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Decoding Injustice in practice: unpacking the role of human rights in economic justice struggles

This year, a group of six researchers from CESR and the Tunisian Observatory of the Economy (OTE) gathered in Istanbul. We shared Decoding Injustice, learned about how OTE approaches their research, and looked for synergies between the two. 

By: Mahinour ElBadrawi, Program Officer at CESR

Staying together in a hospitable loft provided the perfect setting for three days of dynamic, yet relaxed, exchanging of ideas. By challenging us to present human rights norms in a less legalistic manner, our partners at OTE — who are a collective of academics, researchers, and activists that critique the influence of international financial institutions on national and regional policymaking and advocate for more equitable alternatives — showed us the value of rights in a refreshing new light. In my years of practice as a human rights advocate, translating the value of a rights-based, or rights-aligned, approach to allies outside the human rights field is something I've found challenging at times. So it was a great opportunity to reflect on what we might do differently.

The high level of interest in human rights — as a well-established tool that can guide economic policymaking, as well as demand accountability for the impacts of these policies – was really exciting for our cross-field collaborations. But, I couldn't help but notice a feeling of overwhelm in the room, due to the complex nature of the norms we were sharing and concern over the burden of proving whether or not they’d been met. For example, when we shared the first step of Decoding Injustice, which helps  “interrogate” a problem, we led by presenting OPERA, which groups together human rights obligations around four dimensions: outcomes, policy efforts, resources, and assessment.  While OPERA is (in my biased opinion!) a cleverly designed framework, we found our OTE friends diligently seeking to understand how to prove violations of each and every obligation and what evidence would be required to do so. A quick read of the room made us realize the questions the group  was pondering: 'What if we cannot prove the government violated all of these obligations… and how would one even do that?!' 

Through reflective conversation, we discovered the power of starting with case studies to emphasize the value of a rights-based approach in different contexts— particularly, contexts that go beyond an overly legalistic framing of rights with a high standard for proving violations. We shared case studies from our work in Egypt and Guatemala. Through these, we were able to show the value of using OPERA as a problem-mapping tool that helps in identifying research priorities in the Tunisian context. 

For example, focusing on wellbeing from rights-holders’ perspectives (the O in OPERA) helps us know what the impact of economic policy in Tunisia is on everyday people and shows disparities between population groups (e.g., geographical discrimination in health outcomes). We also learned that austerity measures — such as decreased public expenditure and poor resource mobilization through progressive taxation — were contributing factors to the (lack of) policy effort and allocation of resources (PE and R of OPERA). Through a comprehensive assessment of additional factors (A of OPERA), we learned that targeting the austerity-driven IMF program in Tunisia was key for change, and that there are stakeholders who would make good allies in that fight. 

Using rights framing for problem mapping and research planning confirmed that just taxation was a priority for achieving more equitable socioeconomic outcomes in Tunisia. It was also helpful in prioritizing community-oriented research in regions with pronounced disparities in socioeconomic outcomes and in setting clear advocacy targets. As Zoe Vermin, OTE’s Executive Director, put it: interrogating a problem — using OPERA as a problem mapping tool— was helpful in research planning, especially around identifying community-level work, and in thinking about the change we want to and can achieve. Through that “A” of OPERA we get a first look at an actors and advocacy map to prioritize action.

Another theme that strongly emerged during our learning exchange is the complementarity between the rights-based and economic justice-driven approaches in research. At CESR, we typically approach research from a 'bottom-up' perspective, starting with the lived reality of the rights holder as the focal point. Then, we ask what policy and resource decisions contribute to certain rights outcomes. In the exchange with OTE,  we learned their approach is to usually tackle the policy first, then proceed to analyze its social impact. Through our exchange, we recognized the value and strengths of looking at a problem from both directions to avoid overlooking some policies that have a significant impact on people's rights.

Our learning journey revealed the transformative potential of rights obligations beyond a narrow "violations-based" lens towards the potential of being a practical tool for inspiring change. It also revealed complementarity between the economic justice-driven “policy to outcome” and the “outcome to policy” rights-based approaches to research.  These synergies further emphasize the need for collaboration and shared learning. As we strive for transformative justice, we need to be all hands—together-on deck! These conversations and exchanges serve as stepping stones for change, paving the way toward a rights-aligned transformation of our global economy.