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Experts Comment on Rights in Times of Economic Crisis


Recently, during the 12th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, we at the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) organized an event, “Responding to the Global Economic Crisis – Are Human Rights Relevant?”

Upstairs in the Human Rights Council chamber, there had been a special session on the financial crisis. Just downstairs, we wanted to know what leading experts thought about how human rights principles can be incorporated into official responses to the financial and economic crises. We argued that the crisis is an opportunity to take the offense, to be audacious and concrete in proposals, as the crisis and its impacts are alone showing the relevance of human rights. That now is the time to stress that access to social security and protection is not a policy choice, but rather a human rights obligation.

Speakers included Magdalena Sepulveda, UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty; Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food; Radhika Balakrishnan, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and professor of women’s and gender studies, Rutgers University; Aldo Caliari, director of Rethinking Bretton Woods Project, Center of Concern; and Sally-Anne Way, research director, CESR.

Ignacio Saiz, executive director of CESR, chaired the event.

The speakers noted that short-term fixes introduced in times of crisis, including this one, often are unacceptable and unhelpful. The global scope of this crisis demonstrated the need to put in place permanent social safety nets to protect the most vulnerable.

This crisis was not a surprise to many heterodox economists, some speakers said, who had been calling attention to the fragility of the system for many years, and highlighting the need to put in place greater regulation. The financial and economic structures’ framework made it inevitable that such a crisis would occur, but it was important to show that such human rights violations are not inevitable.

Panelists urged that the links between economic analysis and human rights obligations be strengthened and mainstreamed, to ensure a more secure macroeconomic that would avoid future catastrophic collapses, and to secure basic human rights, especially economic and social rights, for all.

The panelists agreed that a key element is to bring the state back into its role as primary rights duty-bearer. Now is the time for NGOs to put forward concrete proposals on how to reorganize a system based squarely on a human rights framework.

CESR Research Director Sally-Anne Way also presented a new CESR briefing, "Human Rights and the Global Economic Crisis: Consequences, Causes and Responses."

In a follow-up interview, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter emphasized the important role of NGOs in effecting change. “I think that NGOs should abandon the defensive posture [of] preserving rights against current threats and be offensive, by putting concrete proposals forward, such as for instance a global reinsurance fund to promote the adoption of ambitious social protection schemes or mutual information on food reserves,” he said. “States are looking for solutions to improve their resilience in the face of shocks such as the one we’ve seen. NGOs can help.”

CESR thanks our event co-sponsors ESCR-Net and the Center of Concern.