A recession on human rights?

AFP Photo / Philippe Huguen
The whole world, to some degree, is feeling the effects of the current global downturn. The fear is, however, that the poor and disadvantaged will be forced to bear the brunt of the suffering.

Governments are making tough decisions in these difficult times. They have been forced through both external and internal financial factors to make cuts and choices that ensure economic stability. The danger now, however, is that these economic concerns will take precedence over human rights issues.

Speaking last month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, appealed to both governments and the corporate world to ensure that their policies and practices do not jeopardize people's human rights.

In an address to a Special Session of the Human Rights Council, Pillay warned that the downturn in economies around the world was likely to “undermine access to work, affordability of food and housing, as well as of water, basic health care and education.”

She also urged states to “ensure that domestic policy adjustments, particularly those in fiscal spending, are not taken at the expense of the poor through cutbacks in basic services and social protection mechanisms.”

The apprehension is shared by other groups and advocates. To compound the problem, the fear is that not only will new human rights issues be born out of the increased poverty the global downturn will bring, but we – as nations – will begin to turn a blind eye to the issues that already exist.

In the rush to protect ourselves will we leave those in most need of our help exposed?

Turning a blind eye

Sir Hugh Cortazzi is a distinguished academic and author. He is also a former British ambassador to Japan and frequent advocate of human rights.

Speaking from his home in London he described his fear for the future:

“I think, as people, we tend to turn a blind eye to human rights issues when we think something else is more important, that something could be the economy or the threat of war. I think that is a dangerous situation, it’s understandable but not desirable. It’s a question of priority. What I’m frightened of is people will say: ‘let’s put human rights on the backburner.”

Cortazzi has already seen this shift in focus away from human rights with the new American administration. As a former diplomat, he recognises the politics at play:

“This was certainly the case when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to China recently. She gave more time to the theme of China’s economic situation than she did to the human rights issues there. She could have at least given equal time both – especially when you consider what is happening in Tibet currently.”

David Bachman, China Studies professor at the University of Washington, says it’s hard to tell from history if economic issues usually take precedence over human rights:

“Human rights were really not an issue for the US governments during the Great Depression and the only other major recession was ’80-’82. Then, President Regan began with his notion of the ‘Evil Empire’ that minimalised all human rights policies in almost all respects, except to criticise the Soviet Union. So there’s really not a lot to go on.”

However, he does believe that it is inevitable that the focus will not be on human rights issues:

“But yes, the US government is going to pay more attention to domestic issues and fundamental national security issues than human rights,”
he continued.

Unable to afford rights

Losing the focus on human rights, should it happen, would be anathema to groups like of Amnesty. They believe their work in drawing attention to rights abuses and putting pressure on governments to change their behaviour is hard enough without having to battle a global downturn too.

The problem is two-fold. On the international front – as seen with Clinton’s visit to China – the hunger for putting pressure on countries with tarnished rights records is dissipating. While on the home front, cutbacks in education and health care are also inevitable.

Amnesty’s Noreen Hartigan says:

There is a real risk that the most marginalised will be further disenfranchised during this recession. There is no system to guarantee social justice in decision-making. We need to challenge the notion that we cannot afford to deliver on economic and social rights.”

Measuring human rights

But how do we measure human rights to see how much of an effect the financial situation has?

Filip Spagnoli is the author of ‘Making Human Rights Real’. His writing frequently combines political with statistical analysis. He also agrees the fear shared by people like Hugh Cortazzi, the UN commissioner for Human Rights, and Amnesty is real:

“It’s obvious that poor countries will suffer more, because they don’t have the means for stimulus measures or social security systems that can soften the effects of the recession, and because developed countries will turn their attention to themselves.”

He sees the main human rights problems provoked by the recession as follows: “Unemployment will increase, as will poverty and homelessness. Prejudice and violence will increase while public goods will receive less money and will under-perform. Also, international development aid and remittances will drop.”

It doesn’t make for pretty reading. On the methods for measurement he says:

“It’s a relatively new field of research. There are no real measurements to go on. It’s difficult to see if things are progressing – you cannot compare countries so there is a lot of work to be done.”

Fear vs. Hope

It appears there is work to be done on all aspects. Groups like Amnesty will need to maintain pressure on governments to make sure the focus is not lost. Governments themselves will have to balance their priorities and their responsibilities to both their own citizens and to the wider international community.

Sir Hugh Cortazzi attempts to put some perspective on the matter:

“It’s important to remind people that despite the problems in the economy we should not forget what is happening elsewhere in the world. We should not forget what is happening in Darfur or in other parts of Africa or Afghanistan. These are things that cannot be forgotten.”

The fear is that the downturn will hurt us all financially. The hope is that is does not morally bankrupt us too.

Ciaran Walsh for RT