Como se ha hecho notar, este proceso legal podría prolongarse al menos durante un año en Italia, donde los procedimientos parlamentarios no permiten modificar su Constitución con tal arrebato. Sin embargo, con dos de los principales actores políticos de España, el Partido Socialista y el Partido Popular, que dominan la gran mayoría de los escaños en ambas cámaras, el Congreso y el Senado, era poco lo que podía hacerse para impedir un acuerdo bipartidista forjado entre los dos grupos.

La reforma la impulsó un angustioso deseo de convencer a los especuladores y a las agencias de calificación crediticia de que se puede confiar en los bonos de España. El hecho de que tenga que modificarse la Constitución del país para satisfacer las caprichosas demandas de los mercados financieros internacionales, nos obliga a plantearnos algunas preguntas fundamentales sobre el estado de la democracia y los derechos humanos en España. Cuál es el deber esencial del gobierno: garantizar el bienestar de los mercados internacionales de deuda o el bienestar de su pueblo. Quién determina en una sociedad el marco más importante de derechos y obligaciones establecidos en su Carta Magna: una ciudadanía comprometida o entidades financieras privadas y agencias de calificación de deuda.

Y lo que es más, muchos se preguntan si la reforma era realmente necesaria en términos económicos, dado que la economía española gozaba de superávit hasta hace poco y que el déficit presupuestario actual es de naturaleza circunstancial y no de carácter estructural. Además, establecer un techo a la deuda del país sólo servirá para limitar futuras inversiones en servicios sociales, como salud y educación, lo que obstaculizará la productividad y la competitividad de los trabajadores españoles en la economía mundial. A largo plazo, esta reforma puede conducir a salarios más bajos y a una disminución asociada de los ingresos fiscales, lo que a su vez profundizaría la deuda nacional.

Desde esta perspectiva, la reforma no sólo está equivocada, sino que además está mal orientada. En un intento poco reflexionado de salir del paso del atolladero económico actual, los líderes políticos de España no han prestado la atención debida al impacto que a largo plazo sus acciones tendrán precisamente sobre esas mismas personas y esa misma economía a las que dicen estar protegiendo. Sólo hace falta mirar los drásticos recortes que varios estados de EE UU se vieron obligados a realizar, debido a los límites de deuda establecidos en sus constituciones, para entender que arreglos apresurados y desequilibrados que garantizan jurídicamente los límites sobre el techo de la deuda pública limitan las posibilidades de que los gobiernos busquen formas creativas de financiar los derechos económicos y sociales fundamentales. Estas lecciones son especialmente pertinentes para el tipo de crisis económica que España atraviesa en estos momentos. Una financiación inteligente del déficit puede, en cambio, crear hoy el capital humano y de infraestructura que impulsará una economía más justa y sólida mañana. Con un nuevo paquete de reformas laborales aprobadas por el Parlamento la semana pasada –en esta ocasión se abre la puerta a una mayor inseguridad en el trabajo– no es de extrañar que una buena parte de la ciudadanía española se lamente de la falta de "democracia real" en su país.

Las opiniones expresadas en este blog son del autor, no reflejan necesariamente la posición oficial de CESR.

Posted by Luke Holland, Nicholas Lusiani on September 20th, 2011

Spanish democracy dispossessed

Nicholas Lusiani is Senior Researcher at the Center for Economic and Social Rights. Luke Holland is a Researcher and Communications Officer at CESR. Photographs courtesy of Olmo Calvo.

“Real democracy now!” This has become the rallying cry of anti-austerity protesters in Spain, who are continuing their campaign to reverse what they see as unjust and undemocratic cut-backs in basic social services. Anger and frustration on the streets of Madrid, Barcelona and other Spanish cities doesn’t seem to be influencing decision-makers in the country, though, as a Constitutional reform putting a permanent ceiling on the country’s ability to finance itself through deficits has been rushed through parliament at breakneck speed. The move will tie the hands of future governments, limiting their capacity to invest in basic human rights to education, health care, housing and social protection. Moreover, the human rights principles of participation, non-discrimination and accountability have patently been ignored amidst the rush to appease Europe’s power brokers and assuage the anxieties of financial markets.

The questionable justifications proffered by politicians for this extreme and short-sighted measure vary. Some argue that the crisis calls for tough measures, which they assume ordinary citizens, rather than financial insitutions or the economic elite, will bear the brunt of. Solidarity is being demanded from the poor just as tax avoidance by the rich hits record levels and major financial institutions deliver massive bonuses to their executives. Others affirm that the amendment will avert the kind of EU-IMF bailout foisted upon Ireland, Greece and Portugal. This argument rings hollow too, however, given that the reforms were designed and implemented in immediate response to the demands of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Forestalling foreign pressure, by giving into it before it grows too strong, does not represent prevention in any meaningful sense.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the reform to the Spanish Constitution is the lightning speed at which it was drawn up and carried through parliament. The proposal was passed by Congress on September 2, with 316 votes in favor and five against, before being given the green light by the Senate just five days later, with 233 in favor to 3 against. The “express amendment”, as it has come to be known, inevitably provoked widespread consternation among politicians and voters alike who demanded to know why they had so little chance to participate in an alteration of the country’s foundational legal document. It was noted that such a legal process would take at least a year in Italy, where parliamentary procedures do not permit such quickfire changes to the constitution. But with Spain’s two leading political actors, the Socialist Party and the Popular Party, dominating the vast majority of seats in both the upper and lower houses, there was little that could be done to impede a bipartisan agreement hammered out between the two camps.

The amendment was driven by a skittish desire to convince speculators and credit rating agencies that Spain’s bonds can be relied upon. The very fact that the country’s Constitution should be amended to satisfy the capricious demands of international financial markets obliges us to ask fundamental questions about the state of democracy and human rights in Spain. What is the most central duty of government - guaranteeing the wellbeing of international bond markets or the wellbeing of its people? And who is it that determines a society’s most fundamental framework of rights and obligations as set out in its Magna Carta - engaged citizens or private financiers and credit rating agencies?

What is more, many are questioning whether the reform was really necessary in economic terms, given that the Spanish economy was running a surplus until recently and the current budgetary shortfall is circumstantial rather than structural in nature. Moreover, setting a ceiling on the country’s debt will serve only to limit future investments in social services, such as health and education, thus impeding the productivity and competitiveness of Spanish workers in the global economy. In the longer term this may lead to lower wages and associated decreases in tax revenues, in turn entrenching national debt.

From this perspective, the reform is not only wrong, it is wrong-headed too. In an ill-considered attempt to muddle through their current fiscal quagmire, Spain’s political leadership hasn’t given due regard to the long-lasting impacts of their actions on the very people and economy they claim to be protecting. One need only look to the budget slashing several US states were forced to undertake, due to debt limits set in state constitutions, to understand that hasty and unbalanced deals which legally guarantee limits on public debt limit the potential for governments to seek creative ways of financing fundamental economic and social rights. These lessons are especially pertinent to the type of economic crisis Spain finds itself in now. Smart deficit financing can, in contrast, create the human and infrastructural assets today which will drive a more just and robust economy tomorrow. With another wave of labor reforms having passed through parliament last week – this time paving the way for greater job insecurity – it is little wonder so many Spaniards are lamenting the lack of “real democracy” in their country.

  • CESR is working with other Spanish NGOs to address human rights violations stemming from the government's handling of the economic crisis. CESR presented a joint submission with Observatori DESC at the May 2011 pre-sessional working group of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). Spain will be assessed by the Committee for the first time in eight years at the 48th session in 2012.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of CESR.

Posted by Luke Holland, Nicholas Lusiani on September 20th, 2011

Elecciones generales en Guatemala: condenado a repetir la historia?

Jorge Santos es Coordinador General del Centro Internacional para Investigaciones en Derechos Humanos (CIIDH), asociación dedicada a la investigación y generación de propuestas que promuevan y garanticen los derechos humanos en Guatemala.

El 11 de septiembre próximo más de 7 millones 300 mil guatemaltecos y guatemaltecas asistirán a las urnas en lo que representaría el séptimo evento electoral desde el retorno a la vida democrática, mismo que ha estado marcado por una serie de hechos que han producido lo que pudiesen ser factores distorsionadores del evento mismo.

Tal y como fuese documentado por la Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico Guatemala estuvo marcada por un Conflicto Armado de 36 años que dejó una secuela de 250 mil víctimas directas y profundas consecuencias en la sociedad que aún no han sido subsanadas. Al culminar dicho conflicto con la firma de los Acuerdos de Paz, se inició una larga y aún no culminada reforma al Sistema de Partidos Políticos, hecho que ha degenerado en que el joven sistema adolezca de profundas desviaciones que redundan en causar mayores desigualdades en la participación, lo cual profundiza muchas de las causas del conflicto.

Este es un evento electoral atípico ya que se considera ser la más onerosa campaña electoral por parte de algunos partidos políticos; así como también por la debilidad institucional y democrática que se ha dejado manipular por los poderes fácticos del país.  El hecho más notorio ha sido la pretensión de participar a la presidencia de la que fuese la primera dama de la Nación y quien desde el inicio del Gobierno fue la impulsora de programas de asistencia social, que contaron con la negativa de la élite económica y con la simpatía de amplios sectores excluidos del país.  Este proceso de inscripción de la candidata del partido oficial se dio alrededor de cuestionadas decisiones por órganos encargados del proceso electoral mismo, así como por las cortes guatemaltecas. De esa cuenta, es que hoy por primera vez, el partido oficial no cuenta con candidata a la presidencia, sólo para congresistas y alcaldes.

Muchos consideran que la no inscripción de la candidata oficial se debió al temor de la élite económica de la profundización de políticas sociales que fueran en detrimento de sus espurios intereses, de tal cuenta que propiciaron el escenario bajo el cual su candidato fuese la única posibilidad para afianzar el poder político en el ejecutivo y en el legislativo, aún y cuando éste está acusado de graves delitos de lesa humanidad y de contar en la filas de su partido político a miembros del crimen organizado en particular en cuanto al financiamiento del partido se refiere.  Los otros candidatos, unos acusados de ser financiados por el narcotráfico y otros estar financiados por sectores de la oligarquía guatemalteca, dejan poco margen para los que representan intereses del bienestar común.  Muy probablemente estos hechos generan desencanto en la ciudadanía y se produzca lo que el viejo refrán popular dice “pueblo que no conoce su historia, está condenado a repetirla”.

Las opiniones expresadas en este blog son del autor no reflejan necesariamente la posición oficial de CESR

Posted by Jorge Santos on September 6th, 2011

Elections in Guatemala: condemned to repeat history?

Jorge Santos is General Coordinator of the International Center for Human Rights Research (CIIDH), CESR’s partner organization in Guatemala. In this blog entry, he looks forward to next Sunday’s presidential elections and voices concerns over what the outcome may mean for normal Guatemalan people.

On September 11 more than 7,300,000 Guatemalans will go to the polls in what is the seventh electoral event since the return of democracy. The country’s democratic life has been influenced by a series of facts producing what could be a distortionary impact on the same event.

As documented by the Commission for Historical Clarification, Guatemala was marked by a 36-year armed conflict that left a legacy of 250,000 direct victims and profound consequences on the society that still have not been rectified. The culmination of said conflict, with the signing of the Peace Accords, marked the beginning of a long and as-yet unfinished process of reform in the political party system. This has degenerated, however, with profound shortcomings leading to greater inequality in participation, thus deepening many of the original causes of the conflict.

This is an atypical electoral event, in that is regarded as the most onerous election campaign yet by some of the political parties. Likewise, both institutional and democratic weakness have contributed, facilitating manipulation by the factional powers in the country. The most notorious issue has been the presidential pretensions of the former First Lady Sandra Torres, who since the government’s first days was the driving force behind social assistance programs which drew opposition from the economic elite and sympathy from broader excluded sectors of the country. The registration of the official party’s candidate took place amid questionable decisions taken by both the bodies charged with the electoral process itself and the Guatemalan courts. From this context has emerged a situation in which the official party for the first time does not have a candidate for the presidency, only presenting contenders for congress and local authorities.

Many believe the official candidate’s non-registration is down to the economic elite’s fear that social policies would be further deepened, to the detriment of their spurious interests. From this perspective, the elite brought about a situation whereby their candidate would be the only option, thus strengthening political power in the executive and legislature, albeit amidst accusations of crimes against humanity and with the presence of organized crime figures among their ranks, especially in terms of party finances. The other candidates, some of them accused of drug trafficking and others of being financed by the Guatemalan oligarchy, leave little margin for those who represent common wellbeing. It is very likely that these facts will lead to disillusion among the citizenry, and will confirm the old refrain: “a people who don’t know their history are condemned to repeat it”.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of CESR

Posted by Jorge Santos on September 6th, 2011

Political failures behind Horn of Africa crisis

“One is entitled to ask why, after all the development and emergency aid spent on Ethiopia, there is a food crisis there every time there is a drought?”, asks the author Thomas Keneally in his CNN column. As thousands of innocent people lose their lives to yet another famine in the Horn of Africa, and aid agencies scramble to stem the tide of human suffering in burgeoning refugee camps, his question deserves to be carefully considered.

Since headlines first broke about food shortages in Somalia, much criticism has focused on the Al-Shabaab militia, which has been widely condemned for blocking supplies of aid to those who needed it most. The Islamist group that controls much of Southern Somalia – the epicenter of the crisis – cannot be held solely responsible for the situation, however. Humanitarian organizations such as Tearfund working in the region have pointed out that the Famine Early Warnings Systems Networks warned of the impending tragedy as early as last September, but both donor countries and the institutions of international governance were slow to respond.

When on July 20 the UN declared a full-scale famine had taken hold – the first time it has taken this step in 30 years – it was already too late for many thousands of desperate people making their way to emergency feeding centers in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya.

Upon visiting the Somali capital Mogadishu earlier this month, the UK’s International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell warned that the international community’s response had been “dangerously inadequate”. Even African countries have appeared reticent in the face of the unfolding drama, with only four of the continent’s 54 heads of state turning out to a fundraising summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa last week.

By mid-August $1.4 billion had been pledged to support the humanitarian effort, leaving a shortfall of over $1 billion on the amount required by the UN. Meanwhile, upwards of 12 million people are facing food shortages, with an estimated 2.3 million children thought to be acutely malnourished. Some 29,000 Somali children under the age of five have already died of starvation, with 170,000 more at risk of death. Diseases like measles and diarrhea tear through squalid refugee camps struggling to cope with the huge influx of exhausted, hungry people. The World Health Organization has warned that mass population movements brought on by the crisis have served to exacerbate the cholera epidemic.

Against the backdrop of such tragedy, it is crucial that those in positions of power act not only to stop and reverse the spreading crisis, but effectively tackle its root causes  to ensure it is not repeated in the future. While it may by tempting to blame the situation on what is admittedly the region’s worst drought in decades, the depressingly familiar images of human suffering that herald its arrival are the result of political decisions that have combined to violate the full gamut of economic and social rights.

The international community’s reluctance to channel resources into a region controlled by an organization the US State Department regards as terrorist has no doubt contributed to the problem, but such geopolitical considerations cannot be used to justify the violation of people’s most fundamental rights.

At an emergency meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization on August 18, experts reaffirmed the importance of developing sustainable livelihoods, along with early warning mechanisms, and both adaptation and mitigation policies, in order to enable communities in the Horn of Africa to cope with future climate shocks. “What the world is seeing now is the result of three decades of underinvestment,” said FAO President Jacques Diouf. “Unless these plans are carried out, famine will return to shame the international community.”

The global economic crisis has meanwhile been cited as one reason for governmental apathy in the face of the famine. Commitments made in recent weeks - as television images of starving children translated in growing public pressure - prove that resources can be mobilized when the political will is there, however. It is also worth remembering that, had a little more action been forthcoming when the warnings of an impending food crisis began circulating late last year, the price paid, both in terms of human lives and aid dollars, would have been a great deal lower.

With these facts in mind, Thomas Keneally might be forgiven for wondering “will there be fewer refugees, walking fewer miles?”, when the next drought comes along somewhere down the line.  “Is this a failure of rain?,” asks the Schindler’s Ark author, “or a failure of government?”. 

Pictures by Stuart Price, (c) UN Photo.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of CESR.

Posted by Luke Holland on September 2nd, 2011

Land Grabbing and Its Implications for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The formerly state-owned Chinese company ZTE International has acquired three million hectares of land in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The giant agricultural plantation being developed there will produce palm oil, with nearly 100 percent of it being exported to China to provide food and biofuel for the country’s burgeoning population. What will happen to the Congolese people living on the site remains to be seen, however. What we do know is that the Chinese hold title to the land for 99 years, and that those living upon it may well be deprived of their rights to food and housing.

When foreign investors acquire large stretches of land for cultivation and export of agricultural products, access to water or market speculation, all too often we can speak of land grabbing.

A global rush on farmland

Media reports suggest that in Sub-Saharan Africa alone some 60 million hectares of land (equivalent to the total arable land of France, Italy and Germany combined) have been subject to this new form of agricultural investment in recent years. When up to 100 percent of produce is used to satisfy food and energy needs of foreign countries, local populations driven off their lands are deprived of the capacity to feed themselves and maintain their livelihood and culture. Therefore, land grabbing is an issue of crucial concern for economic, social and cultural rights.

Although not a new phenomenon, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Oliver De Schutter warns that the problem is intensifying: “What we are witnessing is a situation in which pressures on land and water are increasing at an unprecedented speed. Each year, up to 30 million hectares of farmland are lost.”

While Latin America and South East Asia have traditionally been the primary targets for foreign investment in agriculture, the World Bank’s initial report on the subject found that in recent years more than 70 percent of these deals took place in Sub-Saharan Africa, with Ethiopia, Mozambique, North and South Sudan, Madagascar and the DRC being the principal countries.

Foreign investors looking for food and energy

The major investors in the region are the Gulf States. They generally favor other members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, such as North and South Sudan. South Korea and China have also played a significant role in land grabbing.

An essential characteristic of land grabbing is the direct or indirect involvement of investing governments. By acquiring arable land for up to 99 years, states may directly outsource their food production, or execute projects via state-owned enterprises. Furthermore they often provide subsidies for food or biofuel production. About 50 percent of land grabs are conducted with state involvement.

While governmental investments often focus on food production, private corporations - mostly based in Western countries - mainly produce crops for biofuels. Stock market brokers and investment funds have emerged as new actors in the agricultural sector acquiring farmland for speculation purposes. New York-based investment fund Jarch Capital is now said to own 1.2 million hectares of land in South Sudan, reportedly bought from rebel leaders.

Losing access to land and resources

In the vast majority of cases these investments are characterized by a lack of transparency and scant participation of local populations. They are not illegal under investment law, however, and they are often nested in bilateral cooperation agreements.

Those benefiting from such investments are often local elites and corrupt governments. When up to 100 percent of crops are used for export in order to fulfill the food security targets of foreign countries, benefits for local populations are limited. Traditional forms of agriculture are lost, while large-scale industrial farming causes environmental degradation and water scarcity. Most importantly, people are driven off their lands and lose access to resources. Those affected generally have no voice to demand justice.

Economic, social and cultural rights as a tool to demand justice

Land grabbing therefore stands in clear contradiction of economic, social and cultural rights. Access to land and resources has been defined as a core element of the right to food, housing, self-determination and participation in cultural life. The right to food calls for a fair distribution of food supplies while the right to housing aims at outlawing arbitrary forced evictions. 

General Comment 12 of the CESCR stresses in Paragraph 6 that: "The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement." The General Comment also establishes that food availability involves "possibilities either for feeding oneself directly from productive land or other natural resources."

General Comment 4 on the right to adequate housing notes that the right to housing cannot be interpreted narrowly, but rather should be seen as "the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity", and that "forced evictions are considered as prima facie incompatible with the requirements of the Covenant and can only be justified in the most exceptional circumstances, and in accordance with the relevant principles of international law."

Furthermore, in its General Comments the Committee has repeatedly stressed the importance of participation of local populations in decision-making processes. Furthermore, the African system of human rights emphasizes the rights to natural resources, development and a healthy environment.

As mentioned above the direct or indirect involvement of investing governments is an essential characteristic of land grabs. Therefore, human rights obligations cannot be restricted to host governments. Those states acquiring land abroad must also live up to extraterritorial obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights towards those affected by their actions. The UN Charter establishes the duty to cooperate internationally in order to establish an enabling environment for the fulfillment of human rights. There is no space for land grabs in such an “enabling environment”. Economic, social and cultural rights can serve as a tool to prevent land grabbing.

What is being done?

Until recently awareness raising on the subject was largely left to non-governmental organizations and human rights activists. Only in 2009 did the World Bank take up the subject, arguing for principles of responsible investment. Along the same lines, the FAO has drafted voluntary guidelines for investors in agriculture. For many, these ethical guidelines do not provide an adequate solution to the problem, and many civil society organizations and social movements demanding justice have called for land grabbing to be outlawed. 

The Kuala Lumpur Guidelines for a Human Rights Approach to Economic Policy in Agriculture, developed by ESCR-NET, have also been designed as a tool for guiding agricultural policy in accordance with human rights principles and standards.  Meanwhile, The Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement, drawn up by the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, address the human rights implications of coerced or involuntary evictions and displacement. The latter framework also offers guidance on the human rights obligations of duty-bearers in the face of potential violations caused by landgrabbing.

The recent large-scale acquisition of land is a global phenomenon with deep implications for the realization of economic, social and cultural rights for some of the world's most vulnerable populations. As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stated in 2010 in no uncertain terms, “we have seen a scramble for Africa before. I don’t think we want to see a second scramble of that kind.”

Posted by Ute Reisinger on August 16th, 2011

Gaps in corporate accountability need greater attention, civil society groups say

A coalition of civil society groups, including CESR, is calling for stronger international protection against corporate human rights abuses. The call comes as the mandate of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on human rights and business, John Ruggie, is ending in June.

In a statement, the groups called on governments to uphold their duty to protect human rights, and for companies to meet their responsibility to respect human rights, to advance the protection of human rights in relation to business activity.

The groups are concerned that a new report on business and human rights currently being finalized for the UN will not go far enough to help those most vulnerable.

While welcoming the work done by the Special Representative to develop a framework of principles reflecting the human rights responsibilities of businesses and states, the groups called on the UN Human Rights Council to take more effective steps to address the major obstacles to corporate accountability which continue to deny victims access to justice and redress. These include creating a new UN mechanism to examine how these principles are applied in practice and developing stronger international standards which address the current gaps in legal protection.

The process towards the adoption of a normative human rights framework applicable to companies has been slow and controversial. At the end of 2010, John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative on business and human rights, invited comments on a set of draft guiding principles addressing the respective human rights responsibilities of states and companies.

The latest statement expressing concern was signed by 55 organizations, including CESR.

Posted by Hannah Moysey and Kevin Donegan on June 8th, 2011

Human Rights Essential to Human Development in Least-Developed Countries

A new goal to halve the number of least-developed countries by 2022 has been endorsed by delegates at a United Nations conference.

The event, which took place this month in Istanbul, under the theme "Partnership against Poverty," set out the ambitious plan as part of the newly-adopted Istanbul Political Declaration and Programme of Action for the LDCs.

The number of "least-developed countries" (LDC) has doubled since 1971, when the first official list of countries in this category was compiled by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. There are currently 48 least-developed countries, and just three countries have ever "graduated" out of this status (Botswana in 1994, Cape Verde in 2007 and the Maldives in 2010).

The Fourth Conference of the LDCs summit (LDC-IV) was particularly relevant to current debates around the need for a paradigmatic shift in the global development agenda. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon noted in advance that "Istanbul will determine the development paradigm for years to come."

During the conference, Craig Mokhiber, an official with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that "development - real development - is about freedom from fear and freedom from want, for all people, without discrimination. Any more narrow analysis, focused entirely on economic growth, or private investment, or governmental structures is destined to fail."

The urge to look beyond economic growth is bolstered by the fact that rising GDP in the least-developed countries has often not translated into the kind of improvements in human development outcomes and poverty reduction needed to accomplish the MDGs by 2015. This has been pointed out by the UN's own Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing Countries (UN-OHRLLS), as well as NGOs present at the LDC-IV Civil Society Forum. Roberto Bissio of Social Watch said these slow improvements in social indicators despite economic growth was largely because "growth has only benefitted small elites and foreign investors, mainly extractive industries."

LDC countries have experienced economic growth at a faster rate since 2001, and in 2004, LDCs underwent the fastest annual growth rate in four decades. The average rate of people living in extreme poverty in these countries, meanwhile, dropped only slightly, from 57.6 percent in 1990 to 52.8 percent in 2007, according to a May 2011 report by UNCTAD (extreme poverty is less than $1.25 a day). One of the LDCs earmarked for "graduation," for example, is Equatorial Guinea, a country whose economy has expanded exponentially to become one of the wealthiest in sub-Saharan Africa since the discovery of oil and gas reserves over a decade ago. Despite having a GDP per capita (PPP) comparable to Belgium and Denmark, Equatorial Guinea ranks 117 out of 169 countries in the Human Development Index and is failing to devote its full resources to fulfilling the economic and social rights of its people, as CESR has previously reported.

LDCs are highly vulnerable to volatile booms and busts in international markets. This calls into question the true impact of changes in economic growth rates. The knock-on effects that the economic crisis had on the LDCs, adversely felt in food prices, remittances, trade and donor aid commitments, have been a further catalyst for civil society demands for a paradigm shift in development strategy. Such a shift is needed to strengthen the LDCs' resilience to external shocks and ensure that the world's most vulnerable peoples do not become further impoverished by the global economic system.

Civil society organizations participating in the LDC-IV gathering put forward a series of key proposals and issues for further debate and action. Contained in The LDC Civil Society Forum Istanbul Declaration, they call for reforming the governance and mandate of international financial institutions. Some proposals advocate greater regulation of the financial and banking sector, as well as a global transactions tax as a source of funding. Others discuss the need to level the playing field and overhaul unfair in the current international trading system.

Cancellation of onerous debt and the removal of conditionalities have also been promoted by civil society from both the North and South. According to the head of LDC Watch Arjan Karaki, "many LDCs spend more money on debt servicing than providing essential services like health care, drinking water and energy." Civil society also called on donor countries to provide more and better ODA and to channel their funding to improve human well-being and capacity, such as education, gender equality or health. Although emerging economies are increasingly seen as possible new aid providers through "south-south cooperation," there are concerns this might social protection. This acts both as a means for the equitable redistribution of wealth to the poor during times of expansion and a safety net during times of crisis and fiscal contraction. Such an approach has been advocated by Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona, the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, who has called for a human rights component to economic growth. It is also echoed by the International Labor Organization, which held a side event at LDC-IV on social protection and employment.

This broader development agenda was also echoed by civil society organizations at the LDCs who called for moving away from market-driven policies to people-centered development. As a result, the focus on private sector solutions and partnerships at the conference was met with significant disappointment, leading many critics to deride the Program of Action as a repackaging of Washington-Consensus approaches to development-grounded in economic neoliberalism, lack of government accountability and further exploitation of the LDCs.

Any new international development architecture for LDCs must place emphasis on not only economic growth for "graduation," but on rights-based sustainable and equitable growth. Economic growth is necessary, but it is an insufficient condition to accelerating progress on the MDGs in the LDCs. Just four LDCs have met their drinking water targets, for example.

The international community should build on the lessons learned from the failure of solely focusing on economic growth in light of the lack of substantial progress made on reducing the number of LDCs. It should also learn from the disproportionate human impacts of the economic crisis on these countries, particularly on the most vulnerable and marginalized. A people-centered approach to development can only prove successful if it is grounded within a genuine framework of human rights recognized by both donor countries and LDC governments. Unfortunately the Istanbul Consensus falls short of forging this vital foundation.

The 48 least-developed countries

Africa: 33 countries.

Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauretania, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia.

Asia and the Pacific: 14 countries

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, Kiribati, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, Nepal, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Yemen.

Latin America and the Caribbean: 1 country


Characteristics of LDCs

Average income of less than $475 (£288) a person a year. Weak human resources as measured by nutrition, infant mortality, secondary school environment and adult literacy. High economic vulnerability as measured by factors such as population size, remoteness, share of agriculture, and homelessness due to natural disasters. A country "graduates" from LDC status if the figure hits $900.

Main challenges facing LDCs

High levels of poverty: more than half the 800 million people in the LDCs live on less than a dollar a day. Women in LDCs have a one in 16 chance of dying in childbirth, compared to one in 3,500 in North America.

Food insecurity: More than 300 million Africans are food insecure.

Economic vulnerability: LDCs are highly dependent on external sources of funding, including official development assistance, workers' remittances and foreign direct investment. This overly exposes them to external shocks such as the global financial crisis.

Environmental vulnerability: While they contribute least to climate change, LDCs are among the groups of countries most affected by it. Many LDCs are also small islands whose very survival is threatened by rising sea levels.

Source: UN

Posted by Victoria Wisniewski Otero on May 27th, 2011

International Financial Institutions Warn About Food Crisis But Offer No Policy Changes

Escalating food, energy and commodity prices were top of the agenda when the World Bank and International Monetary Fund met this month in Washington for their annual Spring meetings.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick warned that the world was "one shock away from a full-blown crisis" due to food price spikes. Zoellick affirmed that the increases are "the biggest threat to the poor in the world" and noted that food prices have been a catalyst to the social unrest in recent Arab uprisings.

The Development Committee, the direction-setting body of the boards of governors of the World Bank and the IMF, highlighted "high and volatile international food prices and their impact on vulnerable populations, as well as the longer term risks they pose to growth and poverty reduction."

Last year alone, 44 million people globally were pushed into poverty, many becuase of rising food prices.

According to the FAO's latest Food Price Index, food prices are 37 percent above those in March 2010, with rising costs pushing millions into extreme poverty. People living in poverty spend more of their money on food, particularly on staple foods, which have seen some of the highest increases.

With less than five years left to meet the Millennium Development Goals--such as the crucial goal to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty, including halving the proportions of people living on less than US$1 a day and those who suffer from hunger--world leaders are right to be alarmed. Food is essential to life and, therefore, one of the most basic and fundamental of human rights.

Rather than because of a shortage of food, the current food crisis was triggered in large part due to market speculation in agricultural commodities, a factor that President Nicolas Sarkozy described as "extortion" and "pillaging." France, which will host the 2011 G-20 Summit in November, has made addressing the food crisis by combating price volatility a priority for the meeting in Cannes.

As recently as January, however, the World Bank--an agency with a long track record of controversial, aggressive and mixed-success agricultural and economic prescriptions--argued that "free markets can still feed the world," proposed nine measures for the G20 to adopt. Oxfam's Duncan Green points out that the World Bank has a "myopic focus on maintaining the integrity of trade and markets."

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, also likened this volatility and instability to a "speculative bubble," noting that a causal factor was the "deregulation in important commodity derivatives markets beginning in 2000." A 2010 report by the World Development Movement, a British NGO, called this banking speculation "the great hunger lottery."

The recommendations issued by the World Bank also prompted a response from de Schutter, who wrote that the measures "tackle only the symptoms of the global food system's weaknesses, leaving the root causes of the crises untouched." In fact, there can be no sustainable solutions to the food crisis if these are not grounded in human rights.

Regrettably, despite the World Bank's spot-on assessment of the poor and vulnerable bearing the brunt of the food crisis, the outcomes of the Spring meeting show that the Bretton Woods institutions continue to ignore calls from the human rights community to reassess their own approach to agriculture policies and market regulation and to change the rules of the game.

This is despite repeated pleas from civil society for a new trade and development model to address the ongoing food crisis, especially as current policies have perpetuated land grabbing, food price speculation, and irrational, non-transparent and unjust market outcomes. They have also contributed to the kind of profiteering that has gambled away the human right to food in favor of its commoditization--all at the cost of making food economically unaccessible to the world's poorest.

Posted by Victoria Wisniewski Otero on April 26th, 2011

David vs Goliath in the Ecuadorian Amazon

CESR Co-founder Chris Jochnick just shared a rare David vs Goliath story about the recent Ecuadorian court ruling ordering Chevron to pay US$9 billion in compensation for the environmental and health impacts of oil contamination in the Amazon.

As Jochnick notes, he made made his "first trip to the region in 1993 as part of a rag-tag team of lawyers searching for potential plaintiffs for this quixotic case against Texaco." Some of that work was later continued by CESR, as well as many Ecuadorian and other NGOs and advocates. Read his view of the story on Oxfam's Politics of Poverty blog.

CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz also wrote recently about this case. You can read his article here.

Posted by Kevin Donegan on March 11th, 2011

100 Years of International Women's Day

Today marks the centenary of International Women's Day. Originating from labor movements in North America and across Europe at the turn of the 20th Century, International Women's Day is now a global celebration. As the UN says, it is an occasion “for looking back on past struggles and accomplishments, and more importantly, for looking ahead to the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women.”

With the official launch of UN Women (the new United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women) last month, there is much to celebrate this International Women’s Day. Its establishment has the potential to accelerate progress over the next century on achieving gender equality; a goal that has been underpinned internationally since it was enshrined in the Preamble of the United Nations Charter more than 65 years ago.

In her International Women’s Day address, Under Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, outlines the organization’s vision as “a world where women and men have equal opportunities and capacities and where principles of gender equality are embedded in the development, peace and security agendas.” Achieving this, she argues, requires opening up space for women’s political leadership; freeing women from gender-based violence; and convincing key policymakers that where women fully contribute to their economies and societies, everybody gains.

Bachelet is right to point to evidence that when women have access to good education, good jobs, to land and other assets, national growth and stability are enhanced. Such arguments for women’s socioeconomic advancement have great political leverage. But they risk marginalizing key aspects of women’s human rights and creating a fragmented normative approach to gender equality. Women should have access to education, to jobs, to land and to resources, not only because it is good for the economy, but because—like men—they are entitled to these fundamental rights.

Human rights, and in particular the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, are identified as a key focus area for UN Women. The Convention elaborates the norm of non-discrimination by providing that women should be treated the same as men. Non-discrimination is a prerequisite of equality. A more holistic understanding of equality, which aims to respond to the economic, social and cultural dimensions of women’s lives, has been increasingly reflected in international law and global UN policy commitments.

Despite much progress, socioeconomic deprivations continue to be a lived reality for many women around the world. Governments have made less progress on MDG 5: Improving Maternal Health, for example, than on any other millenium development goal.

So today is a timely reminder of the importance of mainstreaming human rights language in the new agency's operational framework as it continues to evolve. And to ensure that the framework includes a strong focus on women’s economic, social and cultural rights as a means to achieving meaningful gender equality. Human rights must be not only at the heart of UN Women’s future programs, policies and planning, but also in its strategic partnerships as well, including involvement from the special procedures and mechanisms, various UN treaty bodies and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. But it must also involve substantive engagement and participation from civil society, grassroots groups, gender experts and human rights practitioners.

In times of economic crisis, it is more important than ever that UN Women address women’s social and economic exclusion and marginalization as the underlying factors that prevent women from accessing jobs, a decent education and a political voice. Rather than merely "treating the symptom without treating the cause," UN Women should incorporate a human rights framework as a means of rendering its work on women’s empowerment more meaningful, accountable and based on principles of equality and non-discrimination. A human-rights-based approach can play a major role in driving the agency’s direction and completing its objectives in a way that marks a new international approach to gender architecture than from what came before.

UN Women produced the following video, The Journey of Women's Rights 1911-2011, to commemorate today's anniversary:

Posted by Allison Corkery and Victoria Wisniewski on March 8th, 2011

International Mission Focuses on Right to Food in Bolivia

CESR staff member Sally Anne Way took part in an international fact-finding mission to Bolivia in February to address the causes of hunger and malnutrition in the country and investigate the circumstances that produce food insecurity. The mission was organized by Rights and Democracy in collaboration with La Coordinadora de Integración de Organizaciones Económicas, Campesinas y Indígenas y Originarias de Bolivia (CIOEC).

The mission delegation, comprised of Bolivian experts on food security, and six representatives of international organizations working on economic and social rights, including an advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, visited several communities affected by hunger and malnutrition, including the northern part of Potosí (Llallagua, Pocoata, Macha y Colquechaca), Cochabamba (Tapacari) and Chaco (Alto Parapeti). The mission also conducted a range of interviews with representatives of the central government, as well as UN and donor agencies, social movements and indigenous peoples.

"The mission is important because it will highlight the ways in which the human rights framework can provide practical assistance to states as they implement strategies to eradicate hunger within their jurisdictions," said Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, in a message sent to the members of the mission delegation. "I am confident that the mission findings will be a useful contribution to our common struggle."

In a public conference in La Paz on February 14, 2011, members of the delegation presented their preliminary observations and recommendations. The mission team welcomed the strong political will of the Bolivian government to meet its constitutional obligation towards the right to food and to address the issues of food security and malnutrition through its policies on food sovereignty. urged the government of Bolivia to adopt more formal measures to guarantee coherence between constitutional compromises on the right to food and public policy, programs and budget allocations.

However, the mission also highlighted the need to ensure greater coherence between public policy, programs and budget expenditures to encourage greater investment in small-scale agriculture, including strengthening capacities at the municipal level to implement productive projects to support subsistence and small-scale farmers. Policies to support national food production should also ensure consideration of the environment and respect indigenous territories. The mission welcomed how income from the Direct Tax on Hydrocarbons (IDH) was being used for redistributive purposes, but urged that income also be invested to diversify the economy away from dependence on natural resource extraction. Welcoming the government's efforts to address historical injustices through its land reforms, the team urged that land was not sufficient without productive resources and urged the government to prioritize the progressive realization of the right to food. The mission team also called for more space for public debate and greater transparency, access to information and participation in policy and budgetary processes. A full mission report will be released in May 2011.

Compared with other countries in the Latin American and Caribbean region, Bolivia has one of the highest rates of chronic malnutrition, which affects 27 percent of children under five. The highest rates are found in rural and indigenous communities. CESR has worked to highlight economic, social and cultural rights in Bolivia, particularly in light of Bolivia's presentation before the 40th session of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in May 2008.

In addition, Sally-Anne Way is co-author of a just-published book, along with Jean Ziegler, Christophe Golay and Claire Mahon, "The Fight for the Right to Food: Lessons Learned," part of the International Relations and Development Series of the Graduate Institute, Geneva.

Posted by Victoria Wisniewski Otero and Sally-Anne Way on March 2nd, 2011

Local justice in Ecuador advances global struggle for corporate accountability

A provincial court in Ecuador this week ordered U.S. oil giant Chevron to pay more than US$9 billion in compensation for the environmental and health impacts of oil contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The decision comes after an 18-year struggle by the affected communities, mostly indigenous, who have been seeking damages from the company and redress from the Ecuadorian government.

CESR was part of a coalition of human rights, indigenous and environmental groups which supported their cause. In 1994, shortly after the communities filed their lawsuit for damages, CESR published a report, “Rights Violations in the Ecuadorian Amazon: The human consequences of oil development,” (PDF download) documenting the devastating impact on the population of the billions of gallons of crude oil discharged into the rainforest and water supply in the Oriente region by national and multinational oil companies, including Texaco (which was acquired by Chevron in 2001).

The report concluded that the Ecuadorian government’s failure to prevent the oil contamination, to regulate the operations of oil companies and to provide victims with effective legal redress, constituted a violation of the rights to health and a healthy environment of members of the affected communities. Indigenous and environmental leaders welcomed CESR’s human rights approach as a significant contribution to their efforts to end corporate abuses in the Amazon.

While concentrating on the Ecuadorian government’s human rights obligations, CESR also signaled the need for multinational corporations (MNCs) to be held accountable, in view of the tremendous power they exerted over people’s lives. (Texaco’s annual revenues at the time, for example, were more than three times Ecuador’s GDP.) The report called for Texaco and other private companies to be held civilly liable, and to be held directly accountable to their human rights obligations:

“The role played by MNCs and the international community in contributing to human rights violations in the Oriente carries a corresponding responsibility to help resolve them… Efforts must be made towards extending human rights law beyond individual governments to include MNCs and other powerful international actors.”

It has taken 18 years for the communities’ claim for redress to be heeded. There have been many obstacles along the way, including jurisdictional challenges and smear campaigns by Chevron, which has fought the case all the way and has condemned this week’s judgment as “illegitimate and unenforceable.” The company has vowed to appeal the ruling.

While welcoming the judgment, the plaintiffs have stressed that no amount of damages can restore the lives and livelihoods lost through contamination.

It has also taken decades for the international community to affirm the need for companies to be held accountable under binding human rights standards, as CESR called for in its 1994 report.

The process towards the adoption of a normative human rights framework applicable to companies has been slow and controversial. At the end of 2010, John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, invited comments on a set of draft guiding principles addressing the respective human rights responsibilities of states and companies. A joint statement signed by over 100 civil society organizations including CESR voiced serious concern that the regressive approach of the draft principles could undermine existing standards rather than reinforcing them.

The Ecuadorian court judgement against Chevron shows how tortuously slow the uphill struggle for corporate accountability can be. But the case also demonstrates that a progressive and transformative approach to human rights can be a powerful support to marginalized communities seeking to take on the might of multinational corporations.

Visit CESR's Ecuador page for more information.

Posted by Ignacio Saiz, Executive Director on February 17th, 2011

Egypt: Economic and Social Disparities Underlie Calls for Change

Tens of thousands of people have gathered today in central Cairo and other Egyptian cities for what they are calling the "day of departure" of President Hosni Mubarak.

Ten days after protests began in Egypt, and exactly three weeks after former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down in Tunisia, one of the most remarkable regional uprisings in recent history continues to blow change through the Arab world.

These are unprecedented protests by citizens reclaiming their rights not only to political freedoms but, critically, to a decent standard of living. The tide of dissent that began in Tunisia has swept to Algeria and Yemen, among other countries, and governments have been forced to react to demands for immediate change.

While the media has understandably focused on the violence and authoritarian intransigence with which the protests have been met, the underlying causes at the heart of these revolutions have received less attention.

Protesters are clearly demanding fundamental regime changes--for rule of law, for greater freedom of expression and for the overhaul of the dominant authoritarianism that has stunted democratic governance for decades. But a tipping point that fueled the uprisings, called "days of rage" by organizers, stems from longstanding frustrations about living a decent life in dignity.

Dissatisfaction about high unemployment, lack of economic prospects, rising food prices, endemic poverty and inadequate living conditions that citizens in these countries have faced has boiled over. Curbing of people's political expression and high-level corruption by avaricious leaders have further compounded this deep frustration. The Brookings Institution recently noted that "the social and economic underpinnings of the uprising are among the important similarities between Tunisia and these other countries."

Access to basic economic and social rights is a central part of the back story: In December 2010, the FAO's food price index spiked to a record level, surpassing even that of 2008 which prompted global riots. The agency estimated that prices could increase further, and worried that this surge could instigate a new wave of riots, particularly in the Middle East. This alarming all-time high prompted the FAO's Chief Economist Abdolreza Abbassian to warn that "we are entering dangerous territory."

Underlying the past weeks' events are inequality--and possible violations of people's economic and social rights--in the rights to food, work, housing and education, among others. Further, two significant areas of discrimination deserve a closer look: disparities between youth and adults, and between men and women, especially in health, education, labor and an adequate standard of living. These disparities are significant, as CESR has previously reported.

A successful outcome of Egypt's current political reform hinges on addressing these fundamental inequities.

An August 2010 ILO report on global youth unemployment pessimistically predicted that in 2010-2011, "only in the Middle East and North Africa" are youth unemployment rates expected to increase in 2011. In a January 2011 report on overall unemployment trends the agency noted that the region continues to have the highest rate of unemployment in the world, with the youth unemployment rate nearly four times that of older adults. Youth are characterized as between the ages of 15-29 years of age, they represent the largest demographic group in the Arab region that is growing at an unprecedented rate, according to a UN report.

In March 2010, the Middle East Youth Initiative pointed out that while unemployment in Egypt had been declining, this was paradoxically associated with a deterioration of job quality rather than major improvements in labor market conditions. Youth who are left with either precarious or informal employment are often not included in labor statistics. The UNDP's 2010 Human Development Report on Egypt warned that the "the outcome of youth's transition to adulthood, if badly managed, becomes highly problematic."

The long-term consequences of sustained youth marginalization has been echoed repeatedly for years by several international organizations. "Given the high percentage of youth among Arab populations, and their intense yearning for jobs, opportunities, and freedom the risks of neglecting youth are simply too high to afford," UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said recently.

It is this "generation-in-waiting," tired of social exclusion, who believe that change is now possible. They are leaders in bringing about what looks to be a new era for the Middle East--one in which governments will have to meet citizens' social, economic and political aspirations.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in Egypt, the most populous Arab country. These past 10 days the country has witnessed its first major uprising since the 1977 Egyptian Bread Riots.

In a January 25 statement by the Egyptian Land Center for Human Rights in response to the growing protests, the organization noted, "Perhaps this message will make the authorities wake up from their slumber, and force them to apply alternative policies... and ensure a dignified life for the Egyptians. All of this could be achieved by providing opportunities for decent work, decent housing, appropriate health care and education for all citizens, who are raged and angry at the bad conditions and current policies."

Just yesterday, the Director-General of the UN International Labour Organization (ILO), Juan Somavia, called on the leaders of Egypt to "listen attentively and sincerely to the voices of the people [and] first of all, to provide decent jobs and good opportunities to maintain a decent living."

"The failure to address this situation effectively, with all of its consequences for poverty and unbalanced development, together with limitations on basic freedoms, has triggered this historic outpouring of popular demands," Mr. Somavia said in a statement.

The causes of the recent street protests reverberate with civil society organizations' work toward rights-based economic and social reform. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO whose offices were reportedly raided by police and some of whose employees were beaten by thugs yesterday, pointed out last month that the costs of the global economic crisis have been paid by the poor. An increasing cost of living, stagnant wages and lack of employment opportunities was underscored by the fact that the only beneficiaries of Egypt's economic policies are those close to decision-makers, the organization said.

Similar concerns were raised earlier last year by CESR, along with several other local and regional NGOs, when Egypt appeared before the 7th Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council in February 2010. A joint NGO statement on Egypt's compliance with its economic and social rights obligations noted some disquieting findings, including that:

  • Public spending on health, education and social security declined between 2003-2007, in stark contrast to the rise in spending on defense and national security;
  • Egypt's anti-poverty policies have failed to make progress, and the number of people living on less than $2 per day in Egypt has risen in the past 20 years;
  • Members of the informal sector have suffered a deterioration of their real earnings over time; and
  • Only 16 percent of women in Egypt work, women's salaries are far lower than men's for comparable work, and women are far more likely to be unemployed. The gender wage gap is the widest of all the lower-middle-income MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries.

The disproportionate impact of economic and social deprivation on women and girls was also highlighted in CESR's fact sheet on Egypt, produced in collaboration with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the findings of which were echoed by the UN Committee monitoring discrimination against women.

The street protests demonstrate how interrelated social and economic rights are to political freedoms. A continued state of emergency has been in place in Egypt since 1981. This highly restrictive political environment has hampered democratic processes, which are vital for sustainable social and economic development and progress on all human rights.

Peaceful transition in Egypt, as well as in other Arab countries experiencing similar changes, must not only open up space for political participation. New leaders and governments must listen to their people's demands for economic and social rights, and for structural reforms to eradicate enduring and entrenched patterns of poverty, inequality, and exclusion. Key members of the international community also must take responsibility in enabling Arab states to meet the full range of their human rights obligations during and beyond this transition period.

Related: CESR condemns assault, coercion and threats of human rights workers and journalists in Egypt >>

Posted by Victoria Wisniewski, Ignacio Saiz and Kevin Donegan on February 4th, 2011

CESR at the UN: the United States' human rights obligations (video).

Last month, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva reviewed the United States' human rights performance. CESR was there, in coalition with the US Human Rights Network, Center for Women's Global Leadership, ESCR-Net, Urban Justice, Political Economy Research Institute.

After the official UN session, CESR organized a side event, Human Rights in the U.S.: Building foundations for Freedom from Want in the Land of Plenty. This space opened the opportunity for a dialogue between representatives from civil society and states' delegations about the United States' examination under the UN's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process and next steps for citizens and advocacy organizations. You can read more of our reporting on the event and the UPR here.

View the videos below, including CESR executive director Ignacio Saiz's comments:

Part 1

Part 2

More videos and comments from other panelists:

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Read more about CESR's work on economic and social rights in the United States.

Posted by Kevin Donegan on December 16th, 2010

How much longer for a legally-binding accord on emissions reductions?

The Cancún climate negotiations closed last week, culminating in a well-praised but modest agreement that has been applauded as "the reaffirmation of the multilateral process," "effectively putting meat on the bones" of the previous, disappointingly non-committal Copenhagen Accord.

The negotiations resulted in, for the first time, an official UN agreement where countries have agreed to cap global temperature rises at now more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, talks on emissions have been based on voluntary pledges, with no sanction or penalty for non-compliance.

Another breaking move has been the establishment of The Green Climate Fund which is intended to raise $100 billion a year to help poor and vulnerable countries defend themselves against the negative impacts of climate change. The World Bank will be its initial trustee, but which countries will help finance this fund, and which countries will be eligible to qualify for it has yet to be defined. A new Adaptation Committee has also been established to support countries in their climate protection plans as well as guidance on deforestation reductions.

But it is clear that the world is still far short of achieving a legally-binding mechanism on emissions cuts, falling short of the comprehensive deal that many governments and activists would hope to have achieved. Nonetheless, as UN Secertary General Ban Ki Moon stated in his remarks at the Conference, we cannot let "the ongoing nature of these complex negotiations lull us into any type of complacency."

Sixty-two years ago on December 10th, the same date as the closing of the Cancún negotiations, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights-the first global expression of human rights. In it, states recognized that inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights is the "foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."

So, what do human rights have to do with climate change and its environmental impacts?

First of all, the livelihoods of billions of people are at stake. The very real, immediate and existential threats that many small-island nations are facing due to rising sea levels should be a wake-up call to world leaders on what can be expected in the future on a much larger scale should we continue on a path of "business as usual" which, according to Ban, would condemn billions of people around the world "to shrinking horizons and smaller futures."

Some of the rights that will be placed in particular peril include the right to life, the right to adequate food, the right to water and sanitation, the right to health, the right to adequate housing, and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Human rights treaties require countries to commit to their obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights including extra-territorial responsibility beyond their borders, and, in particular, to monitor private entities which are, in the case of climate change, one of the main causes of emissions.

Furthermore, it is the most poor and marginalized who are frequently first exposed to climate change's worst impacts, increasingly affecting many aspects of their daily lives. They are the most unable to cope with these changes, however, and often do not understand what is happening to their communities and the implications of these changes for future generations.

Human rights place an immediate obligation to target vulnerable groups first to adhere with the principle of non-discrimination and equality. The UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights has stated that climate change should be addressed "in a way that is fair and just, cognizant of the needs and risks faced by the vulnerable groups," while any "sustainable solution to climate change must take into account its human impact and the needs of all communities in all countries in a holistic manner."

Yet despite some recent initiatives, climate change and human rights have largely tended to be discussed in isolation, the former being seen as the work of scientists, meteorologists and environmentalists and the latter merely referred to in some cases of violations of indigenous livelihoods or land degradation. The dissonance caused by this false dichotomy is reflected in the failure up to now to integrate human rights standards into climate policies at the global level.

In a side event organized by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and the Center for International Environmental Law during last year's Copenhagen Summit, it was acknowledged that human rights law is guided by principles of equity and social justice, which should oblige states to achieve the best results for the fulfillment of human rights.

However, many solutions being put on the table at these negotiations have been grounded in a market-based approach with the aim of making economic actors aware of the costs of resource depletion, degradation and emissions, with a focus on industry compromises that can be both profitable and less damaging. Climate change has moved from being seen as an ecological problem to an economic one. Throughout this evolution, the emphasis on achieving technical efficiency and commoditization has sidelined human rights arguments in climate change mitigation and adaptation responses.

Furthermore, human rights place obligations of conduct to ensure participation, transparency and accountability in policy-making and monitoring processes, which should be incorporated into an elaborated climate change regime. Regrettably, opportunities for civil society representations to be engaged and participate in global climate change negotiations have been sparse, bureaucratic and highly regulated.

As a case in point in Cancún, on December 8, 2010, Tom Goldtooth, the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, one of the key indigenous activists attending the Conference, was blocked from entering the summit a day after he publicly criticized the UN process. In a statement recounting the events, he said that his treatment was an indicator of a "larger and disturbing pattern" to silence voices of civil society and drastically reduce the freedom of speech and right to peaceful protest of affected groups and stakeholders.

We must also see both human rights and climate change through an innovative lens. Responding to human rights violations as a result of negative impacts of climate change should not be just considered in terms of classic legal arguments, but also as a greater ethical imperative towards guaranteeing greater climate justice for present and future generations.

Posted by Victoria Wisniewski Otero on December 15th, 2010

Rolling back economic and social rights to aid the banks? Ireland's National Recovery Plan

The banking bailout in Ireland will cost at least €50 billion, or about the equivalent of €22,500 euros each for Ireland’s two million tax payers. This has left the Irish government facing a large budget deficit. But should Ireland be cutting back on the protection of economic and social rights to finance this deficit? And who is bearing the burden of these cuts?

Ireland’s National Recovery Plan, rushed through the Dáil (parliament) last week to secure the IMF-EU rescue line of credit, suggests that the poorer will be hit harder than the wealthier. The plan sets out cuts in social welfare, slashing 24,000 public sector jobs, raising regressive taxes such as VAT to 23% and widening the income tax bands to include lower-paid workers. It will also introduce new fees for education, water and local services. Meanwhile, the minimum wage will be cut, but the country's corporate tax rate of 12.5%--one of the lowest in the world--will not change. 

Ireland already has the highest child poverty rate in the European Union (before taxes and income transfers) witha staggering 34% of households with children in poverty according to new research on inequality and child-wellbeing in rich countries from  UNICEF. This figure drops to 11% after taxes and transfers, which shows the importance of redistribution of resources to combat child poverty. The Children’s Rights Alliance, a group of 90 NGOs, has denounced the child benefit cuts also embedded in the austerity measures. Social Justice Ireland has also labelled the 2011 Budget as “unjust, unfair and inequitable” given the escape of the corporate sector and those who benefit from tax breaks from bearing the burden.  

The National Recovery Plan fails to mention Ireland's obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which requires the progressive realization of economic and social rights--and by extension prohibits retrogression and non-discrimination. Despite the limited availability of resources, the government bears the burden of proof in demonstrating why these cuts are necessary and why the costs of the €50 billion bailout should be disproportionately borne by Ireland’s poor.   

Ireland will come under international scrutiny for compliance with its human rights obligations next year in its its first review under the Universal Periodic Review on October 6, 2011. Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona, the UN's Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty will also visit to Ireland on January 10, 2011.

Posted by Sally-Anne Way on December 13th, 2010

Climate Change And Human Rights: Will Cancun Deliver?

Climate change has the potential to exacerbate existing incompliance with economic, social and cultural rights because many countries that are most vulnerable to climate change are ones with weak human rights mechanisms.

Although poor countries are disproportionately feeling the adverse impacts of climate change, however, wealthy countries--the historical CO2 emitters--are dragging their feet on committing to a legally-binding solution, an inaction that led Bolivia’s ambassador to the UN to say that wealthy states are "holding humanity hostage."  As countries gather this week for the 2010 UN Climate Change Conference, will Cancun deliver what Copenhagen couldn’t? Bringing human rights to into the discussion might help to bring climate justice to the center of negotiations.

For many people, climate change seems like a looming but distant problem, an intangible concept removed from our day-to-day living and relegated to scientific statistics and future concerns. For many communities around the world, however, climate change is already having devastating human impacts; it is a crisis of today just as much as it is one of tomorrow.  What is certain is that ultimately, climate change will affect us all, and even small changes in global temperatures and weather patterns can have huge and irreversible impacts. 

Symptoms that we are reaching a breaking point have been already evidenced in several devastating natural disasters in recent years, such as, for instance, the floods in Pakistan earlier this year. Around 14 million people were affected by the flooding there, a disaster greater in scale than the South Asian tsunami and the recent earthquakes in Haiti combined. Evidence shows that the frequency of if these sudden-onset disasters is increasing, with an average of about 400 disasters per year, double the figure reported 20 years ago.

These disasters result in high death tolls which disproportionately are felt by vulnerable groups such as women and children, indigenous groups, refugees, the disabled and the poor. They often lead to secondary negative impacts which further exacerbate the enjoyment of human rights—including food crises, displacement and lack of access to adequate sanitation, education and health facilities.  

Climate change impacts, however, are not always so obvious, and some of the most challenging consequences have been or are slowly encroaching.  We have all heard the foreboding predictions on the climate-change induced displacement that would occur should global sea-levels rise even marginally. A new report by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research shows that up to a billion people could be made homeless in the next 90 years if countries fail to cut emissions. Many small island nations’ very right to self-determination is threatened by rising sea levels, such as Kiribati, which recently hosted the latest conference of the Climate Vulnerable Forum. 

Each year, many countries find themselves more and more water-scarce and prone to desertification, leading to droughts which have pushed people on the brink of starvation, notably in landlocked Niger, where 46 percent of the population suffer from food insecurity. In June 2010, Russia, the world’s third largest polluter after China and the United States, experienced an anomalous heat wave that resulted in many fatalities and wildfires around the country.  Figures by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggest that 2010 is most likely to be the warmest year since records began in 1880. 

Climate change is slowly melting glaciers and the ice caps, often presented through the image of desolate polar bears floating on broken-off ice islands.  However, these changes to Arctic regions are also threatening the traditional way of life of indigenous peoples. An Inuit petition was famously filed in 2005 to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against the United States, claiming that the US had violated human rights by damaging the livelihoods of the Arctic peoples by failing to curb its emissions.

Climate change is already and will continue to have distressing and multiple negative impacts, posing an existential threat to humankind, making combating it a "a moral imperative."  This has been acknowledged by the UN OHCHR in its Resolution  7/23 on Human Rights and Climate Change (March 28, 2008), which raised concern that climate change "poses an immediate and far-reaching threat." The world’s nations cannot afford to waste time delivering on their pledges made in Copenhagen last year to reduce emissions to keep global temperatures under a two-degrees Celsius rise. The Kyoto Protocol aimed to reduce greenhouse gases by five percent by 2012 from 1990 levels. However, in 2009, greenhouse gas emissions were 40 percent greater than they were in 1990.

Unfortunately, those who have contributed the least to climate change emissions and have the least resources and access to information to cope with and understand its effects often find themselves on the frontline of feeling climate change’s adverse impacts.  Even more disconcerting, several countries continue to operate under a “business as usual” scenario and up until recently, even evidence of global warming was disputed. The OHCHR (A/HRC/10/61 of January 15, 2009) in a recent study on the links between climate change and human rights outlines policy guidelines and stresses international obligations of states with regard to international in this context.

The OHCHR has also affirmed that human rights standards and principles should form the basis for and strengthen policymaking in the area of climate change and countries are called to align climate change policies with human rights objectives. CESR participated in the 3rd UN Social Forum on the adverse impact of climate change on the fulfillment of human rights, including ESC rights, that was hosted in Geneva from October 4-6, 2010.

World leaders are urged to incorporate international human rights principles into the Cancun negotiations. Despite already low expectations for Cancun, it is critical that a binding commitment be reached on emissions reduction to keep temperature below the tipping point of 2 degrees Celsius. Wealthy countries should acknowledge their “differentiated responsibility” in global climate change adaptation and mitigation in order to comply with their extra-territorial obligations to respect, protect and fulfill economic, social and cultural rights.

Posted by Victoria Wisniewski Otero on November 30th, 2010

Time for the G20 to be global leaders where it counts

Last week on November 4th, the UNDP published its 20th anniversary Human Development Report (HDR), one of the milestone publications of the United Nations and a definitive source for data on poverty, inequality and socio-economic trends.  In looking back at this UN agency’s work over the past two decades, the report quotes the very 1st edition of the HDR, reaffirming that “people are the real wealth of a nation”.  The first report broke new ground in arguing that national development should be measured “not just by economic growth, but also by health and education achievement.”

This week, leaders from the most powerful countries in the world, which combined represent over 80% of global GDP, are convening in Seoul to try to resolve some critical challenges around the global economic outlook.   However, despite its ambitious agenda this meeting seems divorced from addressing some of people’s real economic and social rights concerns in the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis.  Will the G-20 make the effort to put people first as it negotiates what -according to its agenda- appears to be a new deal in the existent economic order?

Some of the items on the G-20 agenda include meeting previous G-20 commitments: safeguarding the ongoing recovery and restoring fiscal sustainability; ensuring strong, sustainable, and balanced global growth; building a stronger international financial regulatory system; and modernizing international financial institutions.  However, this year, two new agenda items have also been included: “strengthening global financial safety nets to assist countries to deal with capital volatility”, and “narrowing the development gap and reducing poverty with the end to achieve strong, sustainable and balanced growth”.  The outcomes of the G20’s attempts to tackle thorny issues around the global trade, financial and monitoring system will surely bear an effect on the consolidating the MDG’s Global Partnership.

And with donor country performance on the attainment of MDG 8 falling very short of expectations, the G-20 has all the reason to be “interested in” renewing discussions on the role of international cooperation in development.  Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon noted recently that “economic uncertainty cannot be an excuse for slowing down our development efforts or backing away from international commitments to provide support”.  Most donor countries, particularly the most wealthy, are far-off from meeting 0,7% GDP overseas development assistance.  Save the Children reports that out of 25 billion USD pledged by the G-8 to Sub-Saharan Africa in 2005, just 12 billion has been delivered.  Wavering commitments and volatility in international aid is undermining its very effectiveness.  Meeting development aid commitments should be given top priority if the MDGs are to be met by their 2015 deadline.

But more than anything, the 2008 Financial Crisis has made evident that the failures of the current global financial architecture are being felt by some of the world’s most vulnerable groups, who are also some of the most powerless to demand accountability from national governments as well as the international community.  As much as the world is facing a global economic crisis, it is also facing a human rights one as well.  The 2010 Human Development Report notes that 34 million people lost their Jobs as a result of the Crisis, and 64 million more people fell under the $1.25
a day threshold for measuring extreme poverty.  It is evident that the Crisis, which began in developed countries, is hitting the developing world the hardest and will be felt long after rich countries have recovered. 

For this very reason, it is critical that development and international cooperation not get sidelined at the G-20 discussion or treated as an add-on agenda item.  The G-20 meeting in Seoul should not be just about fixing, reforming and regulating the existing economic order.  Rather, the Summit should focus on a more transformative agenda to make the global economic system more accountable and transparent, with the goal of establishing not just stable and sustainable growth, but an equitable one that is beneficial for all as well.

Unfortunately, the G-20, despite being such an influential force for this change, is one of the most non-transparent and non-participatory forums to discuss global economic reform, reinforcing power imbalances through a process that itself is reserved to a powerful few.  An advance NGO coalition statement was made that, in its very first recommendation, urged the G-20 to “recognize the links between illicit outflows of capital from developing countries, absorption of those resources by tax havens and financial institutions in international financial centers, and the adverse impact those flows have on poverty alleviation and economic development.” 

One of the hopes is that a “Seoul Consensus” on development aid (a namesake of the failed Washington Consensus) will come out of this G20 summit.  However, it is critical that G20 leaders move beyond the usual prescriptions on economic growth for the developing world that have been anchored in market-led, laissez-faire dogma.  It is time for G20 leaders to acknowledge their extra-territorial human rights obligations in their immediate crisis responses and longer-term decisions on economic policy and governance.  The terrible consequences of the crisis are often accepted as inevitable, unfortunate side effects, rather than inherent flaws in the design of the global economic system itself.  CESR challenges this complacency and urges the G20 to take human rights considerations into account in its discussions.  The final communiqué of the G20 will be eagerly anticipated.

Posted by Victoria Wisniewski Otero on November 12th, 2010

How the U.S. defended its human rights record before the United Nations

On November 5 in Geneva, the U.S. government defended its human rights record before the United Nations Human Rights Council. It was the first time the United States has participated in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that every UN member country undergoes. CESR together with other human rights organizations contributed submissions on the United States’ record on economic and social rights to the Human Rights Council in advance of the UPR session.

After the U.S. delegation presented its preliminary comments based on its country report, a number of countries submitted their recommendations. Diverse issues where highlighted by different states. Among them:

  • Ensuring that migrants are subject to equal treatment under law and protection from discrimination;
  • Addressing racial, ethnic and religious discrimination;
  • Establishing a moratorium for the death penalty;
  • Closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and ensure detainees a fair trial;
  • Investigating reports of torture in secret detention centres and bringing those responsible to justice; and
  • Creating a national human rights commission.

Almost every intervention by other countries mentioned the need for the United States to ratify some of the core international human rights treaties. Those included the Convention on the Right of the Child (CRC), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Descrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), as well as its Optional Protocol. Countries such as Norway, Bangladesh and Brazil called for the full recognition of the protection and promotion of economic and social rights and the adoption of further measures for the economic and social rights of women and minorities, including the right to decent work and reducing the number of homeless people.

The response of the U.S. government on the ratification of the ICESCR was, however, dissapointing. As Michael Posner, assistant U.S. secretary of state for democracy, said: "Some countries ratify treaties and then work towards compliance with their provisions. The United States follows a different path. We seek to ensure domestic compliance before we ratify treaties. We also are bound by a constitutional requirement that before treaties are ratified two-thirds of our Senate has to provide its consent at ratification of 67 votes. Despite this, the Obama administration is strongly committed to ratification of CEDAW and the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and we are pursuing those objectives very much in line with your comments."

The U.S. delegation gave no clear intention about what will happen with the ICESCR. Although the United States' report to the UPR references issues such as health, education, and housing, a further commitment to complying with international standards appears to remain distant.

The UPR process, created in 2006, is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States once every four years. It provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations. Under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, it has been designed to ensure equal treatment for every country when their human rights situations are assessed.
The way the U.S. government engaged with civil society during this process is worth highlighting, however. As well as the national consultation in preparation of the official country report, an innovative approach was taken. The U.S. government organized meetings with NGOs in Geneva and in Washington after its presentation at the UPR plenary session. This presented an opportunity to further scrutinize the U.S. delegation about both its positions and measures planned to ensure the protection of human rights.

The adoption of the Working Group report with recommendations made by the states on the Human Rights Council took place on November 9. During the next session of the Human Rights Council, in March 2011, the United States will have to publicly state which of those recommendations it will either accept, evaluate or reject.

During the UPR session in Geneva, CESR, in coalition with the US Human Rights Network, Center for Women's Global Leadership, ESCR-Net, Urban Justice, Political Economy Research Institute organized a side event, Human Rights in the U.S.: Building foundations for Freedom from Want in the Land of Plenty. This space opened the opportunity for a dialogue between representatives from civil society and states' delegations about the United States' examination under the UPR and future steps.

Posted by Maria Jose Eva on November 9th, 2010

CESR to co-host event on U.S. human rights record at the UN

CESR and partners welcome you to a side event at the 9th session of the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review in Geneva:

November 5, 2010, 13:00-14:30
Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland
Room XXII (lunch provided)

The obligation of every government is to protect, respect, and fulfill economic and social rights. Thousands of minority families and individuals in the United States are facing foreclosure and loss of their homes due to the economic crisis.

In 2009, the number of impoverished people in the U.S. was the largest in 51 years and increased by 4 million people from 2008 to 2009. Freedom from want should fulfill economic and social rights, such as, the right to work and the right to an adequate standard of living.

Panelists include:

  • Radhika Balakrishnan, Executive Director, Center for Women´s Global Leadership
  • Ejim Dike, Director, Human Rights Project, Urban Justice Center
  • Sarah H. Paoletti, Practice Associate Professor, Transnational Legal
    Clinic, University of Pennsylvania School of Law
  • Ignacio Saiz, Executive Director, Center for Economic and Social Rights
  • U.S. Representative (invited)

Sponsored by the Center for Economic and Social Rights, Center for Women's Global Leadership, International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), US Human Rights Network and the Urban Justice Center.

Contact us for more information.

Posted by Kevin Donegan on October 25th, 2010

Spain Is First European Country to Ratify New UN Protocol to Enforce Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The Spanish government today ratified a new UN protocol to create a new international complaint mechanism to uphold economic, social and cultural rights

CESR and other human rights groups welcome Spain’s ratification of the Optional Protocol (OP) to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, becoming the first country in Europe to do so. The protocol is a new UN complaint mechanism adopted two years ago to allow people to seek justice from the UN if their right to adequate housing, food, water, health education or any other economic, social or cultural right is violated by their government.

In addition to Spain, Ecuador and Mongolia have ratified the protocol. Thirty other countries have signed it, thereby indicating their intention to ratify. At least 10 states must ratify the Optional Protocol for it to enter into force.

Spain’s ratification comes at a critical juncture for the state to confirm its commitment to economic and social rights both domestically and abroad.  Spanish President José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero attended the UN MDG Review Summit in New York, where he affirmed the country’s pledge to increase overseas development assistance rates 0.7% of GNP by 2015, despite the fact that the country imposed public spending cuts earlier this year that led to a 600 million reduction in its foreign aid.

At the same time, the UN Human Rights Council adopted Spain’s Universal Periodic Review outcomes this week. The focus of the UPR comments was on discrimination and xenophobia, migrant rights, human trafficking, torture and the condition of detention centers, particularly for unaccompanied minors. Spain was encouraged to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

In a joint statement by Amnesty International and the Center for Economic Rights, CESR notes that Spain’s announcements at the UN indicate a strong commitment to realizing economic and social rights both at home and abroad. Its actions, however, have not always been consistent with these good intentions, as witnessed by its cuts in its development aid budget.

International eyes will be on Spain to ensure that the leadership it has shown in ratifying the Optional Protocol is reflected in policy and practice and that Spain follows through on the recommendations it has accepted through the UPR process.

Posted by Victoria Wisniewski Otero on September 24th, 2010

UN MDG Summit Opens with Many Promises Hanging in the Air

Yesterday, I attended the opening session of the MDG Review Summit, formally known as the High-level Plenary Meeting of the 65th Session of the UN General Assembly.

While several heads of state and international dignitaries are in attendance, I am observing the spectacle from high up in the fourth floor balcony (the only area open to NGO and other observers). This feels very removed from activism. The restrictions on access have rendered the NGO/activist presence almost invisible.

NGOs were allowed to give their input on the MDGs during the informal interactive hearings of the General Assembly on June 14 and 15th in preparation for the September summit. However, what we felt the most at these hearings was the lack of attendance by heads of state. The world’s leaders just do not seem to be keen on engaging with civil society on the MDGs. This seems to substantiate criticism that they are technocratic and top-down.

Nonetheless, the curtain-raiser to the MDG Summit yesterday had some promising moments and firm promises.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged his commitment to a 20% increase in Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) to meet the MDGs and affirmed that the crisis should not be a pretext for shirking on commitments.

Spanish President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero affirmed that Spain would reach its 0.7% ODA target by 2015 despite the effects of the economic recession. He called for an international financial transactions tax and stated that since governments had bailed out banks, it seemed sensible, fair and logical that states would ask for at least a minimum effort from the financial sector to eliminate deprivation around the world.

The opening speeches of the heads of the World Bank, IMF and WTO also made grand appeals to the need to work for the “common welfare of humanity”. However, the pathways they proposed were less inspiring and more business as usual; the first priority, they said, was to promote economic growth and trade liberalization.

Powerful, rights-friendly interventions were also made. Bolivian President Evo Morales gave a speech that attributed the fundamental cause of poverty to unjust distributions of wealth. Switzerland proclaimed the importance of human rights principles of non-discrimination and participation in the implementation of the MDGs.

Of the UN speakers, UNDP’s Helen Clark stood out, saying there could be no meaningful progress unless the principles of equity, human rights and gender empowerment guided efforts over the next five years.

But as most individual countries took the floor, there was the usual lapse into more parochial concerns or endless speeches talking up their government’s progress. Whether heads of state will be able to look beyond lauding their best practices and success stories to address some of key MDG shortfalls will depend on how much they value their promise to attain the MDGs by 2015. 

Posted by Ignacio Saiz, Executive Director on September 21st, 2010

A millennium promise, 10 years later

It was hailed as the "most important promise ever made to the world's most vulnerable people." But a decade on, the Millennium Declaration and the eight development goals that flowed from it risk going down in history as the most important promise never kept.

Undeniably, some progress has been made. For every child who would otherwise have died from preventable diseases, and for every woman who would not otherwise have survived pregnancy or childbirth, the efforts galvanized by the MDGs have been literally lifesaving.  But the stark reality-highlighted in our focus on the MDGs for this e-newsletter-is that most of the goals are way off the targets set for 2015.

World leaders meeting at next week's UN Review Summit will no doubt give this sorry state of incompliance the best possible spin. The sluggish progress, stagnation and even deterioration in many indicators will be blamed on a lack of resources in times of economic crisis rather than any lack of political will.

But what CESR's review lays bare are the consequences of leaving human rights accountability out of the development process. The MDGs have been viewed as aspirational goals rather than politically-binding commitments. Although the UN refers to them as a "quantitative time-bound framework of accountability," the MDGs do not include effective mechanisms for holding governments to account should they fail to meet the targets.

The MDG framework has been criticized from the start as undercutting countries' human rights obligations, particularly those on economic and social rights. These obligations must take precedence, for they flow from another visionary UN declaration adopted more than 60 years ago: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights may not dictate detailed policy prescriptions for achieving specific development goals. But they do provide a binding ethical framework sorely missing in current efforts to implement the MDGs.

Principles such as the duty to use maximum available resources to progressively fulfill economic and social rights, to prioritize core obligations, and to ensure non-discrimination, participation and accountability, should guide governments' choice and prioritization of policies. The absence of such considerations in MDG implementation to date has had fatal consequences, and has meant that progress has tended to bypass the poorest and most marginalized sectors of the population, fueling inequality within and between countries.

The next five years offer an opportunity to place human rights squarely at the center of efforts to accelerate and monitor progress on the MDGs, so that these commitments, however flawed, can be used as a benchmark for assessing compliance by countries, donors and international actors with their more comprehensive human rights obligations. CESR is also working with others in the human rights and development communities to bring about a shift in the development paradigm beyond 2015, so that any new framework of development commitments that emerges following the MDGs has the fulfilment of human rights and human dignity at its core.

Posted by Ignacio Saiz, Executive Director on September 20th, 2010

Message to UN General Assembly: "Don't forget human rights in achieving the Millennium Goals"

A group of top independent human rights experts yesterday called on world leaders attending next week's UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals "to be guided by human rights in finalizing the Summit Outcome Document and in establishing national action plans."

The MDGs--which range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all by the target date of 2015--were agreed upon ten years ago by all the world's countries and the leading development institutions, a press release issued by UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said.

"While fully supporting the efforts of Member States to realize the MDGs by 2015, we would like to emphasize that their realization should be an important step on the longer, and continuous, road towards the full and effective realization of all human rights for all," the group of independent experts--who are chairpersons of various UN human rights treaty bodies--said in their joint statement.

"Realizing all human rights for all is a goal in itself, and should be seen independently from the goal of generating global economic growth," the group noted. "Realizing the MDGs is but a first step in meeting their broader human rights treaty obligations."

The group drew special attention to the fact that some of the Millennium Goals, like primary education for all or gender parity, fully meet international human rights treaty obligations. However, they stressed that realization of other MDGs "would still fall short of what human rights treaties require, as treaties call for the realization of human rights for all, which goes beyond the reaching of quantified targets."

In their view, faster progress towards achieving the Millennium Goals can be accomplished by "adhering to international human rights standards, including to the principles of non-discrimination, meaningful participation and accountability."

 The chairpersons of the UN human rights treaty bodies called on Member States to increase their attention on those that are most vulnerable to discrimination, as addressed by the core international human rights treaties.

The chairpersons of the UN human rights treaty bodies who signed the statement were:

  • Yuji IWASAWA (Human Rights Committee, CCPR)
  • Jaime MARCHÁN ROMERO (Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, CESCR)
  • Anwar KEMAL (Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD)
  • Naela GABR (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW)
  • Claudio GROSSMAN (Committee Against Torture, CAT)
  • Víctor RODRÍGUEZ RESCIA (Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, SPT)
  • Yanghee LEE (Committee on the Rights of the Child, CRC)
  • Abdelhamid EL JAMRI (Committee on Migrant Workers, CMW)
  • Ronald Clive McCALLUM (Committee on the Right of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD)

The human rights treaty bodies are committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties. They are created in accordance with the provisions of the treaty that they monitor.

Posted by Kevin Donegan on September 17th, 2010

Guatemala: Joint Submission to the UN Human Rights Committee

CESR, in cooperation with the Multidisciplinary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Rights of Guatemala and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, presented a submission to the Human Rights Committee on July 30 about health and economic issues affecting women in Guatemala. These challenges are intrinsically connected to rights protected by the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Guatemala will appear before the 100th session of the UN Human Rights Committee, which takes place October 11 to 29. The Committee will examine Guatemala´s third periodic report on the implementation of the ICCPR.

Photo © David Bacon

Drawing on the “Rights and Privileges” report  published in 2009 jointly by CESR and Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales, the submission highlights that although Guatemala has one of the strongest economies in Central America, poverty and inequality are uncharacteristically high. This especially so among women, whose right to life and equality have failed to be protected. Guatemala has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in Latin America, with 290 deaths per 100,000 live births. Indigenous women are the most severely affected by pregnancy related deaths. They are three times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth. Rural areas, which are generally more populated by indigenous communities, are also disproportionately affected by maternal health issues.

The submission also highlights the government’s failure to address the serious issues of illegal and unsafe abortions and limited access to reproductive health services, family planning and contraception. Unmet contraceptive need is particularly high in Guatemala. In rural areas it is 25.4% and 29.6% among indigenous women, while in urban areas it is 14.7% and 15.1% among non-indigenous women. It is not surprising that Guatemala has the highest fertility rate in Latin America and one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the region.

This submission hopes to contribute to the Human Rights Committee’s work on ensuring that Guatemala protect and respect civil and political rights of all women within the country.

Posted by Seona Dillon McLoughlin and Maria Jose Eva on August 10th, 2010

UN Resolution Recognizes Water as a Right

Last week, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution declaring access to clean water and sanitation a fundamental right.

Spearheaded by Bolivia, the resolution passed with 122 countries in favor, zero against and 41 abstentions. It states that “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation [is] a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” The resolution also urges states and international organizations to support the effort to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.

More than 1.2 billion people have to defecate in the open. The biggest single cause of child deaths is diarrhoea or disesases related to it. Nearly one billion people have no access to piped drinking water or safe taps or wells, the Economist reported in May in a special report on water.

Furthermore, since 2000, the area under irrigation has doubled and the amount of water drawn for farming has tripled. The proportion of people living in countries chronically short of water, which was eight percent (500 million people) at the turn of the 21st century, is set to rise to 45 percent (four billion people) by 2050. One billion people go to bed hungry each night, partly for lack of water to grow food.

These disquieting statistics bring attention to Millennium Development Goal 7 which has committed the international community to halving the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. Escalated efforts need to be made if this target is to be reached; it will be reviewed in the upcoming MDG Summit in New York in September.

At the same time, water is being commoditized, priced and sold, and the right to water, while recognized both in many traditions and in international law, has been weak in argument and in political clout. The new resolution strengthens that position.

Considering how indelible water is to our survival, it is sometimes difficult to believe that there has been an arduous struggle within the international human rights community to have water recognized as an explicit human right.

The right to water is enshrined in Article 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, recognizing the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living and the right to health. In 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued General Comment 15 on the right to water, in which the Committee offers its interpretation of the potential scope and content of the right, which marked another major milestone in the development of the right to water.

And in 2008, the UN Human Rights Council appointed Catarina de Albuquerque as an independent expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation. De Albuquerque presented a report to the Human Rights Council in 2009 which focused mainly on human rights obligations with regard to sanitation and the inextricable links between sanitation and human rights.

Although the passing of last week’s UN resolution is a promising victory, several abstentions by key member states demonstrate critical challenges in ensuring that this right be fully recognized internationally. Some of the most notable abstentions came from wealthy countries such as Austria, Canada, Denmark, Israel, the Netherlands, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Furthermore, many water-stressed countries and countries where a significant proportion of the population lacks adequate access to clean water and sanitation were either absent or abstained.

This resolution is a historic step that was earnestly awaited by those involved in the battle for the acknowledgement of this intrinsic and vital right. CESR affirms the need for states to be held to account for their obligations to economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to water. Along with other NGOs, for example, CESR contributed to the production of a 2003 guide by the World Health Organization and the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights on “The Right to Water.” This guide outlines the scope and content of the legal framework for the right to water, as well as highlighting key issues in practice.

Read more on our work on the right to water.

Posted by Vicotora Wisniewski Otero and Seona Dillon McLoughlin on August 2nd, 2010

Health Inequality: A Challenge for Rich and Poor Countries Alike

Researchers from Sheffield and Bristol have found that the gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest quintiles in the United Kingdom is wider now than it was during the Great Depression. Despite an increase over time in average life expectancy, the study, published in the British Medical Journal, highlights health inequalities in Britain.

The study examined mortality data from government sources. The findings confirm that although the inequality gap narrowed until the 1970s, it widened in the last decades.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, a health inequalities expert, told the BBC that despite improvements in the living standards of the poor, “health did not catch up on average, because of persisting social and economic inequalities.”

Marmot had previously led a report in February that demonstrated that people in England’s poorest areas lived an average of seven years less than people living in the richest areas. The study also found that a higher minimum wage to enjoy adequate standard of living would allow for a more health life.

Narrowing the health inequality gap has been a challenge even for the world's richest countries. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights affirms the right of everyone “to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical health.” States have a duty to ensure that health facilities, goods and services are accessible to all, especially the most vulnerable or marginalized sections of the population, without discrimination.  Unfortunately, however, the poor are often the most excluded from adequate access to health care.

A 2009 Working Paper by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that, in almost all OECD countries and in different health systems, deeply entrenched inequalities in health status persist depending on socioeconomic status. Disparities are evident between rich and poor, not only in their enjoyment of good health, but in their access to and use of health care services as well.

CESR’s latest fac tsheet about the United States found that poor human rights outcomes, including huge disparities in health, were related to extreme income inequalities. The United States has the widest income disparity of any OECD country, and is also one of the few OECD countries without a universal public health insurance program. Many Americans are without any health coverage at all. Low public expenditure further hinders the fulfillment of the right to health.  

Posted by Maria Jose Eva and Victoria Wisniewski Otero on July 28th, 2010

Tackling Income Inequality in the United States through Financial Literacy Programs

The income gap between whites and blacks more than quadrupled between 1984 and 2007, and a quarter of black families have no assets at all, according to the BBC. The story goes on to describe several community development programs aimed at providing financial literacy and budget training for African-American women in the state of South Carolina. The article interviews beneficiaries and founders of several initiatives to lift African American women, particularly mothers in single-parent families, out of poverty, to “break the cycle” of intergenerational poverty.  

Kenya Williams is a 35-year-old single mother who has benefited from the help of the ALIVE community development corporation’s classes on basic book-keeping in Allendale County, where unemployment is double the national average. She earns $330 a week for her family of three girls and makes ends meet “week by week, paycheck to paycheck.” Natisha Boston, another single mother of three and a resident of North Charleston, has been helped by courses on credit-lending education and home-ownership programs at the Metanoia Community Development Corporation.

CESR’s 2010 fact sheet on the United States reveals alarming disparities in income levels, as well as access to health and education, among ethnic groups, with women facing compound effects. Among Asian, black, Hispanic/Latino and white groups, for example, black women experienced the highest working poor rates (income less than $21,756 for a family of four in 2009), at 11.6 percent, almost seven percent higher than their white female counterparts.  Furthermore, the southern states as a region also have some of the highest rates of poverty incidence in the country.  

This figure, among others in the fact sheet, suggest that wages are too low to ensure an adequate standard of living and that discrimination exists in the enjoyment of economic and social rights in the United States. The country, despite being the world’s wealthiest economy, has one of the highest income inequalities and poorest records of economic and social rights achievement of all high-income countries. The United States, which has signed by not yet ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, will appear for the first time before the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council in November 2010. 

Posted by Victoria Wisniewski Otero on July 6th, 2010

Justice delayed and denied in India

Earlier this month, an Indian court found employees of Union Carbide India Limited guilty of negligence. The chemical company's Indian executives and former employees had been charged for their connection with the Bhopal Gas disaster that occurred more than 25 years ago.

The seven former employees who were convicted have been given a two-year jail term and fined $2,000. Indian and international activists campaigning for justice have deplored the ruling as “too little, too late.”

The original charge of culpable homicide was reduced to death by negligence by the Indian Supreme Court in 1996. India’s central bureau of investigation had originally implicated a total of 12 defendants, including Warren Anderson, the former head of the U.S.-based parent company Union Carbide Corporation. Anderson currently has a warrant issued for his arrest in India and is considered a fugitive of justice in the country. The United States denied a request made in 2004 to extradite him to face trial in India.

The Bhopal disaster, the most severe industrial catastrophe to date, occurred during the early hours of December 3, 1984.  A massive leak of toxic gases occurred as a result of a broken storage tank from a pesticide plant near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The facility was owned by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which was later taken over by the American multinational Dow Chemical Company.  

The failure to do anything to bring Union Carbide Corporation and Warren Anderson to India to face trial indicates that India is more responsive to the instructions of the US Government than to notions of justice and fair play towards its citizens.

-The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal's response to the June 7 verdict in a letter directed at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Often described as “the night of terror,” the incident took place while most of the residents of Bhopal were asleep. The death cloud, consisting of the highly lethal toxin methyl isocyanate, killed around 7,000 instantaneously and resulted in 15,000 related deaths in its aftermath.  Many of those affected were living in shanty towns located near the factory.    

According to a 2004 report by Amnesty International, the side effects of the chemical leak continue to afflict an estimated 100,000 residents in the area, several of whom suffer from many chronic illnesses and physical incapacitation.  The hazardous waste also contaminated groundwater in the area, causing detrimental consequences on the environment as well as on those who rely on the water for drinking supplies for years to come.

The rulings on June 7 have disappointed many of the victims, who—a quarter-century since the tragedy—continue to seek justice, accountability of all those responsible and full redress, including compensation, rehabilitation and adequate access to healthcare services. Veerappa Moily, Cabinet Minister of Law and Justice for the Govnerment of India, told the Financial Times that “delay in justice is like denial of justice. It is unfortunate that it took so long.”

Union Carbide had agreed to pay US$470 million to the Indian government in 1989 in an out of court settlement of civil claims brought against the company. Survivors, however, claim that they have either never received compensation or have only received payments of minimal amounts. Efforts to hold the corporations involved in both India and the United States accountable have been complicated by the takeover of UCC in 2001 by Dow Chemical Company, which has repeatedly wiped its hands clean by making public claims that it bears no responsibility in the 1984 disaster.

The basic human rights of the Bhopal victims are articulated in several key human rights documents that India has pledged commitment to and ratified, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as in many articles of the Indian Constitution. The crucial importance of economic and social rights is fundamental in particular for the survivors, who continue to be detrimentally affected by the disaster’s harmful consequences and have been deprived of the right to health, the right to water and the right to an adequate standard of living.

"The tragedy was caused by the synergy of the very worst of American and Indian cultures. An American corporation cynically used a third world country to escape from the increasingly strict safety standards imposed at home."

-95-page verdict of Bhopal Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Decision in the case of Madyah Pradesh v Warren Anderson et al.

More broadly, the legacy of the Bhopal incident and the disappointment of its subsequent rulings raise several ethical implications of the role of businesses and economic, social and cultural rights. The case dramatically highlights the challenges of holding multinational corporations to account for economic and social rights impacts of their operations, and of ensuring appropriate regulation by governments in both the home and host states to mitigate risk and abide by an adequate safety code. The United States’ unwillingness to hold UCC and Dow Chemical Company more responsible for their actions implies a double standard in the enforcement of human rights and lack of prioritization given to economic and social rights.

For more information on CESR’s work on India, our 2008 fact sheet examines the country's economic and social rights. It was prepared on the occasion of the consideration by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the report submitted by India on its compliance, as a State Party, with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) for the Committee´s 40th session.

Posted by Victoria Wisniewski on June 24th, 2010

Ecuador Is First Country to Ratify the Optional Protocol to the ICESCR

After the National Assembly of Ecuador approved the ratification on March 30, Ecuador this week became the first country in the world to ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This is a momentous development for the Optional Protocol (OP), as it needs 10 ratifications before it can be legally enforced. The OP provides a UN complaints mechanism for victims of violations of all economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights. This means the Covenant now has a complaints mechanism of equal status to that of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Thus, the OP is also considered to be a historic milestone for human rights as a whole, and its adoption will represent a huge advancement for economic, social and cultural rights.

The OP ensures victims of ESC rights violations their right to effective remedy, by being given the possibility to have their case reviewed by the Committee on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights, where no effective means of redress are available at the national level. It is a tool that will not only affect the lives of individual complainants suffering from infringements of ESC rights, but will be likely to offer positive guidance to domestic and regional judiciary in relation to the enforcement of ESC rights in general. In addition, the conclusions reached by the Committee will lead to further clarification for the content of and obligations arising from ESC rights.

After the adoption of the OP on Dec 10, 2008, many groups and individuals have been urging their countries to sign and ratify the historical document. At the moment, 31 states have signed it, but a further nine ratifications are needed to bring it into force. The lobbying of governments is being primarily coordinated by the NGO Coalition for an Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Coalition brings together national, regional and international NGOs, individuals, social movements and community based organisations to join forces to help ensure ratification by countries, so that the Optional Protocol can become enforceable as soon as possible.

CESR applauds Ecuador for this inaugural ratification and we urge other countries to follow Ecuador’s footsteps, to help make the OP a reality for all victims of ESC rights who are seeking redress.

Posted by Seona Dillon McLoughlin on June 18th, 2010

Oil Spills You Never Heard Of

An oil pipeline explosion in Nigeria, May 15, 2008. This is a repeated occurence in the oil-rich west African nation, which has the continent's largest population. Photo © Pan-African News Wire

While the news about BP's Deepwater Horizon platform blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is on a 24-hour news feed, it took a long boat ride and some serious slogging by John Vidal of The Observer to uncover a bigger and far deadlier oil spill near the village of Otuegwe in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, as Foreign Policy in Focus blogger Conn Hallinan notes this week.

The culprits in Nigeria are Shell and Exxon Mobil, whose 40-year old pipelines break with distressing regularity, pouring oil into the locals’ fishing grounds and drinking water. The Delta supports 606 oil fields that supply close to 40 percent of U.S. oil imports, Hallinan writes.

Just last month, an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured in the state of Akwa Ibom, dumping more than a million gallons into the Delta before it was patched. According to Ben Ikari, a writer and member of the local Ogoni people, “This kind of thing happens all the time in the Delta…the oil companies just ignore it. The lawmakers do not care, and people must live with the pollution daily. The situation is worse than it was 30 years ago.”

As Fred Grimm, writing in the Miami Herald, points out, the Nigerian government admits that 2,000 major oil spills, some years old, still await cleanup. Nigeria has tough-sounding environmental laws, but little enforcement by a government that has been compromised by big-oil money.

Nigerian government figures show there have been more than 9000 spills between 1970 and 2000.

Just how bad things are is not clear, because the oil companies and the Nigerian government will not make the figures public. But independent investigators estimate that over the past four decades the amount of oil released into the Delta adds up to 50 Exxon Valdez spills, or 550 million gallons.  According to the most recent government figures, up to June 3, Deepwater Horizon had pumped between 24 to 51 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico.

Although CESR is not currently working in Nigeria, in March 1996, CESR and Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC), a Nigeria-based human rights organization jointly submitted a legal communication to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights regarding economic and social rights violations in Nigeria. The petition broke new ground at the Commission, which had yet to consider any of the economic and social guarantees contained in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

The petition focused on violations of the rights to health, housing and food in Nigeria's oil-producing region and was intended to: 1) draw attention to the massive environmental and social problems underlying the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and other local activists; 2) broaden the range of human rights concerns considered by the Commission; and 3) provide a model communication for other human rights and social justice advocates in Africa.

Six years later the African Commission found the former military government of Nigeria guilty of economic, social and cultural rights violations against the Ogoni people in connection with state violence and abuses around oil development in the Niger Delta. The Commission also made recommendations for the current government to take remedial action for those violations.

Posted by Kevin Donegan on June 10th, 2010

Why UNESCO should just cancel the Obiang life sciences prize.

Equatorial Guinea is now the richest country in sub-Saharan Africa, but while its ruling family is benefiting, Equatorial Guinea's population suffers from terrible poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy. The economic, social and cultural rights of its people are mostly ignored. (See CESR's factsheet for more on economic and social rights in Equatorial Guinea.)

This is the reason for serious public concern that UNESCO is offering a prize in the name of Equatorial Guinea's ruler, President Obiang. "UNESCO is allowing itself to be used to burnish the unsavory reputation of a cruel and corrupt despot," said Tutu Alicante of the human rights organization EG Justice. "The prize's US$3 million endowment should be used for the education and welfare of the people of Equatorial Guinea, rather than the glorification of their president."

Other organizations have also raised these concerns, including Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Justice Initiative, and EG Justice. CESR has been part of this campaign, in order to raise greater awareness of the shameful status of economic and social rights of Equatoguineans, despite the vast wealth of their country.

But as the Economist observed, perhaps we should just focus on President Obiang Nguema’s generosity. "The new UNESCO award is going to set him back some $3m (not including fees for the lobbyists and public-relations firms who swung this for him)," it wrote in an editorial, "Instead of cavilling, other organisations should follow UNESCO’s approach."

"The World Food Programme, for starters, should ask Zimbabwe’s president for funds to establish a Robert Mugabe award for agricultural productivity. Next, the UN refugee agency could squeeze a few million dollars from Myanmar’s junta for a Than Shwe prize for promoting the rights of women prisoners. The World Health Organisation could surely seduce Italy’s prime minister into providing some cash for a Silvio Berlusconi medal in sex education."

You can read the full article here.

You can also read the letter we sent to UNESCO in January in protest here, and their response in March here (they say that while they have "taken due note" of our concerns, "the adoption of prizes is the prerogative of UNESCO's governing bodies."). They later confirmed that the closing date for nominations was April 30 and that the first prize will be awarded in June.

So we tried again this week, highlighting "the urgent need for UNESCO to investigate the source of the millions UNESCO accepted from an autocrat who enjoys fabulous wealth from his nation’s petroleum riches while keeping his people mired in poverty." You can read that letter in English or in Spanish.

Or feel free to write to UNESCO's chief yourself: Irina Bokova, Director General, UNESCO, 1, rue Miollis, 75732 Paris Cedex 15, France.

Stay tuned.

Posted by Maria Jose Eva and Kevin Donegan on May 10th, 2010

U.S. Must Change Position on Economic and Social Rights

It's ironic that the United States, a country which played such a historic role in affirming economic and social rights internationally, should now be one of the most resistant to applying these rights at home.

The inclusion of economic and social rights in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) owes much to the commitment of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to the indivisibility of all human rights. Yet more than 60 years on, the United States has yet to ratify the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESCR) and other key human rights treaties that translate these guarantees into binding international law.

The United States' traditional resistance to economic and social rights arises from the fact that health, education, housing and other social goods have tended to be seen by successive governments as market commodities rather than as rights which the state has the duty to respect, protect and fulfill.

The United States ranks bottom of 24 OECD countries in the Economic and Social Rights Fulfillment Index, developed by academics at the University of Connecticut and the New School, N.Y., which compares states' achievements in light of their resources.

The consequences of this approach are revealed in CESR's new fact sheet on the United States (highlighted below). The country with the world's wealthiest economy has one of the worst records on economic and social rights among high-income countries.

Inequalities in the enjoyment of the rights to health and education are in some cases more striking than in notoriously unequal societies in the global south. Ethnic disparities in U.S. maternal death rates are wider than those in Guatemala, for example.

The passage of a health care reform package by the Obama administration raised hopes in some quarters of a more rights-based approach to social policy. The extension of health insurance coverage is based on an implicit recognition that all individuals, regardless of income, need affordable access to essential health care. But the reforms fall far short of recognizing those needs as rights. The role of government policy is still limited to minor tinkering with the market rather than guaranteeing all have access to health care without discrimination, and putting in place the redistributive measures necessary to reduce disparities and progressively realize the right to health of everyone.

A symbolic but significant step towards aligning U.S. policy with its human rights commitments would be the ratification of the ICESCR and other core treaties relating to economic and social rights. Not only would it enable those in the United States denied these rights to claim them domestically; it would do much to repair the protective framework of international law, damaged by the United States' continued isolationism. Ratification is one of a range of key demands being made by human rights groups in the United States and worldwide in the run up to the country's appearance before the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council later this year. This is a rare opportunity to press the Obama administration to bring U.S. economic and social policy into line with the vision and values of the UDHR.

Posted by Ignacio Saiz, Executive Director on May 6th, 2010

Guatemala rinde cuentas ante el Comité de los Derechos del Niño

Guatemala es una de las economías más grandes y sólidas de Centroamérica. Sin embargo, presenta unos de los peores resultados de cumplimiento de los derechos económicos y sociales de los niños y niñas de la región, en particular, en materia del derecho a la salud, la alimentación y la educación.

Así por ejemplo, teniendo una de las peores tasas de desnutrición crónica de la región, Guatemala aún no logra igualar a sus países vecinos en el gasto en seguridad alimentaria. Si bien la desnutrición crónica afecta a todos los niños y niñas, el impacto es mayor entre los indígenas y los que habitan en áreas rurales. Por su parte, Guatemala tiene también una de las peores tasas de alfabetismo de la región, mostrando también enormes desigualdades en cuanto al goce del derecho a la educación al desagregar la información entre niñas y niños, áreas rurales y urbanas, e indígenas y no indígenas. 

En términos globales, Guatemala es uno de los países de la región que menos ha invertido en políticas sociales durante décadas. Si bien se han hecho esfuerzos por mejorar la recaudación de impuestos a fin de incrementar el gasto social, una constante resistencia por parte de las elites del país hace inviable una adecuada recolección de recursos. Esto hace urgente que el Estado de Guatemala persista en sus esfuerzos por modificar su política fiscal sobreponiéndose a las presiones de grupos económicos con el fin de cumplir progresivamente los derechos económicos y sociales de sus niños y niñas conforme al máximo de recursos disponibles.

La situación de los derechos económicos y sociales así como también de otros derechos de la niñez serán objeto del reporte de Guatemala ante el Comité de los Derechos del Niño (CRC) en su 54º período de sesiones en Mayo de 2010. Con motivo de esta instancia el Centro por los Derechos Económicos y Sociales (CESR) conjuntamente con el Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI), han realizado una presentación ante el CRC con el fin de destacar algunos de las principales falencias de cumplimiento de los derechos económicos y sociales de los niños en Guatemala.

Esta presentación ha sido preparada en base a los resultados del informe "¿Derechos o Privilegios? El compromiso fiscal con la salud, la educación y la alimentación en Guatemala" de 2009 y la información actualizada de la Encuesta Nacional de Salud Materno Infantil (ENSMI) 2008-2009.

Posted by Maria Jose Eva on April 29th, 2010

Equatorial Guinea reports to the UN on human rights commitments

We just got back from Geneva, where on Friday the government of Equatorial Guinea faced the UN's Human Rights Council. They were there to report on the country's human rights record.

The Vice-Prime Minister in charge of the Social and Human Rights Sector, H.E. Mr. Salomon Nguema Owono, appeared before the 13th session of the Human Rights Council to explain just how the country will meet the council's recommendations to improve the country's human rights record. Those recommendations were made public in the Report of the Working Group in January. CESR had contributed to the process that led to the UN recommendations with research and recommendations of our own.

During its presentation, government representatives emphasized that during the Council's "Universal Periodic Review" (UPR) process "there was an unequivocal commitment by the government with respect with the ideas and values of the promotion and protection of human rights which are part and parcel of human dignity of nationals of our country."

The government assured members of the Human Rights Council that it will renew its readiness to continue working with technical assistance and cooperation of the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights "in breaking down the legal, institutional, political, economic, social and cultural obstacles which today continues to prevent or limit the full enjoyment in Equatorial Guinea of the human rights recognize for persons."

For a full video presentation of the Government's response to the Council, visit the UN Webcast site

In relation to the UPR recommendations on how to improve its human rights record, the government highlighted that they fully agreed and accepted 86 of the recommendations and discussed some of the measures they are already taking to implement these recommendations. For example:

  • Beginning to trigger legal procedures for the possible incorporation of certain international treaties into national legislation, such as the optional protocol to the ICESCR
  • Implementing a law against torture (which it emphasized is a political priority for the government)
  • A package of measures related to discrimination against women
  • The approval of a new criminal code.

The government was very clear, however, that there were some "recommendations we cannot accept." In particular they referred to three:

  • Ratification of the statute of the international criminal court
  • Ratification of the optional protocol of the covenant relating to the abolition to death sentence
  • Granting access to military installations for the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture.

The government argued that it could not support these recommendations because of "serious difficulties which we say are of the legal order and are related to social conscious as well."

CESR made a joint statement with Abogacía por un Desarrollo Sustentable (ADesaD) about how Equatorial Guinea, one of the richest countries per capita in sub-Saharan Africa, has a duty to fulfil its human rights obligations, including economic and social rights.

Further, we argued that monitoring mechanisms for the implementations of the UPR recommendations must be put in place to hold the government accountable of its commitment to human rights under the UPR process. CESR and ADesaD also coordinated with other organizations including Human Rights Watch, Open Society Justice Initiative and EG Justice to deliver oral statements during the Human Rights Council session that emphasized the lack of respect and protection of human rights in the country. We highlighted the lack of participation for national civil society in general and during the UPR process.

During the HRC session in Geneva, CESR together with EG Justice and Open Society Justice Initiative, also organized a side event: "Human Rights in Equatorial Guinea: taking actions on the UPR recommendations." The event featured a series of panelists from inside Equatorial Guinea to debate possible follow-up options to ensure the implementation of the UPR recommendations.

You can download a copy of our statement to the Human Rights Council below.

Posted by Maria José Eva on March 25th, 2010

Human Rights in Equatorial Guinea (event)

On Friday March 19 in Geneva, experts from inside and outside Equatorial Guinea will speak at a public forum at the United Nations organized by CESR, EG Justice and the Open Society Justice Initiative.

  • Alfredo Okenve Ndo, NGO member of Equatorial Guinea’s National EITI Commission
  • Ponciano Mbomio Nvo, human rights and anti-corruption lawyer practicing in Equatorial Guinea
  • Wenceslao Mansogo Alo, medical doctor and human rights chair of political party Convergencia para la Democracia Social
  • Manuela Carmena Castrillo, former member of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; participant in 2007 mission to Equatorial Guinea

The panelists will provide first-hand accounts of the current situation of human rights in Equatorial Guinea and reflect upon the challenges and opportunities that must be faced both inside and outside the country in order to implement the recommendations of the UN's Universal Periodic Review of the country.

The key objectives of this public meeting are to reflect on how to ensure that action is taken to address and meet the adopted recommendations and to generate debate on concrete measures and mechanisms that can enable civil society to hold the state accountable for its human rights commitments.

CESR recently published a new statistical analysis of the country's economic and social rights outcomes relative to its resources, and is available in English and Spanish.

In light of Equatorial Guinea's appearance before the sixth session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), CESR contributed a submission on the state of economic and social rights in Equatorial Guinea. It focuses in particular on Equatorial Guinea's compliance with its obligations in relation to the fulfillment and realization of economic, social and cultural rights. The submission presents and analyzes key indicators relating to the enjoyment of the rights to health, education, food, water and housing, as well as selected indicators of state policy efforts.The UPR is a unique opportunity, within the Human Rights Council, for international human rights scrutiny. The Summary of Stakeholders' Information used much of CESR's submission in reporting on the economic and social rights situation in the country.

Please e-mail for more information.

Posted by Kevin Donegan on March 12th, 2010

Human Rights Responses to the Global Economic Crisis in Geneva

The Center for Economic and Social Rights, along with ESCR-Net and the United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS), is sponsoring an event on Thursday, March 4 from 13:15-15:00 in Room XXIII of the Palais de Nations (Geneva). The event is called "Human Rights Responses to the Global Economic Crisis."

How can human rights obligations influence responses to the financial and economic crisis? What role should the Human Rights Council play through its commitment to contribute to the work of the Open-Ended Working Group of the UN General Assembly?

This follows up the work of the UN Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and its Impact on Development, held last June in New York.

The CESR-sponsored side-event will reflect on the implications of the "duty to protect" and the "duty to fulfil" international human rights obligations, including economic and social rights such as those related to full employment and decent work for all. What do these duties imply in terms of reforming the international financial architecture and realigning macroeconomic policies in light of the most dramatic economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression?

Panelists include:

Richard Kozul-Wright
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

Irene Khan
Former Secretary General, Amnesty International, Board member, CESR

João Ernesto Christófolo
Permanent Mission of Brazil to the United Nations

Sally-Anne Way
Research Director, Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR)

Chair: Hamish Jenkins
United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS)

Posted by Shira Stanton on March 2nd, 2010

Inter-American Development Bank under pressure over new capital requests

This week, more than 100 civil society organizations from 18 countries stepped up pressure on Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), sending a letter urging its governors to explain how the bank's failing grades in transparency, sustainability, and accountability will be repaired before approving management's request for a significant capital increase. The Center for Economic and Social Rights was among the signatories.

The public letter was directed at a number of IDB governors, who are usually the finance and planning ministers from member countries and are reviewing the ninth General Capital Increase (GCI-9) proposal in advance of the vote expected at the Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors slated for March 19-23 in Cancun, Mexico. Initially touted by the IDB to be over $180 billion, heavy criticism has reportedly pushed the Bank's request much lower.

In the letter, civil society organizations (CSOs) continue to question the IDB's eligibility for a capital increase. Pointing to a failed consultation process around the replenishment, CSOs challenged the bank's refusal to provide civil society adequate evidence that greater public debt is merited to recapitalize the IDB. The IDB has long refused to share a current draft of its recapitalization proposal or to provide responses to recommended reform.

Civil society groups urged the bank's governors to require concrete prior actions for implementing a set of recommendations that insist on stronger commitments to sustainability and results instead of just rubber stamping management's GCI request.

"During the replenishment process, IDB management has consistently shown a lack of candor and seriousness about learning from the past or about incorporating valid civil society concerns," said Vince McElhinny of Bank Information Center, a Washington D.C. based non-governmental organization. "Before they vote on the replenishment, we are asking the governors tell us where they stand on our proposals for reform and how they are representing the interests of member countries."

Posted by Kevin Donegan on February 19th, 2010

Using Budgets to Monitor Human Rights

New Tactics is hosting an online dialogue from February 24 to March 2 called "Using Budget for Monitoring". 

The purpose of this online dialogue is to provide a forum for human rights advocates to share techniques, resources and information related to monitoring government budgets to hold them accountable for implementing their human rights commitments. The goal of the dialogue is to create a stronger network of human rights advocates using budgets for monitoring purposes.

The resource practitioners leading this discussion include:
  • Warren Krafchik, Helena Hofbauer, Gabriel Lara, and Shaamela Cassiem of the International Budget Partnership
  • Denny John, a consultant in the health sector for NGOs such as Action Aid, PATH, UNDP and local NGOs in India
  • Pravas Mishra of the Center for Youth and Social Development (CYSD), India
  • Alfred Wreh, Head of Secretariat of the Liberia Civil Society Budget Watch Network
  • Mario Claasen and Petronella Murowe of IDASA in South Africa
  • Edewede (Dede) Kadiri, Senior Programme Officer with Dev't Initiatives Network (DIN), Nigeria
  • Kipp and Philip of INFONET in Kenya
There is also a tactical notebook on Using Government Budgets as a Monitoring Tool available at the New Tactics website. 

Posted by Shira Stanton on February 18th, 2010

Haiti, one month on: rethinking the model

“You get up in the morning and it’s the fight for food and wood and water.” This is how a young widow, mother of four children, describes the struggle of everyday life in Haiti. She was speaking several years before the recent earthquake. For even before the disaster that hit the capital a month ago, the scale of economic and social rights deprivation in the country was already catastrophic.

One in five children under five was severely malnourished. Almost half the population did not have access to safe drinking water. Three quarters of the population lived on less than US$2 a day. More than two million people – 86 percent of the urban population – lived in inhuman conditions in squalid slums such as Cité Soleil.

As has been amply commented, it was these chronic levels of poverty and deprivation that made the impact of the earthquake all the more devastating.  The devastation was far from random: the greatest casualties were among the poorest communities living in the most precarious housing conditions. The risk of hunger, disease, violence and death in the immediate aftermath continues to fall disproportionately on the most disadvantaged people, especially women and girls.

In one of the most incisive accounts of the “structural violence” of poverty, Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power shows how the impact of previous catastrophes in Haiti - such as AIDS, malnutrition or political violence – has never been random or accidental, but structured by economic and social inequalities, and by the policies and politics which reinforce them – policies which have been shaped and determined largely by the international community in Haiti’s recent history.

The devastation wrought by the earthquake, and the faltering responses to it, should call into question the effectiveness of development policy in Haiti, and the extent to which it has tackled the structural factors which have made economic and social rights such an elusive promise for most Haitians.

While the international community is understandably focused on immediate recovery efforts, voices within Haiti are calling for a critical rethink of the model of development assistance which has been pursued by external actors in the country. Haitian human rights and development organizations are advocating for an alternative humanitarian aid effort which marks a break with past practices, which have often failed to respect the dignity and agency of beneficiaries, in turn reinforcing dependency on international actors.

These voices are calling for humanitarian efforts to be respectful of the forms of economic solidarity that grassroots organizations have struggled to put in place over the decades. Their vision is of a new partnership for reconstruction with economic and social rights at its core.

As a recent joint statement by Haitian organizations urged: “We would hope to see the emergence of international brigades working together with our organizations in the struggle to carry out agrarian reform and an integrated urban land reform programme, the struggle against illiteracy and for reforestation, and for the construction of new modern, decentralised and universal systems of education and public health.”

The cancellation of part of Haiti’s external debt and the promised commitment of massive humanitarian aid are to be welcomed given the scale of the disaster. In the United States alone non-governmental donations have so far exceeded $600 million. As Haitian civil society organizations argue, however, this unprecedented level of aid must be deployed with a much greater sense of accountability – accountability both to the Haitian people and to the principles of human rights which must guide future reconstruction and development policy in Haiti.

Haitian civil society voices have too often gone unheard or unheeded in international policy debates on rebuilding Haiti. If indeed a new Haiti is to be built from the rubble, the reconstruction process should be informed by their vision. Future development efforts must remedy the structural inequities of the past, rather than reproducing or reinforcing them. They must be firmly grounded on the basic standards and principles of human rights – including economic and social rights. And they must be led by Haitians themselves.

“After the catastrophe: our country can rise again,” claim 14 Haitian organizations that make up the Plateforme des Organisations Haïtiennes de Droits Humains (POHDH) and Plateforme haïtienne de Plaidoyer pour un Développement Alternatif (PAPDA), on 27 January 2010. The international community should support their aspirations and vision for change.

Posted by Ignacio Saiz, Executive Director on February 12th, 2010

Maternal Mortality and Human Rights

CESR will co-sponsor "Maternal Mortality - rights of 'critical concern' within and beyond Beijing," a panel discussion on Tuesday, March 9, 2010 from 14:00 to 15:30 at the UN Church Center in New York on the 2nd floor. This event will be held during the 54th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

The event is also co-sponsored by: Amnesty International, Action Canada for Population and Development, Center for Reproductive Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Initiative on Maternal Mortality and Human Rights, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Ipas, Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights.

Further information on panel speakers will be provided in the following weeks. Please e-mail us with any questions.

Posted by Shira Stanton on February 8th, 2010

Human Rights Principles and NGO Accountability

The International Council on Human Rights Policy is hosting an online multilingual forum for debate on Human Rights Principles and NGO accountability. In English, Spanish and French, the debate focuses on how human rights principles and values influence the debate on NGO accountability, an often controversial subject. The online forum's goal is to present the many perspectives on the topic, including the areas of agreement and disagreement. Some examples of questions raised include: What does the human rights framework contribute to governance and management of NGOs? How does it determine the nature and limits of state regulation of civil society action? How can human rights values assist NGOs to navigate the complex relationships they have with their different constituencies?

Everyone is invited to join the debate, and the online forum features short contributions and interviews.  The forum will conclude later with an analytical report drawing on the online discussion and ICHRP's own research.

The invitation to dialogue from ICHRP's Chair, Hina Jilani, can be found here. The online forum can be found here.

Posted by Shira Stanton on February 5th, 2010

Draft Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty

CESR’s Sally-Anne Way and Shira Stanton recently attended a two day NGO working group meeting on 18-19 January 2010 to discuss how to take forward the Draft Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty (DGP).  The objective of these principles is to provide special guidance on the actions needed to be taken by governments in order to ensure that the human rights of people living in extreme poverty are respected, protected and fulfilled.

The NGO meeting is part of a larger process around the DGP. The Human Rights Council has asked the UN’s Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, Magdalena Sepulveda, to produce a revised version of the Guiding Principles, which were originally drafted in 2006, for the HRC 15th Session in September 2010.  The Independent Expert Sepulveda has argued “The DGP have the potential to be a strong tool to be used by governments in the design, implementation and evaluation of programmes and policies targeting people living in poverty and a useful lobbying tool for civil society organisations to encourage States to fully realise the rights of extremely poor persons.”

Civil society participation will be critical to the drafting of these guiding principles, to ensure that the DGP does address the very specific obstacles faced by people living in extreme poverty and identifies the special measures that are needed for the protection of their human rights.   For more information on how to get involved, contact us.

Posted by Shira Stanton and Sally Anne-Way on January 25th, 2010

Online discussion on Women and Poverty

A message from  Winnie Byanyima, Director of the UNDP Gender Unit and Nikhil Seth, Director of the Office for ECOSOC Support and Coordination:

An e-discussion, which will be held from 11 January to 12 February 2010, will aim to collect a diversity of views and recommendations around topics related to gender and poverty.

The purpose of the e-discussion is to bring together experts, practitioners and policy-makers, from within and outside of the UN system, to formulate critical policy messages to the 15-year review of the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action; the ECOSOC Annual Ministerial Review on gender equality (AMR); and the High-level Plenary Meeting of the sixty-fifth session of the General Assembly, focused on the Millennium Development Goals.

The e-discussion will address the following topics:

• What are the new understandings of poverty and its gender dimensions that have evolved since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action? What are good practices in gender-responsive poverty analysis and poverty reduction activities?
• How can the institutional and policy environment for addressing the gender dimensions of poverty be strengthened, building on the Beijing Platform for Action and the Millennium Declaration? How can national poverty reduction strategies and programmes as well as international support more effectively address the gender dimensions of poverty in the build-up to 2015?
• What are the core policy messages for leaders participating in the 2010 CSW, ECOSOC, and the High-level Plenary Meeting on MDGs? What are the most critical actions required to tackle “gender and poverty”, in light of new obstacles and challenges, such as climate change and the impact of the global economic and financial crisis? How financing for gender equality could be strengthened in order to alleviate the gender dimensions of poverty?

You are invited to bring new thoughts and ideas to the policy debate, drawing on your experiences, and help make a difference in the fight against poverty. You are encouraged to forward this invitation to any colleagues who may be interested in participating in the discussion. If you are not already a member of the UNDP Gender-Net, MDG-Net or Poverty-Net, please register for the e-discussion here. For more information, go here.

Posted by Shira Stanton on January 20th, 2010

Making Education Accountable

The Right to Education Project just asked leaders on the right to education to answer two questions in their online forum on discrimination in education:

  • Addressing discrimination requires changes in legislation, administration, resource allocation, but also attitudes, teaching methods and learning content. In your experience, what are the key obstacles to achieving these changes?
  • The international human rights framework is very strong on discrimination (Art 2 of the CRC and other treatise). How can it be used better to translate principles into reality for the rights-holder?
CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz was one of the experts asked to participate. You can read his and others' contributions in their forum, which is open for discussion and comments at the Right to Education Project: Promoting Mobilization and Legal Accountability.

Posted by Kevin Donegan on December 15th, 2009

Documentary photography competition offers new storytelling opportunity to promote rights in crisis

A new photography competition, "Crisis and Opportunity: Documenting the Global Recession" has been launched by (SDN) in partnership with the Center for Economic and Social Rights. The deadline for photo essay entries has been extended to December 7, and the winning entries will be exhibited in New York in February 2010.

"We are very pleased to partner with The Center for Economic and Social Rights. CESR is a leading international voice on human rights whose mission compliments the goals of the SDN competition to document these challenging economic times," said Glenn Ruga, SDN founder.

"The current global economic crisis has shown how politics and flawed policies exacerbate poverty, inequality and deprivation. SDN's forthcoming competition is a terrific opportunity for photographers to document the impacts of the recession on people, especially from a human rights perspective," said Ignacio Saiz, executive director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights.

Crisis and Opportunity: Documenting the Global Recession is accepting photo essay entries until December 7. First prize winners receive $1,500 cash, an exhibition at powerHouse Arena, Brooklyn, NY, February 15-March 14, 2010 followed by a three-month exhibition at the Gage Gallery at Roosevelt University in Chicago, as well as features on SDN and a LowePro bag. Three honorable mention photographers will also have some of their work displayed at powerHouse, features on SDN, and a LowePro bag. An exhibition catalogue, printed by Meridian Printing, will be available at the opening of the exhibition at powerHouse Arena. CESR will write the introduction.

Read more details on the contest rules and terms.

Posted by Kevin Donegan on November 30th, 2009

CESR in Haiti

I just got back from Haiti, where CESR was helping the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights with training. The "training of trainers," whose participants comprised Haitian government represenatives, civil society organizations and MINUSTAH (the UN's mission in Haiti) human rights staff. Part of MINUSTAH's human rights section's new program on monitoring public policy, the training focused on how to monitor budgets from a human rights based approach.

The training included a basis for understanding how human rights was relevant to development issues and the general Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA) framework. CESR's presentation on analyzing public policies using a HRBA framework, focusing on why such an analysis is crucial for human rights, how to carry out this analysis, and how it is relevant to Haiti's situation. 

The training continued with presentations and exercises on budget monitoring, including a presentation by a representative of Porto Alegre (Brazil) and their successful participatory budgeting.  Methods and tools were introduced, including a practical exercise on Community Scorecards in the local schools. The week's training finished with how to use these tools and monitoring findings for advocacy purposes.

Also while in Haiti, CESR met with the National Observatory on Poverty and Social Exclusion (ONPES) to discuss issues of data collection and using indicators for human rights compliance monitoring.

Posted by Shira Stanton on November 24th, 2009

Experts Comment on Rights in Times of Economic Crisis

Recently, during the 12th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, we at the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) organized an event, “Responding to the Global Economic Crisis – Are Human Rights Relevant?”

Upstairs in the Human Rights Council chamber, there had been a special session on the financial crisis. Just downstairs, we wanted to know what leading experts thought about how human rights principles can be incorporated into official responses to the financial and economic crises. We argued that the crisis is an opportunity to take the offense, to be audacious and concrete in proposals, as the crisis and its impacts are alone showing the relevance of human rights. That now is the time to stress that access to social security and protection is not a policy choice, but rather a human rights obligation.

Speakers included Magdalena Sepulveda, UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty; Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food; Radhika Balakrishnan, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and professor of women’s and gender studies, Rutgers University; Aldo Caliari, director of Rethinking Bretton Woods Project, Center of Concern; and Sally-Anne Way, research director, CESR.

Ignacio Saiz, executive director of CESR, chaired the event.

The speakers noted that short-term fixes introduced in times of crisis, including this one, often are unacceptable and unhelpful. The global scope of this crisis demonstrated the need to put in place permanent social safety nets to protect the most vulnerable.

This crisis was not a surprise to many heterodox economists, some speakers said, who had been calling attention to the fragility of the system for many years, and highlighting the need to put in place greater regulation. The financial and economic structures’ framework made it inevitable that such a crisis would occur, but it was important to show that such human rights violations are not inevitable.

Panelists urged that the links between economic analysis and human rights obligations be strengthened and mainstreamed, to ensure a more secure macroeconomic that would avoid future catastrophic collapses, and to secure basic human rights, especially economic and social rights, for all.

The panelists agreed that a key element is to bring the state back into its role as primary rights duty-bearer. Now is the time for NGOs to put forward concrete proposals on how to reorganize a system based squarely on a human rights framework.

CESR Research Director Sally-Anne Way also presented a new CESR briefing, "Human Rights and the Global Economic Crisis: Consequences, Causes and Responses."

In a follow-up interview, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter emphasized the important role of NGOs in effecting change. “I think that NGOs should abandon the defensive posture [of] preserving rights against current threats and be offensive, by putting concrete proposals forward, such as for instance a global reinsurance fund to promote the adoption of ambitious social protection schemes or mutual information on food reserves,” he said. “States are looking for solutions to improve their resilience in the face of shocks such as the one we’ve seen. NGOs can help.”

CESR thanks our event co-sponsors ESCR-Net and the Center of Concern.

Posted by Shira Stanton and Kevin Donegan on November 11th, 2009

UN Human Rights Council Investigates Links Between Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

In October 2009, the Human Rights Council requested the Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, Magdalena Sepulveda, "to submit a progress report presenting her recommendation on how to improve the draft guiding principles on extreme poverty and human rights to the Council no later than its fifteenth session (September 2010), to allow the Council to take a decision on the way forward with a view to a possible adoption of guiding principles on the rights of persons living in extreme poverty by 2012."

According to ATD Quart Monde, these guiding principles are necessary to identify human rights violations as a root cause of extreme poverty and an obstacle to its eradication; to reinforce human rights conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and help ensure their implementation in the context of extreme poverty; to set out guidelines for designing and implementing policies and programs to ensure the full enjoyment of human rights, especially by people living in extreme poverty; to emphasize that priority should be given to people in extreme poverty, as extreme poverty constitutes a threat to life and is a violation of human rights. These draft guiding principles approach the issue based on the most basic human rights issues: the indivisibility of human rights, participation and non-discrimination.

For more information on the background of the DGPs and how you and/or your organization can influence and participate in the current drafting, see ATD Quart Monde's brochure in English and en français.

Posted by Shira Stanton on November 5th, 2009

Event: Human Rights and Financing for Development

"Human Rights and Development: Towards Realizing the Right to Development" is being held on 26 October 2009, from 1:25pm-2;45pm in CR E at the UN Headquarters in New York.

A parallel event to the UN General Assembly's 64th session, it intends to raise awareness about the implications and potential of human rights, including the right to development, for the Financing for Development follow up process.

The Financing for Development Conference held in 2002 produced the Monterrey Consensus, which brought together all development actors in an inclusive and multi-stakeholder process, under the auspices of the United Nations, with the purpose of holistically addressing and mobilizing all available sources of finance for development.

The Doha Review Conference, held in 2008, reaffirmed the global partnership for sustainable development that had been launched in Monterrey. It recognized the importance of respect for all human rights, including the right to development, in such endeavor. Indeed, it has been well-accepted, for a long time, that human rights not only provide shared values but also define obligations of the States and the international community in serving the cause of development.

What is the significance of the human rights and right to development agenda for the Financing for Development process and what value does it add? What is the significance of the Financing for Development process for the human rights agenda, especially taking into account the FFD concept of a “global compact” of development? How can all stakeholders, concretely through the FFD follow up process, promote a more concrete integration of human rights in financing for development?

Introduction by Moderator: Mr. Craig Mokhiber, Deputy Director, OHCHR NY Office


§ Mr. Ayuush Bat-Erdene, Human Rights Officer, OHCHR HQ, Geneva (12 min)

Operationalizing human rights, including the right to development, in the Financing for Development agenda: an OHCHR perspective

§ Mr. Hazem Fahmy, DESA - UN FFD Office (12 min)

The “Global Compact” in the Monterrey Consensus and its relevance for the realization of human rights including the right to development

§ Ms. Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Member of the UN High-Level Task Force on the implementation of the Right to Development (12 min)

Development priorities and human rights including the right to development:  Towards a better synergy

§ Ms. Carolina S. Ruiz Austria, Senior Lecturer, College of Law, University of the Philippines (12 min)

Human rights in the Financing for Development Process:  a law and gender perspective

For more information, see Center of Concern and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Posted by Shira Stanton on October 20th, 2009

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