Posted on | December 5, 2011 by Stefano Gennarini, J.D. |
Today C-FAM attended a panel discussion on “People at the center: Human rights in global economics and development”.
The event commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Declaration on the Right to Development, and was organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The Panel included several prominent professors including Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, Stephen Marks of Harvard University, and Philip Alston of New York University. The webcast of the discussion is available here.
The title of the discussion was inspired by Article 2 of the declaration: “The human person is the central subject of development…” The OHCHR’s stated purpose was to emphasize the need to place human rights at the forefront of development projects, and that they should never be sacrificed for the sake of economic goals, or any other goal. Our fear is that this lofty ideal will find increasing difficulties in becoming a reality because of how the UN human rights machinery is set up.
Marks noted that most if not all development projects never mention the “human person”, and instead focus on economic goals. “Which comes first development or human rights?” he asked rhetorically. “Development must be pursued within the human rights framework”, he said this was unequivocally what the Declaration on the Right to Development meant.
Nevertheless, James Thuo Gathii of Albany Law School expressed the pitfalls of rights language. “Rights have no natural meaning” he stated, and added “they do whatever we want them to do.” He mentioned that historically slave owners relied on the right to own slaves in the same way that slaves later relied on the right to be free.
Again, not everyone was convinced by the simple answer to the question of the relation of development and human rights. Alston, who has been involved with the right to development since its inception in the 70s’, suggested that the primacy of human rights was merely the “normative answer” from the UN. In reality there is an “empirical challenge” to that answer. He then mentioned the elephant in the room: China. Here is a country that has mastered the “developing” part of the equation, but struggles to embrace the whole gamut of social and economic as well as political and civil rights. A member of the Chinese mission spoke at the round table event, and firmly denied the claim that China does not take human rights seriously.
It is now more difficult than ever to pressure China on human rights. The greatest fear is that China’s human rights approach will become the norm as its influence continues to grow. Unfortunately, because of the way the UN human rights machinery is set up, this may very well happen in the not too distant future.
The UN human rights machinery appears like a human rights “cloud”, resembling the latest apple craze: cloud storage. Many rights have been defined at one point or another within the complex web of the UN system: civil, political, economic, social etc… But, the only ones that matter are the ones a particular state chooses, or fails to concentrate on. It is not clear whether any order exists among these rights.
For example, during the discussions Craig Mokhiber from the OHCHR commented on the great impulse given to the human rights approach by the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Thanks to this process, UN member states can be called to task by other member states on human rights questions they have deliberately not recognized by not acceding to the relevant treaties, as is the case of the US with CESCR and CEDAW. Moreover, the UPR, affords civil society organizations an opportunity to do the same.
It need not matter if the support for a particular human rights claim is not found in a binding treaty. To advance any human right claim, it is enough to search the UN system for resolutions, statements, reports or other non-binding language that supports any version of human rights one so pleases to chose.
The UPR is not the only human rights mechanism that confuses the origin order and meaning of rights. Also treaty monitoring bodies, special procedures, and other unaccountable elements within the human rights machinery do the same. While everyone pays lip service to the human rights approach by mentioning their inter-relatedness, each member state, organ, agency or official pushes forward their own pet project. China, Canada, Iran, the USA, the EU, each has its own.
The dignity of the human person, and the human rights approach is a characteristically western emphasis. The OHCHR attempt to focus the issue of development by placing the human person at the center is admirable. So far the UN system has been steered by this tradition. It is unlikely that will always be the case given the global shift in power that we are witnessing.
The “cloud” UN human rights mechanism unfortunately does not guarantee that the human person will always be at the center of development projects. So long as it may be said that “Rights have no natural meaning” and that with rights “we can do whatever we want them to do” the UN system remains a forum for the powerful to impose their norms on others.