Human rights must figure prominently in tackling financial crisis, UN summit told

Food prices are still high in many poor countries

25 June 2009 – The top United Nations rights official has joined several of the world body’s independent experts in calling on delegates attending a high-level General Assembly summit to prioritize human rights in formulating a response to the global financial slowdown.

Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and its Impact on Development that a human rights perspective brings tremendous value in developing national and international responses to a crisis.

“It identifies critical vulnerabilities due to multiple forms of marginalization and inequality, including discrimination based on gender, ethnicity and nationality,” she said. “Government responses to economic hardship that do not seek to address such asymmetries of power and status by levelling the playing field are both short-sighted and unjust.”

She noted that the economic crisis, in addition to those relating to food and fuel, are not only crises of development, but of human rights as well.

“Undoubtedly, their negative impact is disproportionately being felt by the already marginalized sectors of the population in many countries where the enjoyment of human rights, including the right to work, housing, food, health, education and social security, is severely curtailed or undermined altogether,” she told the gathering in New York, which is set to conclude tomorrow.

In spite of the recent focus on the economic meltdown, the crisis posed by high food prices must not be forgotten, said Olivier De Schutter, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, calling on those attending to take decisive action.

“Just like the collapse of large banks, widespread hunger entails systemic risks. Less wholesome and less nutritious diets create an economic liability for the future development,” he said, citing a recent projection by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that the number of people on the brink of starvation is set to reach a record high of 1 billion in 2009.

“The right to food is not the right to be fed after an emergency,” the Rapporteur noted. “It is the right to access the means to produce food or the means to an income that enables the purchase of adequate food.”

The current crisis has underscored how neglecting the right to social security has resulted in millions of people worldwide being mired in poverty, said Magdalena Sepúlveda, the Independent Expert on the question of human rights and extreme poverty.

Although $18 trillion has been allocated around the world to rescue financial markets, that sum is in stark contrast to the “continuous failure to honour long-standing commitments to reduce poverty and inequality,” she added.

In a briefing note to the Assembly summit, which is being attended by representatives from nearly 150 Member States, Ms. Sepúlveda appealed to States to create long-lasting social protection systems in a move towards debunking the myth that they are “unaffordable and unworkable in low-income countries.”

For his part, Cephas Lumina, the Independent Expert on foreign debt, warned that countries already struggling to carry out their rights obligations will be further thwarted in their goals due to dwindling national funds and increasingly stringent loan contract conditions.

“States must address the indebtedness of low- and middle-income countries as a matter of urgency and support the establishment of an international debt dispute resolution mechanism, as part of a longer-term solution to the debt problem,” he said in his paper to the meeting, which was organized by General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto.

Speaking at a news conference in New York today, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who chairs an expert panel convened by the Assembly President on reforms of the international monetary and financial system, stressed that the fact that the summit is being held in the first place shows how developing countries – who are among “the innocent victims” – have been deeply impacted by the crisis.

The current turmoil has affected even those poorer nations with sound regulation, he said.

Mr. Stiglitz added that the UN gathering is complimentary to the efforts of other bodies, including the Group of 20 (G20), to address problems.

But the world body’s meeting is both “more representative and more inclusive” than the G20 meeting, in that the latter confers on tax evasion and other matters that are not the primary concerns of developing countries, which are more concerned over corruption and secret bank accounts, he pointed out.

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