human rights & business (and a few other things)

Austerity and Human Rights: a Middlesex Debate with the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

Yesterday the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Dr Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona, spoke at Middlesex University’s debate on “Does Austerity Harm our Human Rights?”. She was joined on the panel by Professor Joshua Castellino, Dean of the School of Law and member of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Dr Elvira Dominguez Redondo, Senior Lecturer in Law.

She highlighted the growing view that governments who adopt austerity measures (essentially, cuts) are not doing the right thing and that economists around the world are now questioning these kinds of policies. To her these measures have two main human rights consequences. First, the process by which they came to be implemented lacks the elements that are traditionally associated with the human rights approach, participation, transparency, and access to information. She also pointed out the fact that no impact assessments were carried out prior to the adoption of these damaging policies. Second, she talked extensively about the adverse impact these measures have had on the poor, especially on women and children, who are the most affected.

I certainly agree with her that poverty is a human rights issue even though it is sometimes difficult in Western countries to present it in that way. This is linked to a much wider question which Professor Castellino addressed in his presentation. He questioned whether human rights, in particular international human rights law, provide an adequate framework to tackle the problem. He recalled that human rights have been shaped around civil and political rights, for example at the United Nations, and that it has been difficult to get out of this mindset. For example, he argued that the official discourse of the UN is now centred around the indivisibility of human rights, in other words the fact that human rights include all rights from civil and political to economic, social and cultural rights. Therefore at the institutional level, economic, social and cultural rights are now considered on the same level as civil and political rights. Nevertheless, he said, things have not changed at the international level where, for example, an organisation like the World Trade Organisation produces norms that are based on the assumption that developing countries should remain the playground of multinational corporations. He referred to Paul Collier’s seminal book, The Bottom Billion, in which the author speaks about the one billion people in the world who are beyond the reach of the law and for whom human rights, at present, provide no valuable solution. Professor Castellino used the metaphor of a person dying on the street after being hit by a car, who sees a ray of hope when an ambulance arrives, only to see two dentists coming out of the ambulance starting to argue about the state of the dying person’s dental hygiene. So, do human rights provide solutions that no one, or at least not the poor, really needs?

Dr Sepulveda Carmona acknowledged that the human rights movement has played virtually no role against poverty as such but she further argued that the human rights discourse is useful and valid as a mobilisation tool and should not be overlooked. Incidentally, she mentioned the fact that when her mandate was created in the 1990s, it was on “the question of human rights and extreme poverty”, as if governments were not sure there was a link between the two ideas and needed some expert to explore the issue further. Now her mandate is “extreme poverty and human rights”, showing some form of realisation by governments that there is a link and that it’s real.

Dr Sepulveda Carmona concluded with two main points. First, she forcefully stated that human rights are not about charity, but entitlements. They should be an empowerment tool, not a tool to keep people in the vulnerable position they are in. Second, she remarked that the adverse effects of structural adjustment policies imposed on Latin American and other countries for several decades have been well documented. Nevertheless, she said, the fact that poverty is now spreading in Europe due to the same kinds of policies has opened a window of opportunity to really question these policies. Indeed, poverty is now touching the population of states who thought they were immune from this. The crisis has changed the deal and now that they are faced with these problems at home, Western governments may be more willing to deal with them.

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