ESCR-Net Activity Update Towards a Human Rights Response to the Financial Crisis and Global Economic Recession- 17 July 2009

 ESCR-Net Activity Update

Towards a Human Rights Response to the Financial Crisis and Global Economic Recession

17 July 2009

We would like to take this opportunity now to share with you the outcomes of ESCR-Net's activities in the promotion of our Collective Statement during the UN Summit Conference on the Economic and Financial Crisis. For a more in-depth analysis of its outcomes by ESCR-Net member Center of Concern, read here.

At the outset, we sent the Collective Statement to various key governments during the pre-Conference negotiations to influence the outcome document text, and build awareness about the importance and necessity of using the human rights framework in determining economic policy. On the eve of the Summit, ESCR-Net also co-organized with Social Watch and 13 other organizations "People's Voices on the Crisis," an afternoon event which fostered discussion by people affected by the global economic crisis on issues related to gender rights, social rights and economic security -- topics traditionally under-addressed at the international level. Video coverage of this event will soon be released, including presentations by the President of the General Assembly and advocates around the world. ESCR-Net also participated in and contributed to 10 Days of Action, a collaborative effort by dozens of organizations to promote the critical importance of a human rights-oriented approach to the financial crisis. As one example, during the second evening of the Conference, ESCR-Net members co-hosted "A Human Rights Response to the Economic Crisis in the US," which aimed to assess economic policy in the US using the lens of universally-recognized human rights standards. A Civil Society Background document including key recommendations was also released just before the Conference, which upheld human rights as among the core civil society demands.

After weeks of tense negotiations, governments released the Outcome Document just before the official conference began. To the surprise of many, the document was quickly and quietly approved. Not only was it less ambitious and far-reaching than had been hoped, no government asked that it be opened up for debate or amendment during the conference. As a product of consensus among governments, it is far from the historically progressive document that we, like Father Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, the President of the UN General Assembly, had pushed for.

That being said, the Outcome Document moves some steps forward. It represents the first, and so far only, global consensual agreement to address the financial and economic crisis and the myriad problems it presents. The Outcome Document itself also recognizes the heightened human risks arising from the crisis, as was underscored in our Collective Statement, in particular to women and children. Also noteworthy was that it highlights the impact of the financial crisis on migrant workers, and invited the ILO to present the "Global Jobs Pact" to the Economic and Social Council of the UN in July.

In addition to short-term measures, the Outcome Document also sows the seeds for some long-term structural changes demanded in our Collective Statement which we can built upon.

Paramount among these changes is its recognition of a role for the UN in the coordination of economic and financial affairs and in discussions on needed reforms of the international financial system and architecture. This implies recognition that in this area, often presumed the exclusive domain of financial and economic experts, the integration of human rights, social, gender and other aspects where the UN has a unique vantage point have a rightful and legitimate place.  The Document also urges the International Monetary Fund to cease conditioning their loans on pro-cyclical economic policies which can limit the ability of governments to stimulate their economies, or provide increased social protections, in times of crisis. It also urges governments to ensure that the leadership and management of the Bretton Woods Institutions is determined based on the principles of gender equality, geographical and regional representation.

An important contribution to the quest for the primacy of human rights was made by the recognition that countries may need to depart from disciplines and commitments in international trade, investment and finance in order to, inter alia, address human and social impacts of the crisis and safeguard progress achieved towards the realization of economic and social rights. Governments reeling from the impacts of the crisis, for example, were accepted as being justified in withholding payment of debt, if only temporarily, to provide fundamental social services.

Along the lines of our Statement, the outcome document also recognized the special responsibility that developed countries bear in the crisis, while developing countries who had no responsibility in the making of the crisis will bear its worst human costs. It also highlighted as a corollary that the full participation of all countries is necessary in shaping appropriate responses, and set up a concrete, if limited, follow-up mechanism.

Despite these areas of convergence, many of the issues called upon in our Collective Statement were left under-addressed in the UN Economic Crisis Outcome Document. Human rights law and its protection regime is not mentioned at all in the text, and the duty of States to place people at the center of economic policy is considered an aspirational goal, rather than as a positive obligation. The Civil Society Scorecard published by the Global Social Economy Group rated the outcomes poorly, particularly for failing to establish a Global Economic Council within the UN. The outcomes also fail to establish meaningful ways forward to instill an inclusive form of international economic policy-making, end tax evasion, to put an end to pro-cyclical loan conditionalities, and to thoroughly reform the governance of the Bretton Woods Institutions.

Outside of the official outcome document, some individual interventions touched on issues raised in our Collective Statement. UN Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki Moon, emphasized the need for the international community to support economic and social rights in the crisis in his opening address. Ms. Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged governments to take a human rights perspective to the crisis. "Government responses to economic hardship that do not seek to address such asymmetries of power and status by leveling the playing field," she states, "are both short-sighted and unjust."  UN Independent Expert on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Ms. Magdalena Sepúlveda, focused her statement on the urgent need to create social protection systems to uphold poor peoples' livelihoods in this time of crisis and beyond. Mr. Cephas Lumina, the UN Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights warned in his statement that many governments intent on fulfilling their human rights duties may face stiff challenges due to the economic crisis, and reminded governments of their shared responsibilities in addressing indebtedness. All official statements can be found here.

Looking ahead, after hotly contested debates about the Conference's follow-up mechanism, governments settled on the creation of an ad hoc open-ended working group, rather than other stronger proposals. One such alternative mechanism championed by the UN Commission of Experts is the creation of a UN Global Economic Council, a representative, expert body which would monitor and asses the economic crisis and convene Heads of State yearly to provide leadership in economic, social and ecological issues. Though far from ideal, this open-ended working group does mean that these key international discussions aimed at democratizing economic policy making will continue.

So, for now, there is still much left to do in upholding a human rights response to the continuing global economic crisis. As always, we very much look forward to your ideas and contributions about possible future actions.

For a calendar by the Halifax Initiative and Our World Is Not For Sale of upcoming opportunities to mobilize around these and related issues, visit here. For any other information, visit us at