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Food for a negotiated thought

Human Rights Reader 246

-Ultimately, by using the human rights-based framework, we strive to negotiate a new social contract                                                                or class compromise from a position of strength and power.  (T. Schrecker)

1. The process of globalization with its progressive accumulation of economic and political capital sees human rights (HR) as a threat, because the HR-based approach (HRBA) emerges as an alternative to neoliberalism by focusing on divergent and rival imperatives and justifications.  Conversely, the HRBA sees neoliberalism as a threat, as an economic system out of control, as bringing uncertainty, as dependency-creating, as excluding. It sees it bringing about fear, aggression, fundamentalism, as well as creating ever-expanding spaces for private interests. Despite all these self-serving attributes, neoliberalism survives as the dominant way of thinking in development. Its economists push more for individual rights (e.g., property), for limited state activity and for a free-wheeling market; they say the poor are responsible for their own poverty. (Development in Practice)  Put another way, hidden in the unacceptable current social differences and social injustices is the neoliberal economic model with much money, much poverty, much silence, much omission, much disdain, much disillusion.

2. Often, there is at least an implicit complicity of rich donor countries in opposing HR activists; they argue that they rather focus on issues of bad governance in poor countries –which often ends up being more cosmetic than substantive (if not unrealistic).  We counter-argue that political outcomes are not only determined by the interaction between content matters (policy) and institutional structures (polity), but by raw political interests (often post-colonial interests in the case of donors). We all know that:

  • in policy circles, concepts tend to be discussed a lot, but they rarely become implemented in reality, and
  • the crux of the matter remains one where those that have the power to define what poverty is, also have the power to define its causes and thus to decide what solutions to implement.*

* : Ideologically, rich countries act as if only the small cut-out they make of reality is the real valid one; they deny other dimensions of reality –in our case, the way the HRBA sees things. (L. Weinstein)

3. In opposing this latest manifestation of Capitalism-gone-to-extremes, what is missing is an integration of the multiple international HR obligations in the process of negotiating, among other, debt relief and free trade agreements. Existing arrangements are the result of poorly negotiated either multilateral or bilateral compromises. There is an asymmetry in the bargaining power that rich and poor countries bring to these negotiations.  It is thus urgent to carry out HR impact assessments in the contexts of debt and trade, especially its effects on women and on other vulnerable groups. (T. Schrecker)  Additionally, we must confront the unequal structure of representation within government, i.e., the intra-governmental distribution of power.

4. In other words, globalization, unequal representation, free-wheeling markets, dependency, the neoliberal economic model, the debt crisis, and international free trade agreements all limit national HR policy space. So, we simply have to ensure that HR priorities are not compromised by these agreements. But are we doing this…? (M. Koivusalo)

5. So, here is the deal: If one carries out a class analysis, one can determine who really benefits; if one analyzes the power relations involved, one can determine who is in control; and if one analyzes the exact role of the state, one can determine who is accountable.

6. You see? In HR work, when mapping the big picture, one already identifies the points that will require social pressure, that will require aligning interests, identifying champions, and going for early wins to reach key tipping points; …one also ponders the social cost of delaying key decisions.

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

Partially adapted from L. Weinstein, Ed. Multiversidad, Editorial Universidad Bolivariana, Coleccion Nuevos Paradigmas, Santiago, Chile, Mayo 2009; FAQs about the HRBA to Development, Sida, 2009; The Broker, Issue 16, October 2009; D+C, 36:5, May 2009; and Globalization and Health: Pathways, Evidence and policy, R. Labonte, T. Schrecker, C. Packer and V. Runnels Eds, Routledge Books, 2009.

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