Press Conference to Commemorate World Day of Social Justice

20 February 2009

Press Conference to Commemorate World Day of Social Justice

20 February 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


Celebrated today for the first time ever, the World Day of Social Justice was an opportunity to say that a safer, more secure and ultimately more prosperous world was possible, if emphasis was placed on social justice -– decent work, social integration and poverty eradication, Mary Robinson, head of Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative and former President of Ireland, said at Headquarters today.

“I believe firmly that we needed this day for world social justice […], that it is an opportunity to reorient our policies,” Ms. Robinson said, a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Today’s commemoration was timely, as it reminded the world that it had not upheld the commitments made at the Copenhagen World Social Development Summit in 1995.  The world had become more divided between those benefiting from globalization and the many countries and people not benefiting.  The situation was now exacerbated by the deep financial crisis.  From the human rights and labour standards perspective, human values had been forgotten, as had those of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Speaking at a press conference to launch the World Day of Social Justice this afternoon, she was accompanied on the podium by a high-level panel comprising Thomas Pogge, Lietner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University and author of World Poverty and Human Rights; Eric Falt, Director of the Outreach Division in the United Nations Department of Public Information; Desta A. Raines, Manager for Corporate Compliance of the Jones Apparel Group; and Georgina Opoki Amankwah, National Chairperson of the Public Services Workers Union in Ghana.

Mr. Falt recalled that the General Assembly had proclaimed 20 February the World Day of Social Justice during its sixty-second session in 2007.  As recognized by the Assembly, social development and social justice were indispensable in the achievement of peace, which, in turn, required respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

[Member States were invited to devote the Day to the promotion of concrete national activities, in accordance with the objectives and goals of the World Summit for Social Development and the twenty-fourth session of the General Assembly, entitled “World Summit for Social Development and beyond: achieving social development for all in a globalizing world”.]

Stressing the occasion’s importance, Mr. Falt cautioned against seeing it as “yet another day on the calendar of UN days”, about which many had grown somewhat cynical.  The Department of Public Information had worked very closely with the International Labour Organization (ILO) “to give the Day its proper dimension”.  Other partners included the Permanent Mission of Kyrgyzstan, which had supported the adoption of the resolution establishing the Day.

Mr. Pogge said millions of people around the world were working to promote social justice, yet astonishingly little progress had been made.  For example, the 1996 Rome World Food Summit had declared it intolerable that 800 million people were chronically malnourished around the world.  Some 10 years later, that figure stood at some 963 million, and that had been before the current financial crisis.  Progress was lacking because the rules structuring the world economy were “fixed by the elite for the elite”, without much regard for their impact on poverty, or equitable distribution of income.  The interests of the poor must be represented at the negotiating tables where the world’s most powerful countries decided what structures would govern the global economy.

Ms. Raines and Ms. Amankwah presented practical aspects of social justice work, with the former describing the “Better Work Programme”, which promoted social justice by seeking to improve labour conditions in several countries, including Jordan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam.  The programme created space where various actors, including Governments, enterprises, non-governmental organizations and trade unions could come together.

Ms. Amankwah said the rights of people working in the informal economy were affected by the lack of social protection, job security and social dialogue.  “We should collectively look at how we tackle the decent work agenda, with particular reference to the informal economy.”

Responding to several questions, Ms. Robinson said the thinking of the Copenhagen Summit had been sidelined by the ideological certainty that the neoliberal approach would make everybody better off.  It was now time to realize that a safer and more secure world cold be made possible by addressing such social justice issues as decent work, social integration and poverty eradication, focusing on the most vulnerable.  That was the human rights approach.

She expressed hope that the Day would challenge the neoliberal theories that had clearly contributed to growth, but had also created many inequities.  In the depth of the current financial crisis, there were new opportunities “to introduce into the world of economists the values of human rights”, including the right to food, water, health, sanitation and education.  Such organizations as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) “should all be respecting these human rights”, as should all corporations.

Social and economic commitments made by the international community should be implemented without discrimination, she continued, adding that it was important to tell Governments that they should implement the covenants and conventions to which they had legally bound themselves.

Mr. Pogge added in that regard that economists focused on the growth of gross national income, which was a wrong measure.  If the income of a family earning $100,000 went up 10 per cent, that meant an increase of $10,000 for the economy, but a 10 per cent rise in the income of a family earning $1,000 meant an increase of only $100.  In human terms, however, 10 per cent growth was more important for the poor family, where it was “a matter of bread and butter, or rice and beans” and not a luxury.

Ms. Robinson also referred to the 10 February meeting of the Commission for Social Development, which had focused on the three “pillars” of decent work, social integration and poverty eradication.  Together with today’s panel, that meeting had shown that much could be accomplished if the ideas of Copenhagen, the report on fair globalization and the thinking of ILO on decent work were taken forward.

To a question about efforts to ensure that the outsourcing of services did not contribute to the creation of “sweatshop conditions” in developing countries, Ms. Raines replied that many international corporations followed a code of conduct based on ILO conventions and instruments like the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  However, that presented a challenge, because many countries lacked “either the capacity or the willpower” to enforce their own labour laws.  Responsible companies tried to engage with local Government officials, non-governmental organizations and trade unions to ensure the protection of workers’ rights.  At the international level, there were several multi-stakeholder initiatives, involving trade unions, business and non-governmental organizations, including Social Accountability International, Fair Labour Association, the Workers’ Rights Consortium and Students against Sweatshops.

Regarding the idea of transferring 0.7 per cent of the various current stimulus packages to social issues, Mr. Pogge said that was the very minimum that should be done.  The economic crisis made millions of poor people highly vulnerable, although it was “in no way their responsibility”.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.