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Human Rights Council Tenth Special Session: “The impact of the Global Economic and Financial Crises on the Universal Realization and Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights”, Statement of Ms. Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights



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Geneva, 20 February 2009


Mr. President,
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I welcome this special session of the Human Rights Council on the “Impact of the Global Economic & Financial Crises on the Universal Realization and Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights”. These crises, just as the food emergencies that engaged the Council last year, have a disproportionate impact on the livelihoods of the most vulnerable and already marginalized groups of society.

They undermine access to work, affordability of food and housing, as well as of water, basic health care and education. States must 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. Programmes and institutions necessary to respect, protect and fulfil all human rights should also be preserved and endowed with adequate resources.

Value of the human rights approach in responses to the crises

While it is imperative to respond to the current crises with a thorough review of the functioning of the international financial and monetary mechanisms, a human rights approach will contribute to making solutions more durable in the medium and long run. Such an approach helps to identify the specific needs and entitlements of vulnerable groups and individuals, particularly women and children, migrants, refugees, indigenous peoples, minorities and persons with disabilities. They stand at the frontlines of hardship and are most likely to lose their jobs and access to social safety nets and services.

A human rights framework offers the appropriate context, legal rationale and ground to guide policies and programmes countering the negative effects of the financial crisis at the national, regional and international levels. Indeed, States are not relieved of their human rights obligations in times of crisis. Rather, measures to protect not only the economic and social rights but also the civil and political rights of those groups and individuals most adversely affected and marginalized by the crises must be put in place as matters of both urgency and priority.

Crucially, policies should go beyond temporary stop-gap measures and address the deeply rooted causes of discrimination and marginalization in order to prevent crises from having snowballing and more enduring effects on ever larger sectors of the populations.

Moreover, international responses to the economic downturn, including reconstruction of the financial sector, should be undertaken in a way that serves the interest of human rights. To this effect, regenerating the flow of productive – rather than speculative – credit is of paramount importance.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I will now describe in greater detail instances of vulnerabilities that are of pressing concern. It is already evident that tensions and hardship are affecting migrant workers in many countries. These workers are most likely to be the first in line to losing their jobs not only because their status is called into question, but also because they are employed in sectors that are particularly affected by the economic crisis. Worse, recession may give rise to xenophobic passions, discriminatory practices and even attacks against migrant workers and their families.

As opportunities for regular migration labor decrease, unemployed migrants may seek to work without authorization. This would render them even more vulnerable. Protection of the rights of migrants in terms of their working and living conditions, and in the event of loss of employment, should be integrated in responses to the crises. Crucially, no effort should be spared to protect migrants from discrimination and xenophobia.

In the same vein, let me point out that times of hardship for families and communities often expose women and girls to greater risk, since the venting of frustration and despair increases the likelihood of violence against them. Moreover, in the course of economic downturns, women’s economic and social rights are jeopardized. They see their job opportunities shrink, are forced to accept more marginal and ill-paid employment and forego basic services to secure food and shelter. Addressing their needs and critical vulnerabilities is thus imperative. Preventive initiatives, safeguards, as well as economic recovery and growth measures, must be designed to be gender-sensitive and non-discriminatory. They must create an environment conducive to women’s participation in decision-making processes. Policies must accommodate women’s demands for justice and for remedial action.

International cooperation and assistance

The negative effects of the financial and economic crises are felt disproportionally in the developing and least developed countries. Resorting to international cooperation and assistance may become inevitable. To this effect, human rights consideration should be taken into account by all States in a position to provide cooperation, assistance and aid, or that can influence the outcome of policies by intergovernmental organizations and financial institutions aimed at alleviating economic hardship.

Let me remind this Council that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities envisage and provide guidance regarding the framework of such international cooperation. Moreover, as the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated in General Comment No. 3:

[I]nternational cooperation for development and thus for the realization of economic, social and cultural rights is an obligation of all States. It is particularly incumbent upon those States which are in a position to assist others in this regard.

In this spirit, I welcome the outcome document of the Doha Review Conference on Financing for Development. It calls on all donors to maintain and deliver on their commitments. The outcome document also urges the international community, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to draw on the full range of their policy advice and resources, as appropriate, to help developing countries and countries with economies in transition to strengthen their economies, maintain growth and protect the most vulnerable groups against the severe impacts of the current downturn.

Let me underscore that the Millennium Development Goals should not become casualties of the crises. Now, more than ever, there is a need for a holistic, integrated human rights approach to development strategies. This approach will help to meet the challenges of poverty and climate change, ensuring that human rights principles of accountability, transparency and non-discrimination are at the core of development strategies.

I will now briefly discuss the role of non-State actors in the context of these crises. Governments should ensure that private concerns and the corporate sector are fully aware of the role they play either in fostering, or conversely, in undermining human rights. States have the primary duty to protect their populations against human rights abuses by non-State actors and to provide justice when abuses do occur. However, I would also like to point out that, for their part, private actors, including financial institutions, have a responsibility to ensure that their operations do not violate human rights. In this regard, I welcome this Council’s endorsement of the framework that the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises offered in order to guide the actions of States and businesses vis--vis human rights.

Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,

The UN human rights system can support national efforts to monitor the impact of the crises on the universal realization and effective enjoyment of human rights. This Council, at its regular and special sessions and through the Universal Periodic Review process, can stimulate and evaluate over time, national and international responses to the crises. Mandate holders of the Council, as well as UN treaty bodies, can also monitor the impact of recession within their respective mandates, and provide guidance to States on how to live up to their human rights obligations.

Let me conclude by underscoring that all parts of the United Nations system are tackling the humanitarian, economic and political aspects of the current crises. (I extend a special welcome to the representatives of our UN partners who have agreed to come and share their expertise and insights at today’s special session.) I laud the leadership of the Human Rights Council in highlighting the human rights dimension of global financial and economic challenges. Your discussions today and sustained engagement in the future are necessary to bring human rights to bear on responses to the crises.

I wish you a most productive debate. Thank you.