by Someshwar Singh

Geneva, 6 Apr 2000 -- The Human Rights Commission of the United Nations needs to undergo a fundamental reform in its management and perspective to be able to help the world's premier economic institutions integrate human rights in their functioning, says an experts' report.

Written jointly by Mr. Fantu Cheru, independent expert on Structural Adjustment policies, and Mr. Reinaldo Figueredo-Planchart, the Special Rapporteur on foreign debt, the report submitted to the current fifty-sixth session of the Human Rights Commission, has made an impassioned plea to put the Commission's economic mandates upfront.

Currently, it is only the civil and political rights that grab attention, while the economic, cultural and social rights take a back-seat in the Commission's work.

It is not just the view of the two experts but many others participating in the current session of the Commission, who have echoed similar concerns - that the Commission should begin to flex its muscle vis-a-vis its economic mandates as well.

"Talking about economic and cultural rights in the abstract is not enough," says the joint report by experts.

It was two years ago that the Commission had given the two experts their separate mandates to look into the questions of foreign debt and structural adjustment. (The merging of the two reports into one has come in for criticism - elaborated later on).

According to a report by the Secretariat of the Commission, the two experts 'decided to submit a joint report, taking into account the related nature of foreign debt and structural adjustment policies.'

In the course of their work (country visits and seminars in Washington), it became clear that "the current programme of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has limited impact on the ongoing debate and discussions taking place in many quarters, particularly concerning the need to insert a human rights perspective into global economic governance."

As it is currently constituted, OHCHR may have the minimal intellectual capacity and the required qualified personnel with substantive skills in international political economy to handle these mandates competently, the experts say. However, it does not have the necessary resources required for mainstreaming these economic mandates into the activities of all United Nations agencies, they contend, let alone provide support to national Governments eager to develop a counter-project to the policies of the Bretton Woods institutions.

"We feel strongly that the current staffing and management structures are out of touch with the most dynamic debates and activities taking place outside of the United Nations system and existing internal expertise is not being utilized properly," the experts said.

The most recent events in Seattle during the WTO meeting, the global Jubilee 2000 movement which forced the World Bank and IMF to provide faster and deeper debt relief to poor countries, and the collapse of the OECD's Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) two years ago "are excellent illustrations of the dynamism of global civil society and its impact on the issue of global economic governance."

Secondly, they believe that the Office of the High Commissioner is missing an excellent opportunity to make an impact on economic, social and cultural rights because of the inability of top management and the current professional staff to identify strategic entry points in the global policy discourse where the human rights agenda can be placed centre stage.

"We feel particularly strongly that with the exception of the High Commissioner herself, who has been an effective advocate of economic rights, top management at OHCHR are either unfamiliar with the substantive discourse on the links between human rights, economic globalisation and the struggle to reform global economic governance, or they simply do not care at all," the experts said.

They suggested that the Office of the High Commissioner must be proactive at the technical level and ensure that economic, social and cultural rights are strongly integrated in the activities and programmes of the multilateral financial institutions and the regional development banks.

"As a result of the above-mentioned institutional problems, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is completely absent from key economic forums that require human rights integration," the two experts observed.

Key among these are the Consultative Group Meetings, multilateral trade negotiating forums, regional and sub-regional economic blocs, HIPC reviews for debt cancellation, and national consultative forums on developing national poverty strategy frameworks.

"OHCHR's relations with the World Bank, IMF, WTO and the regional development banks are non-existent, or at best superficial," the experts affirmed. "Failure to include human rights in the programmes and activities of these key global institutions at the inception stage will ultimately result in the denial of economic, social and cultural rights of millions of people worldwide. For it is at this level that OHCHR should have its greatest influence, and not at the annual Commission 'jamboree.'"

As part of the general conclusions and recommendations coming out of their joint report, the two experts have made a special appeal to Member States, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights to take urgent action to strengthen the responsiveness of the OHCHR in the area of economic, social and cultural rights (economic mandates) by strengthening OHCHR's internal research and analytical capacity, and its technical assistance support to countries in macroeconomic policy and trade and investment-related topics that have a direct bearing on the promotion and protection of human rights.

While they recognize that financial problems were confronting the entire United Nations system, refocussing the work of the OHCHR, they maintain, can easily be done from existing resources although more money would help to move the process faster and deepen the quality of intervention both at the global and local levels.

But the joint report has already had its criticism too - as to why supposedly two independent reports got merged into one. Tehmina Janjua, delegate of Pakistan, said that a joint report was not what the Commission had asked for. She noted that the independent expert had been requested to elaborate draft basic guidelines on structural adjustment policies and to monitor new developments. Besides choosing three topics - HIV/AIDS, post Hurricane Mitch Reconstruction and the Worst Forms of Child Labour - the (joint) report was silent on most of the issues contained in the mandate given to him, she charged.

"Did the Independent Expert and Special Rapporteur assume that structural adjustment was no longer needed or that the structural adjustment problems of the developing countries had been overcome overnight," the Pakistani delegate wondered. "It was regrettable that the report made no reference to the necessity of better market conditions, access to financial and capital markets and access to technology by the developing countries as well as the evident need for transparency and the full participation of these countries in the deliberation and activities of international financial institutions."

Nathalie Provvez of the International Commission of Jurists noted that the draft optional protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (under discussion) providing for a system of individual and group complaints was of great importance to ensure that persons and groups who were victims of violations of the most basic economic, social and cultural rights had access to an effective remedy at the international level and could obtain the adequate reparations they were entitled to.

Its adoption would also permit the development of a significant body of jurisprudence which was absolutely indispensable if economic, social and cultural rights were ever to be taken seriously, Provvez added.

"In addition, an optional protocol would help clarify the effect of conflicting obligations upon States through, on the one hand, international human rights treaties, and , on the other, international economic agreements," Provvez pointed out.

Jairo Sanchez, of the American Association of Jurists said that major transnational corporations, major powers, and foreign debt were having severe negative impacts on developing countries. The process of globalization had put in the hands of only a few. Under this process, economic, social and cultural rights had been 'neglected and violated.'

The organization condemned the "terrible policy decision made on foreign debts and the actions of the High Commission for Human Rights in establishing closer links with transnationals and the World Bank. This was referred to by the Office of the Human Rights as a "strategy of participation" and "integrated development."

The Association told the Commission that "the World Bank had claimed neutrality but had refused to adhere to the Secretary-General's recommendation in regard to the apartheid regime in South Africa. The World Bank was expanding into every field - education, governance and health, in an attempt to apply the neoliberal policies championed by transnationals everywhere."

The organization also criticized the UNDP for its interaction with companies such as ABB, Novartis, and Rio Tinto. It urged the Commission to "focus its attention on the victims of such power, rather than on the power itself."

Veronique Mwebwe Ntumba, of the International Federation of Human Rights League, urged the Commission to take its economic rights seriously, as the process of globalization more than ever threatened human rights. She suggested that international economic treaties be subject to human-rights legislation. "Trade is not to be an end in itself but should respect sustainable development and human rights." The Federation also called on the Commission to provide mechanisms to monitor international economic treaties and ensure that they adhered to the principles elaborated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Pierre Porret, of Association of World Citizens, noted that the development of unbridled ultra-liberalism following the collapse of most socialist regimes was becoming the sole credo of many company managers and politicians and was weakening the power of the State.

"This new fundamentalism, based on short-term profits, did not respect the well-being of either mankind or the planet. Institutions such as the World Trade Organization seemed to act only in the interests of big corporations," Porret observed.

The appetite and avarice of big companies seemed to have no limit," Porret added. "Their rapid degradation of the environment occurred not only in the poor countries of the South but also in Europe. The ozone layer was being destroyed because of large emissions of gases as a result of the massive use of fossil fuels. Rainforests were also destroyed to satisfy the needs of rich countries. The policies of agro-companies were particularly dangerous. These companies did their utmost to force consumers to consume genetically modified foods despite the fact that the long-term effects of these products were unknown."

Presenting herself as a "poor woman" from the United States, Joy Butts of the International Peace Bureau said that there could be no peace without economic justice. "The reality of poor people in the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, was quite different from the image portrayed by the Government and mainstream media," she said.

She pointed out that the social welfare reform bill passed with the support of the current President in 1996 had effectively repealed the safety net for all men, women, and children in the country by placing a five-year limit on Government assistance, limiting economic human rights.

Joy Butts added that "American-style" social reform was modelled and replicated throughout the developing world, dismantling States' responsibility to provide for the basic needs of poor people. "That was the American contribution to the global race to the bottom." (SUNS4644)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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