Skip to Content

Human Rights and the Economic Crisis: A Transformative Moment?

Human rights and the economic crisis: a transformative moment?

The current economic crisis is fast becoming a human rights crisis.

CESR urges world leaders meeting in New York this week to seize the opportunity to place human rights principles, not profit, at the heart of crisis responses, economic policy and global economic governance.

The UN's Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and its Impact on Development in New York on 24 and 25 June brings together governments officials from around the world with the aim of developing a "strong, coordinated and comprehensive global response" to the crisis. Human rights - including economic, social and cultural rights - must be front and center of that response.

Challenging complacency about the impact of the crisis

The crisis is having devastating consequences on people's lives and livelihoods, particularly in developing countries. As the draft outcome document of the conference recognizes, "Hundreds of millions around the world are losing their jobs, their homes and their ability to survive. More than 50 million people have already been driven into extreme poverty, particularly women and children. The number of chronically malnourished is expected to rise to over one billion." The World Bank has estimated that 400,000 children will die this year before their first birthday as a result of the crisis.

We cannot be complacent in the face of these terrible consequences. The human costs of the crisis are not inevitable. They can be prevented if we reorder our priorities and put people first. It is unacceptable that governments can find billions of dollars for banking bail-outs, yet provide little for safety nets and protection for the poorest and most vulnerable. From a human rights perspective, the obligation to protect people against the negative impacts of the crisis must be prioritized in responses to it, not just by individual governments but by the international community as a whole.

Human rights are not rescindable or derogable in times of crisis. Under international human rights law, governments must guarantee - especially in times of crisis - minimum levels of economic and social rights essential to survival of all sectors of the population. This means ensuring social safety nets are in place, prioritizing programs and ring-fencing budgets for fundamental areas such as child survival and primary education completion. The principle of non-discrimination requires positive steps to address the disproportionate impacts of the crisis on women, indigenous people and other disadvantaged groups, and to lift the barriers denying them equal access to essential goods and services. Especially in times of crisis, governments must marshal the maximum available resources through fiscal reforms to fulfill economic and social rights progressively and avoid any backsliding.

From a human rights perspective, we must also stand back and look at the underlying structural causes of the crisis and identifying which actors - whether government or private actors - bear most responsibility. The real causes of the crisis lie in the failures to protect people against the unbridled pursuit of profit and the prioritization of an unsustainable model of economic growth. The failure of governments to regulate in the public interest is at the core of this crisis. From a human rights perspective, the obligation to respect, protect and fulfill human rights must be prioritized not only in immediate responses to the crisis, but in the longer term models of development and economic governance that we adopt.

A global response to a global crisis

Developing countries often lack the fiscal space, resources or autonomy to be able to meet their human rights obligations single-handedly. Therefore, the duty of richer countries to provide international assistance is all the more pressing when poorer countries suffer disproportionately from a crisis that they had no hand in creating. Without external financing, there is little scope for developing countries to put in place the kind of fiscal stimulus packages needed to invest in guaranteeing basic human rights.

This conference is an important opportunity to explicitly recognize the responsibilities of states to international assistance and cooperation. This must include the duties of states to respect and protect human rights beyond their immediate jurisdiction, and to contribute to their fulfillment. Transnational obligations should therefore be a fundamental cornerstone of any new international architecture for financial and economic governance that emerges from this meeting.

In order to democratize an inclusionary approach, this Conference should institutionalize multilateral forums under UN auspices in which all countries, including developing countries, will have an opportunity to shape global economic policy and contribute to the reform of international economic governance institutions. This conference should also take the opportunity to ensure that human rights assessments are included in any follow-up mechanisms, so as to promote greater human rights accountability and international scrutiny.

A transformative moment?

The crisis has opened up a space for an urgent debate about principles: those which should govern our global economic order and the respective roles of the state, the market and international financial institutions. For the Conference to truly mark a transformative moment, it must put human rights at the center of these debates, and place respect for human dignity at the center of global policy responses not only in the immediate, but also in the longer term restructuring of our global economy.