Africa: Economy and Human Rights

AfricaFocus Bulletin Sent by Sr Michael Theresa Brauer, SND

Editor’s Note 

“Our first demand in our new campaign [“Demand Dignity”] is to the G-2 leaders, USA and China. The United States does not accept the notion of economic, social and cultural rights while China does not respect civil and political rights. We call on both governments to sign up to all human rights for all.” – Irene Khan, Amnesty International

This blunt statement, at the launch of the 2009 Amnesty International annual report on the state of the world’s human rights, marks a dramatic evolution in the focus of the work of the organization, founded 48 years ago. Like other international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty has in recent years increasingly stressed the connection between social and economic rights and their previous primary focus, on civil and political rights. The global economic recession, Amnesty notes in its latest report and new campaign, makes that connection even more inescapable.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains Ms. Khan’s speech at the report launch on May 27, and excerpts from her foreword to the report, which elaborates on the same themes. The full report, with additional background materials, is available at                  

 Irene Khan’s Speech

May 27, 2009

 Welcome everyone to the launch of our Amnesty International Report 2009. This report reflects the state of the world’s human rights in 157 countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe for the period of January to December 2008.

Our report this year is different from previous years. That is because we are living in a different world. The global economic crisis has changed the world as has the emergence of the G-20 leaders. Our report too is different. It takes a holistic approach — highlighting economic, social and cultural rights as well as political and civil rights. It draws attention to deprivation, insecurity, discrimination and the suppression of people’s voice around the world.

There are two key messages to which I want to draw your attention: 

First, world leaders are focussed on the economic crisis. We say to them: it’s not just the economy. It’s injustice, insecurity, inequality and indignity.

Second, world leaders need to put human rights at the centre of their economic rescue plan — but to be credible leaders they need also to fix their own appalling human rights records. 

Let me start with the first key message of our report 2009 the underlying the global economic crisis is an explosive human rights crisis. A combination of social, economic and political problems has created a time bomb of human rights abuses.

 * The economic downturn has aggravated pre-existing human rights problems 

* It has created new human rights problems. 

* It is diverting attention and resources from many burning human rights problems.

This ticking bomb was not created overnight — it is the result of decades of human rights failures — decades in which governments failed to deliver on their human rights promises and commitments.

I do not use the analogy of a time bomb lightly. Billions of people face shortage of food, jobs, clean water, land and housing. They face deprivation and discrimination, growing inequality, and insecurity, xenophobia and racism, violence and repression. 

Boom times did not improve their situation — the bust will bring more suffering because of the failure of governments to uphold human rights.

To give you some concrete examples 

* A billion people live in slums around the world without basic services or security of tenure or physical security. We documented forced evictions in 24 countries in our report. Millions of people were forcibly evicted or uprooted to make way for economic development projects, 150,000 in Cambodia, 2 million over the past few years in Nigeria, hundreds and thousands in India.

 * Latin American is the most unequal region in the world. Our report shows Indigenous communities in every Latin American country worse off than the rest of the population, deprived, discriminated, marginalized, denied health care, clean water, education and adequate housing.

 * Migrant workers fuelled the global economy but are being discriminated and exploited from Central America to the Middle East. China built its economy on the back of millions of migrant workers who moved from the villages to the cities but who were denied health, education and residence rights in the cities. 20 million migrant workers in China lost their jobs last year and were sent back to the countryside where they face worse conditions.

 * In Europe, the Roma face the most profound and systematic discrimination and marginalization, excluded from public life, segregated in schools and ghettos, facing hostility and violence.

 * The food crisis pushed more people into poverty. It was aggravated by discrimination and political manipulation in countries like Zimbabwe and North Korea. In Sri Lanka, the government and the LTTE armed group denied access to humanitarian organizations to provide food and aid to trapped civilians. The war is now over but the government is still refusing full and free access to national and international organizations although the displaced persons are in desperate material need and also risk of serious human rights violations. 

Much of the discrimination that I have highlighted is not of course the direct result of the economic downturn, but the downturn is likely to aggravate the problem. Those who are marginalized, poor and discriminated will feel the brunt of the economic downturn more sharply than others as governments tighten their belts, as social tensions increase and as extremist views take hold.

The economic downturn will also reinforce the tendency of governments to introduce restrictions against refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Last year borders pushed outwards from Europe into Africa as countries like Spain and Italy signed agreements with Mauritania and Libya to stop people from entering Europe, and such agreements act as a license for more human rights violations in the transit countries.

The economic downturn is generating new threats to human rights. There are growing signs of social discontent and political violence.  South Africa saw one of the worst cases of xenophobic and racist attacks last year.  In other countries, when people took to the streets to protest desperate social, economic and political

conditions governments responded very harshly. Amnesty International’s report documents protests in 17 countries, which were met with excessive force. In Cameroon 100 people were shot dead. In Tunisia, two people died, hundreds were injured and many persons were prosecuted and imprisoned following labour unrests. 

There is a real risk that the recession could lead to more repression. I say that also because in many countries, open markets have not led to open societies.  Two of the clearest examples in our report are Russia and China but they are unfortunately not the only ones. Human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, trade unionists, and other civil society leaders were harassed, attacked or killed with impunity in every region of the world.

Freedom is an asset that needs to be developed, not undermined at a time when governments are seeking to stimulate the economy.

After 9/11 we saw human rights trampled in the name of security — after 9/15 (the day Wall Street crashed) human rights we see are now being relegated to the back seat in the name of economy 

Our report highlights three key areas that are being neglected:

* violence against women 

* torture and ill-treatment, and poor policing armed conflicts.  And I refer you to our report for more information on those issues. I will just say a word about armed conflicts. From Gaza to Darfur, from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to northern Sri Lanka the international community has stood impotent or immobile or inadequate in its response, doing too little too late to protect civilians. The priorities need to be re-set. If we look at Somalia, governments are pouring money into protecting the shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia but doing very little to stop the shipment of arms into the country that fuel conflict and feed human rights abuse. Impunity for war crimes was allowed to flourish — in the case of Gaza, it was the USA and western governments, in the case of Darfur, it was the Arab League and the African Union. The myopia of misguided solidarity does no good either to justice or to security. 

If governments ignore deadly conflicts or undermine human rights in the name of security, they will promote political instability which will undermine economic recovery. One just needs to look at the rapidly deteriorating crisis on the borders of Afghanistan/Pakistan to see the truth of that statement.  So our message is: governments must focus on the human rights crisis alongside the economic crisis. Ignoring one crisis to focus on another is a sure recipe for aggravating both. Economic recovery will be neither sustainable nor equitable if governments fail to tackle human rights abuses that drive and deepen poverty, or that if they leave unaddressed the armed conflicts that are generating  more human rights abuse.

Now I turn to the second point that we are making in our report and that is: the world needs a new global deal on human rights, a new kind of leadership. The world doesn’t need another treaty, the world doesn’t need any more paper promises — what it needs is real commitment and concrete action from governments.

The G-20 has emerged to lead the economic revival — but human rights have barely figured in their economic diagnosis or in their prescription and worse still their own record on human rights is marred by old failed approaches. They may be new leaders but as far as human rights goes they are using very old approaches which is of open denial and violation of human rights; rhetoric without action promoting human rights abroad but ignoring them at home; sometimes shielding allies from accountability — that in plain language sums up the collective performance of the G-20 human rights record.

 Amnesty International recorded torture in 15 of the 19 countries that make up the G20.

Three members of the G-20 were responsible for 3/4 of all executions that took place in the world. (China, Saudi Arabia and the USA being the worst offenders)

  Their individual record is no better. Saudi Arabia severely restricts women’s rights. Brazil has a notorious record on the excessive use of police force. Saudi Arabia, China and Russia do not tolerate political dissent. The EU has failed to come clean on renditions or to live up to international standards on refugees and asylum seekers.

Yes, of course the decision of the new US Administration to close Guantanamo and end secret detention and torture is very welcome and a breath of fresh air for us. Amnesty International is very proud of that change — some of you will remember that 4 years ago in this building I called for the closure of Guantanamo and not many people supported Amnesty International at that time. But now the

entire war on terror has been discredited. Of course there are still some big questions hanging over whether and how the Obama Administration will bring full closure, disclosure and accountability. We urge President not to falter or relent — the world is looking to him for leadership, accountable, responsible leadership on human rights.

A Global Deal on human rights must begin with those sitting at top table. First, they have to set to their own tarnish records straight. They must use peer pressure on each other to improve performance. The USA and the European Union must call on China to improve its human rights record — and China must do the same with Myanmar and Sudan, and South Africa must do so with Zimbabwe.

They will have no credibility as global leaders if they fail to uphold global values of human rights. We are calling on them not simply to flaunt their political and economic clout but to show moral leadership. Nor will they be effective in their goal of economic recovery.  If economic recovery is to be sustainable or equitable, then human rights abuses must be put at the centre of those efforts.  Governments need to invest in human rights as purposefully as they are investing in the economy.

Tomorrow it will be 48 years since Amnesty International was born. We mark that anniversary by taking up the cause of prisoners of poverty with as much determination as we once took up the cause of prisoners of conscience. As I release the AI report 2009, I am also announcing the launch of our new campaign to Demand Dignity. You will find more information on it outside this room, and at the bottom of the press release.

Our first demand in our new campaign is to the G-2 leaders, USA and China. The United States does not accept the notion of economic, social and cultural rights while China does not respect civil and political rights. Both governments, we call on them to sign up to all human rights for all.

Some of you may say this is a pipe dream of Amnesty International — but look at what we have achieved the last year. The closure of Guantanamo, the conviction of Fujimori in Peru, the opening of the first trial of the International Criminal Court, the arrest and transfer of Karadzic to the Hague, the reiteration by the UN for a

universal moratorium on the death penalty with ever increasing numbers of governments supporting it, the banning of female genital mutilation in Egypt, 147 countries voting for an Arms Trade Treaty.  It is possible to bring about change.