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Human Rights: Food for the urgent application of a thought


Human Rights Reader 398


At the moment, consensus is lacking on how the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can succeed in environments of disparate governance, especially given the history of failure of almost all states to adopt a human rights-based approach, as well as to foster genuine participatory politics and ‘direct democracy’ alternatives. (Fortunate Machingura)


A quick look back


  1. In the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) we did engage, yes …and, by so doing, we fell into a trap.* The burning question thus now is: What room is there left for us now and what spaces do we not want to miss that are opening for us for immediate, more effective action?

*: Take an example: Did the MDGs change trends in child mortality? In all truth, there has been little assessment of the role the MDGs have had in progressing this international development indicator. A 41% reduction in the under-five mortality rate worldwide from 1990 to 2011 has been reported, as well as an acceleration in the rate of reduction since 2000. But why did this occur? Results analyzed for all developing countries indicate that it is not due to more healthcare or public health interventions, but is driven by a concomitant burst of economic growth. Although the MDGs are considered to have played an important part in securing progress against poverty, hunger and disease, there is very little evidence to back up this viewpoint. A thorough human rights-based analysis of the successes and failures of the MDGs is therefore necessary (and sadly still missing and/or ignored) before embarking on a new round of global goals as those proposed in the SDGs. (Declan French)


  1. To some, it would be more appropriate to refer to the MDGs as the Millennium Development Wishes. Why? Because, other than taking the human rights (HR) dimension for granted, the agreement left entirely unspecified who was to do what. So, if no clear division of labor is specified for achieving the SDGs, there is a real danger that any failures will be blamed on the poorest countries. This is exactly what happened during the MDGs era. (Thomas Pogge)


Cynics will say that international agreements are unenforceable; they are right


  1. Agreements such as the SDGs or the Climate Agreement appeal to humanity’s better angels, but are subjected to national self-interested demons. The question is whether they strengthen resolve, clarify pathways, spur global responsibility, promote initiatives or end up more likely providing the free riding opportunities that so often characterize global cooperation which is big on lip service and short on binding commitments. (Jeffrey Sachs)


  1. We know: Cheery declarations are made in pompous summits knowing that the same are just the beginning of a process, when future progress is actually what it is all about. (But we are told we must be ‘optimistic’…). This is primarily because those political/diplomatic actors ooze confidence that markets will play a forceful positive, correcting role. But as long as these mostly Northern leaders expect the market to do its job, citizen disaffection will (and does) grow and human rights violations will (do) continue unabated.** (Roberto Savio)

**: Be reminded that it is all about social justice, not about an artificially and maliciously thrusted-upon-us ‘market justice’. (Claudia Gonzalez)


  1. The prestigious journal The Lancet went so far as to say: “The SDGs are fairy tales dressed in the bureaucratese of intergovernmental narcissism, adorned with the robes of multilateral paralysis and poisoned by the acid of nation state failure. Yet this is served up as our future”. (Richard Horton) Ultimately, the SDGs only reflect the consensus by193 nations in a way that ‘balances’ interests in an exercise of compromises that reflect the perennial uneven power imbalance reality in a world of haves and have-less (or have-nots).


  1. The problem is that the SDGs are toothless, and are undermined by their devotion to growth along present models. The SDGs explicitly and unapologetically refuse to take the needed steps to address the fallacies of this model and are careful to (not unintentionally) shun needed deep, structural transformations. Public interest civil society and social movements are clear that the SDGs represent neither the people’s ambitions nor their HR concerns. They are not just inadequate, they are dangerous; they will lock in the global development agenda for the next fifteen years around a failing economic model that requires urgent and deep structural changes. (J. Hickel)


  1. What does it really mean to ‘leave no one behind’, as the SDGs proclaim?***

Communities are not forgetfully left behind! It is the neoliberal policies that systematically exclude them. (Warda Rina)


  • The GDP may well have grown in many places, but inequality grew as well. Some member states agreed to the SDGs agenda reluctantly, and in subsequent negotiations there has been a lot of push-back and backtracking by them. For instance, financing negotiations seem to be going back to business as usual. Actually, if some of what is on the table right now goes through, it will create direct obstacles to achieving the SDGs. (Barbara Adams)
  • Furthermore, quite a few UN panels are being steered by corporate interests and are not-a-bit inclusive. (Sandra Vermuyten)
  • Laws of countries, from the U.S. to European countries, are giving more rights to corporations than to human beings. (Chee Yoke Ling)
  • Justified apprehensions are coming back as a deja-vu: Some countries did not start implementing the MDGs in earnest until 10 years after the goals were adopted. If no action is taken in the first 1,000 days of the SDGs –in other words, in the first three years up to September 2018– then governments and all of us (more than) risk leaving people behind and failing to achieve certain goals altogether (mostly those related to HR!). The world simply cannot afford delays that threaten the chances of achieving the SDGs. (ODI)

***: If we are talking about slogans, this one must be linked with another slogan, namely nothing about us without us. Moreover, the strong and urgent commitment to ensure that ‘no one is left behind’ can only be realized if equally ‘no HR is left behind’. (Stefano Prato)


  1. Let me share with you what I think are Thomas Pogge’s iron laws about the SDGs:


  • The approved SDGs discourse really only invites an incremental approach to overcoming deprivations: “We have a certain distance to traverse, and so we set off toward our destination and approach it step-by-step”. The HR discourse, by contrast, suggests that the corresponding violations must be ended right away (or in an agreed, binding progressive realization plan).
  • In fact, the reductions seen during the MDGs would have been much more substantive if the income gains had not been so heavily concentrated at the very top of the global income distribution. It is indisputable that, to put it mildly, governments have failed to ‘spare no effort’ to reduce severe deprivations during the MDGs period.
  • In UN-speak, ending deprivations right now means (a) that we must aim for the full eradication of these deprivations, (b) that we ought to approach this objective in a continuous manner (without backsliding) and (c) that we may take as much time as we deem reasonable to complete the task progressively, but decisively, if needed.
  • Neither the fact that hunger and poverty were even worse in earlier times, nor the anticipated fact that undernutrition and poverty will one day be eradicated, must be allowed to detract from the moral HR imperative so softly expressed in the SDGs. (The eradication of slavery and of severe poverty are a morally relevant comparison…The worldwide eradication of severe poverty is possible today, so we must eradicate it now, as fast and as thoroughly as we possibly can. The absolute same was true for the abolition of slavery: acting could not wait).
  • The progressive realization of HR notwithstanding, once we recognize a HR not to be enslaved, we must not make a 15-year plan aiming to halve the number of slaves or aiming to reduce floggings by half. (Similarly, once we recognized a human right violation to be done away with, we must not make a 15-year plan “to halve the killing rate at Nazi concentration camps…”).
  • Never in human history has severe poverty been so easily and completely eradicable as in the present period. (Reads like a cliché, but is’nt) That we continue to perpetuate it through national and supranational institutional arrangements that are massively skewed in favor of the rich shows the great moral and political failing of our (and past!) generation(s), of governments and citizens alike.
  • The morally and politically required response is to recognize these deprivations as massive HR violations that we must stop, at once, by implementing institutional reforms at the national and especially the supranational level.
  • At the very center of the SDGs is the Right to Development and the internationalization of responsibilities pertaining to HR.
  • If the world’s most influential agents had been held sufficiently accountable for what they owe toward making sustainable development work, the concepts of plain level partnerships and universalism would have been more meaningful, rather than what they are now likely to become: a smokescreen for perpetuating global inequalities.
  • All we have is a long list of Sustainable Development Wishes along with the pious hope that economic growth and charitable activities will move things far enough in the right direction.
  • The full realization of HR requires a massive roll-back of international and intra-national inequalities, which the SDGs fail to call for, much less demand. There is no explicit reference to reducing inequality within and among countries outside of Goal 10 of the SDGs.
  • Moral concerns are easily dismissed as naïve in the context of the jungle of international relations where each state prioritizes its own interests, power and often survival.
  • As international rules and policies gain in influence and increasingly reflect the interests of global elites, economic inequalities mount and the HR, needs, interests and voices of those rendered poor are increasingly marginalized and easily disregarded.
  • We tend to look at the trends, and invariably find that things have become better than they had been before. But such comparisons are wholly out of place when HR are the issue!
  • In this regard, the SDGs fail by shielding the world’s most powerful agents from any concrete responsibilities for achieving the new goals, when, given their wealth and influence, they ought to be taking the lead in providing the needed resources for sustainable development and in implementing systemic institutional reforms that address the root causes of poverty.
  • The assembled governments in Geneva and New York wished that the HR of those rendered poor would be realized, but they put forth no plan for contributing to this realization, thus effectively entrusting this task to the vagaries of charity and economic growth.

Just consider


  1. To be fair, the SDGs would need to commit to setting and measuring poverty at closer to U$7.40/cap/day (the ethical poverty line, adjusted to 2011 Purchasing Power Parity), and hunger at closer to the normal physical activity threshold by gender and age (or, alternatively, using a survey-based methodology). Anything less than this will result in a misleading assessment of the problem and in inaccurate reports about progress. The SDGs will thus need to include monitoring mechanisms to prevent the kind of statistical manipulation that has compromised the MDGs. Basically, the SDGs want to reduce inequality by ratcheting the poor up, but while leaving the wealth and power of the ‘global 1%’ of the richest intact; they cynically want the best of both worlds. They irresponsibly fail to accept that mass impoverishment is the product of extreme wealth accumulation and overconsumption by a few that, along the way, bring with them processes of marginalization, extraction, and exploitation. You cannot solve the problem of poverty without challenging the pathologies of accumulation. (J. Hickel)


  1. Some states, foreign aid and private philanthropy actors are already ‘cherry-picking’ goals and targets in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and are totally overlooking the HR perspective. Rather than treating all 17 Goals in the 2030 Agenda on equal footing to protect the most marginalized and vulnerable populations and to improve their situation, we are already witnessing some goals getting more support than others. Addressing individual SDG goals (17 of them) and targets (169 of them) is not intended to replace international HR obligations. (Stefano Prato)


  1. In the same vein, the private sector’s contribution to the SDGs agenda must take place with due regard to its responsibility to do no harm and to respect HR, i.e., their agenda must, in no way, become the-perfect-excuse to give less priority to their binding human rights obligations.**** (UNHCR)

****: For instance, as regards the right to food, the SDGs unavoidably will give priority to the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Initiative…. ( This can realistically be foreseen and little we can do about it despite the many-times-pointed-out conflicts of interest the role of the private sector plays in it and in the forthcoming Decade of Action for Nutrition. The question is: Do we really, politically, want this? Will it open space for HR? Funds will go to Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) and multistakeholder platforms and we can guess that this will not necessarily open spaces for HR.


Only participation and accountability from below (bottom-centered) will make the SDGs relevant for all.


  1. The effective implementation of the SDGs depends on it being consistent with the overarching commitment to HR. This includes accountability, non-discrimination and equality, notably gender equality —and clear consideration of the primacy of claim holders demanding States’ uphold their HR obligations. (Stefano Prato)


  1. What we further need is to tackle head-on the irrationality of endless growth, pointing out that capitalist growth–as measured by GDP– is not the solution to poverty and the ecological crisis, but rather the primary cause. And we need a saner measure of human progress –one that gears us not towards more extraction and consumption by the world’s elite, but towards more fairness, more equality, more fulfilled HR, more wellbeing, more sharing –to the benefit of the vast majority of humanity. The SDGs fail us on this. They offer to tinker with the global economic system in a well-meaning bid to make it all seem a bit less violent. But this is not a time for tinkering. (J. Hickel)


  1. The 2030 Agenda –as the SDGs are also, in my view, distortingly addressed as– is already experiencing significant attempts to coopt and ‘domesticate’ civil society’s engagement by fully aligning its agenda to that of the SDGs and undermining any attempts to promote (valid) dissent. This calls for a more sophisticated strategy of resistance and proactivity, one that engages with the process without accepting its limitations and pushes for a level of ambition that is far beyond the currently framed objectives and targets. The current means of SDGs implementation will simply not provide the necessary instruments and resources to advance the aspirations and the depth of transformation that progressive public interest civil society and social movements need to foster. This fundamentally means that these groups cannot limit themselves to the monitoring of the currently framed SDG targets and financial commitments made (or not made) so far, as these are largely inadequate (even if achieved) to support the extent of economic, social and political changes that we collectively aspire to. Hence the need to establish a far more ambitious progressive agenda that raises the bar with respect to the existing level of commitment. (Stefano Prato)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City


A Social Justice Take on the 2016 from Martin Donohoe, Public Health and Social Justice Website – Re-post with additional link

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Re-posting, as some have had problems accessing link.

Please forgive the blatant self-promotion……hopefully some will find this interesting, since it touches a little on the candidates, but more on how various social justice objectives are/are not being (and can be) achieved in the US – host gave me permission to pretty much rant for an hour

Social justice take on the 2016 election. Conversations with Dr Don (cable television program), October, 2016. Available at:
If any problems accessing this link, you might try instead, then clicking on my show P0720.
Covers American democracy and exceptionalism, a variety of domestic and international social justice issues, and how to create a progressive and more just society.
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Human rights: Food for a committed leader’s thought


Human Rights Reader 397


-I do not have enough energy to surrender. (Luis Manzano, peasant activist in Chile)

-Critics who use their words to hide their cowardice of being in the front and making a difference are of no help in human rights activism. (Shula Koenig) On the other hand, there are honest leaders that promise nothing, but silently perform and do have deeds to show for. (Albino Gomez)


  1. Let me start with a caveat: Human rights activists are indeed vulnerable to others’ expressed preferences, ideologies, correct or false perceptions, knowledge and/or ignorance. They must thus be aware that they are vulnerable to taking society’s conventions, policies and hierarchies at not-really-face-value; they must analyze them with care before adopting any of them. (K. Brownlee)


  1. A further distinction that activists must rightfully make is when they see that recommendations are coming from a technocratic-academic- ‘pragmatic’ left rather than from a social-movements-left, i.e., from the electoral-left as opposed to the social movements left. The latter incorporates alternative visions of development and human rights (HR) that are not just symbolic statements, but rather things that can and will be operationalized. This is a trend HR activists are seeing particularly regarding indigenous movements; they do no longer see these movements’ inputs as something symbolic, but as something that needs to be put into practice. From the latter movements absence in the main HR discourse emerged a common slogan in the indigenous movement, namely: ‘From Protest to Proposal’. It embodies the idea that they are no longer protesting policies they disagree with, but are putting forward concrete proposals; this is now the driver. (Marc Becker)


Is utopia the principle of all human rights progress and of the design of a better future? (Anatole France)


In the words of Alfred Adler: “It is easier to struggle for a set of principles than to uncritically live by them”.


  1. I am not sure if utopia is the principle, but only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. (T.S. Eliot) This is one of the reasons why a true leader is s/he who does no longer complain. This is also why true HR activists are the ones who fail the most …because they are the ones who try the most.*

*: Beware: You actually need a lot of bad ideas in order to get a few good ones. (Adam Grant) “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work”. (Thomas A. Edison)


  1. In practice, an activist must foresee that which does not yet exist. S/he has to imagine a future others cannot yet perceive, interpreting reality and making it even more vivid and lasting. (David Ebershoff) Yes, but there also comes the moment for activists when actuality eventually triumphs over their dream(s)… (Philip Roth)


  1. Per aspera ad astra or Ad astra per aspera is a Latin phrase that means any of the following: ‘Through hardships to the stars’ or ‘A rough road leads to the stars’. This is why those who embark in big projects to benefit HR must be prepared to face tiresome delays, painful disilusionments and offensive insults –and, what is even worse, the judgment of presumptuous ignorants. (Edmund Burke, 1729-1797)


  1. So, do HR activists need to become skillful in several ways by, for example, ‘staging creative and provocative acts of civil disobedience’, ‘intelligently escalating our demands once a mobilization is underway’, and/or ‘making sure that short-term cycles of disruption contribute to furthering longer-term goals’? (Mark and Paul Engler) Depending on circumstances, perhaps yes. But, nevertheless, HR activists must question the dubious assumption coming from the mass protests tradition that sheer numbers will win the day. The ‘numbers obsession’ leads to mass marches with big drama instead of starting a campaign with smaller numbers, less drama and more planning –to then win. Some Occupy Wall Street leaders saw the opportunity of disrupting the ‘One percent’ at a small political cost. But, as we know, the prevailing culture of Occupy prevented building a lasting and enduring mass movement –so far. (George Lakey)


  1. Moreover, the traditional political structures have failed us in HR. Nothing new there. So, understandably, there is widespread discontent. The challenge for moving discontent-with-this forward has, by default, fallen on ‘civil society’ –a somewhat nebulous entity. Certainly, ‘public interest’ civil society can play a radical role, as we have seen in the case of the Occupy movement and other contemporary mass mobilizations. But, beware, such mass actions can also easily play a conservative role by appeasing or placating discontent by then opting for various state-funded welfare initiatives. There is no obvious litmus test to decide what the best HR role for public interest civil society is. (Matthew Anderson)


  1. Umberto Eco rightfully said that getting social networks mobilized to demand gives the task to their leaders to talk to legions of disaffected men who previously only talked small talk with no relevance to their communities in bars with a glass of beer or wine in their hands. (Choose your own equivalent venue for women…).


Activists-led direct actions are seen in all effective public interest civil society organizations and social movements


Not surprisingly, these Readers always make a strong pitch for activism as the most reliable foundation for analysis, prescription …and direct action.


  1. Do HR activists really combine penetrating research, formidable intelligence, incremental information, and direct action? (Intelligence not in the sense as used in the Central Intelligence Agency…) Actually, no. But, as the most effective operators within the HR movement, they seek contacts with everybody who counts and seems to be respected and even recognized by their most aggressive adversaries. This is a lesson taught in different ways by Gandhi and by Mandela, as well as equally historically by the fights for universal suffrage. Direct action does not have to involve breaking current law, but it often does, when, at times, the latter is unreasonable and unfair. So, should all HR organizations that want to make a difference remain reasonable? Would they then contribute to the problems they seek to solve? (Geoffrey Cannon)


  1. Conventional wisdom artificially erects a high wall between scholarship and activism. (But the era of scholar activism is here…). The same conventional wisdom makes us believe that the terrorists are always those resisting control by the established political order, and never those that are exercising authority oppressively and violating HR with impunity. Consequently, governments give much more weight to relationships that bolster their security capabilities than they do to matters of international morality, HR, equality and law. (adapted from Richard Falk)


  1. Let me predict: When actively joining the ranks of HR activism, you are setting yourself up (fortunately so, for us already in it) to add yourself to the growing contingent of mentors of the upcoming generation. This, so that our youth
  • not only better understands, but practices solidarity, the respect for mother earth and regains faith in the future, as well as
  • rescues and revalorizes the collective hope in HR so badly lacking right now when consumerism, social media, individualism, extractivism, impunity of HR violations and injustice reign supreme. (Eduardo Espinoza)


  1. Yes, our criticism has become sharper and our demands have grown. But we still face a great deal of atomization that separates us into too many small groups to make collective action successful, i.e., making a substantive difference. We are still fragmented. (Alejandro Korn)


This brings this Reader to the thorny issue of the role of NGOs in human rights work, especially international NGOs


We live in a confusing world of public interest NGOs (PINGOs), international NGOs (INGOs), business interest NGOs (BINGOs) and dishonest or ‘briefcase’ NGOs (DINGOs).


  1. Let us embark in a (I recognize partial) reality check:

Fact: The corporatization of civil society has tamed the ambitions of INGOs; too often it has made them agents rather than agitators of the system. (CIVICUS)

Fact: The danger we face through the advocacy carried out by INGOs is one of becoming tools of more sophisticated political actors.

Fact: With the lines between business and politics being blurred, we increasingly see PINGOs voices being relegated to the margins in discussions on the post-2015 agenda and other global matters. (Not so for INGOs). (J. Naidoo)

Fact: INGOs have a hegemonic stranglehold on national civil society’s involvement in international affairs. In that, they pursue interests of their own.

Fact: To some extent, international organizations such as trade unions, farmers or women’s unions provide a counterbalance to INGO dominance IF they are not dominated by their rich world counterparts. Civil society organizations (CSOs) in the global South are too often merely INGOs puppets. What this means is that they do not get the attention and respect they deserve. The systemic predominance of INGOs perpetuates the status quo in the global arena; it actually strengthens it. INGOs supplant the voices and role of those rendered poor in international affairs in various ways. At the root of this power is their funding for southern CSO partners. However well-meaning INGO managers may be, their influence is systemic and too often patronizing. (A. Tujan)

Fact: Some major INGOs continue to approach economic and social rights in ways that do very little to change the marginality of those rights in the development field.

Fact: INGOs want to be seen as ‘whitewater rafts’ instead of ‘supertankers,’ working in the spaces between governments, civil societies and markets, bridging across different geographies and constituencies, and focused on embedding values of equality, sustainability and rights into larger systems: but are they really?*** (Adriano Campolina)

Fact: PICSOs and social movements are basically tired to be treated as ‘allies’ without, de-facto being incorporated in the big decision-making processes.

***: The way I see it, INGOs are too small to be agents of economic transformation; too bureaucratic to be social movements; banned from politics because of their charitable status and structurally removed from the societies they are trying to change. They end up sitting uncomfortably in the middle as the real action takes place around them –doing what they can to save lives, speak-out and build on small successes in the process. For those convinced by the argument that immediate lifesaving is a better option than long term social transformation this strategy may be attractive, but most of the people I talk to inside international agencies are not persuaded. (Michael Edwards)


Progressive public interest civil society organizations and social movements must be recognized and supported as vital partners in achieving the necessary human rights transformations


  1. Especially actors from protest-oriented-social-movements are more effective and transparent in influencing international political processes, so much so that these broad social movements are needed to address delicate power relation issues including those within transnational INGOs. They are thus the ones who rise to the great and urgent challenges humanity is facing. (R. Ranke)


  1. If we take the example of health, a robust public interest civil society can and must fulfill eight essential global health functions. These include:
  • producing compelling moral arguments for action;
  • building coalitions beyond the health sector;
  • introducing novel HR-based (right to health-based) policy alternatives and ensuring these are applied;
  • enhancing the legitimacy of global health initiatives and institutions;
  • strengthening national and local systems for health;
  • enhancing accountability systems; and
  • acting on the commercial determinants of preventable ill-health and malnutrition; (Julia Smith)


NGOs bottom line


  1. INGOs urgently need to focus their efforts much more on advocating for the ‘basic building blocks of HR work’, namely recognition (of HR violations occurring), institutionalization (of HR-based approaches) and accountability (of duty bearers) before delving into the more sophisticated yet vague SDG-proposed techniques for monitoring and promoting economic and social rights that now preoccupy many an international NGO. (Philip Alston)


  1. Moreover:
  • A more robust mutual accountability system among PINGOs working on HR is needed.
  • Organized PINGOs thus needs to go into deep introspection, as well as into truly realigning themselves with people’s needs and their voices so as to rebuild their legitimacy and trust with people.
  • PINGOs thus have to return to the hard, painstaking work of organizing and mobilizing the people, i.,e., unlocking maximum citizens potential, as well as coming up with the tools that will strengthen the struggle for social justice, HR and greater social solidarity. (J. Naidoo)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



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Human rights: Food for a deceivingly measured thought


Human Rights Reader 396

We all know it for long, don’t we?


  1. The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element of so-called democratic societies. Those who manipulate the unseen mechanisms of society constitute an invisible government. In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical [or HR thinking], we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind and policy decisions. (E. Bernays, 1928). This was written in 1928. These days it is not much different: Too often salami-sliced data-dredging dictates policy from spurious evidence. (John Ioannids)


  1. Further consider:
  • When statistics are not based on rigorous and truthful calculations, they lead us along the wrong path instead of pointing us in the right direction. (Alexis de Tocqueville, 1805-1859)
  • Also, Mark Twain (1871-1910) had it right: There are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics.
  • Actually, statistics can be used to mislead without lying, and they have the further advantage of being complicated.
  • Countless organizations and individuals –not only some statisticians– use, and in some cases, manipulate data for some advantage, whether for politics, for prestige or for profit, or for all of the above.*

*: Being a statistician means never having to say you are certain. (Ron Laporte)


  1. Do not take me wrong. I love numbers. They do allow us to get a sense of magnitude, to measure change, to put claims in context. But despite their bold and confident exterior, numbers are delicate things and that is why it is upsetting when they are abused. As we know, politicians often meddle with statistics. Every statistician is familiar with the tedious “Lies, damned lies, and then there is statistics” tease. But this bad habit of some politicians is not so much about lying –since to lie means having some knowledge of the truth– as it is about bullshitting with a carefree disregard of whether the number is appropriate or not. (David Spiegelhalter)


The question is: Who is measuring the measurers?


  1. Scores of people are surveyed to get ‘their’ opinions or priorities. But do they then organize as claim holder groups to demand pertinent changes? No –even if and when they are ever told the results… Surveys typically only come out with ‘suggested recommendations’ that, more often than not, do not help upsetting claim holders enough to move them into action.


  1. Moreover, how often is data collected and used basically to ratify/quantify what claim holders already know empirically? To convince who? Do duty bearers learn something they did not already know or strongly suspected? The corollary here is that a difference could be made if quite a bit of survey and data collection moneys were instead used for community organization and mobilization for HR.


  1. Ask yourself: Do indicators and data on them look at what is the truth or at what is important for top-down decisions? We know that “you find what you look for”. So, on top of misrepresenting reality, do data change certain realities? Even if they do not, it is actually the link between data and action what interests us in HR work –and this is, more often than not, neglected.


  1. Too often, people and entire groups go uncounted for reasons of power: those without power are further marginalized by their exclusion from statistics, while elites resist the counting of their incomes and wealth. As a result, the actual pattern of counting can both reflect and exacerbate existing inequalities. (Alex Cobham)


  1. It is part of the view of the-elites-as-measurers that the existence of vulnerable people is ‘unfortunate’, in good part due to myriad HR violations. But the attitudes, structures and practices that reproduce HR violations and vulnerability are deemed necessary and inevitable to and indeed demonstrably beneficial for the elites, at least in part because they create and reproduce elite status and control. …and all these we never measure. From this perspective, the counting and measuring of vulnerability is useful only if it is used to contribute to change the structures of power irresponsive to HR. (adapted from David Legge)



We more and more see a politically-motivated failure to count what matters.


  1. Being uncounted is not generally a matter of coincidence, but reflects power: the lack of it, or its excess. Why do the SDGs call for ‘Leaving No One Behind’ when we are, in reality, counting ‘Those Who are Left Ahead’? The uncounted are those left at the bottom. (So, how will the SDGs really ‘Leave No One Behind’?) They go uncounted, because of an excess of power that keeps widening the haves/have-nots gap and that condones, among many other, tax abuses of individuals and companies, as well as the financial secrecy provided by privileged jurisdictions (including those of some of the richest that dodge taxes and the rule of law); add to this the hidden criminality of private and public sector corruption that systematically gets swept under the carpet. (Alex Cobham)


  1. Fundamentally, it will be impossible to ensure no one is left behind without taking proactive and timely steps towards achieving targets like addressing discrimination, social exclusion and economic inequality. Inequalities between countries will also need to seriously be reduced, in particular by dismantling the structural, institutional and policy barriers which severely constrain the policy and fiscal space of the poorest countries, where the greatest number of those most at risk of being left behind. (Kate Donald) The corollary here is that we need to add to the SDGs the “Nothing About Us Without Us” principle.


Big data creates false confidence


  1. We often think that politics is the enemy of good data, because we think politics corrupts data, but try generating data without taking politics into account, and it is just a disaster. The same is true for HR. This entrenched belief of unbiased data collection in development practice weakens foreign aid’s potential impacts. This is some of what we see at the global level: Because there is no global government, there is no accountability on the people that produce the global data, so it is always going to be of lower quality/questionable usefulness. (Angus Deaton)


Take home message


  1. There is a limit we face in our understanding of important dimensions of HR issues. Take health care, for instance. We are at a time when health systems are increasingly involving a range of disciplines pretending to use more holistic models to respond to the mix of physical, socioeconomic and environmental factors that lead to preventable ill health and malnutrition. But they are excluding qualitative data vital to a HR perspective and this deprives decision makers of a significant body of knowledge that can indeed inform decision-making on health systems from a badly needed HR perspective. Basically the existing system effectively silences the voices of community members, particularly those who are marginalized –across all countries. Given the multiple factors (including dynamic individual and collective, as well as political and socioeconomic factors) that influence health and the way services are delivered and experienced, it indeed seems to oversimplify reality to give singular dominance to the old maxim that ‘it is what is measured that counts’. This is at the cost of the wider range of lenses that we have to explore and to analyze so as to really understand what counts –HR concerns certainly included. (EQUINET)


Claudio Schuftan, HoChi Minh City



-Communication is not just about what you say, it is about the reaction it causes in the listener.


As you use a smartphone, your smartphone gets smarter, but you get dumber**

-Why are we not digital dissenters? It would figure, since we are constantly distracted. We walk around with our eyes cast down upon our devices. We are rarely fully present anywhere. We concede our privacy. Robots are taking our jobs. Where do humans fit into this new economy? Really not as ‘creators of value’, but as ‘the content’, i.e., we are becoming the content itself. We are the data. We are the media. Techno-skeptics, who we would want to join, want to go back to the basics –to a world where the interests of humans [human rights (HR) included] come before the needs of robots, algorithms, and Silicon Valley. (Washington Post)

**: Our smartphones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety. There is no dark night of the soul anymore that is not lit with the flicker of the screen; but then, there is no morning of hopefulness either. (Andrew Sullivan)

-Despite the above valuable insight from the Washington Post, the media are increasingly reporting events in an elementary manner and, by and large, have abandoned the process of deep analysis, i.e., peering into the structural and human rights causes of human and humanitarian events. (Roberto Savio)



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Human rights: Food for a fabricated thought


Human Rights Reader 395


What is history, but a fable agreed upon? (Peter Hoeg)


Until the lions write their story, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter (Rene Loewenson)


Take Africa: history was written and falsified by colonial ideology.


  1. As a consequence, for the present, we live with no real sense of the true before, with conventional history replacing causality with simultaneity, history with news, memory with silence about human rights (HR). That is how in conventional history atrocities end up being blamed on the victims, while aggressors are decorated for bravery in the struggle against supposed emancipation. Why are thieves portrayed as judges and major political decision makers (without a single moral bone in their bodies) get away in history with disastrous decisions resulting in the most appalling HR consequences? Excesses are made to coexist with unreported dire need and want; destruction is always justified with the imperative of building –no mention of what. Economic interests are the fundament of everything. Public opinion is treated as indistinguishable from the private opinion of those with the power to chronicle and publicize it. Historians have changed the names of things so that these things can eventually skip what they really were. Inequality has been renamed merit; destitution renamed austerity; hypocrisy renamed HR; all-out civil war, humanitarian intervention; mitigated civil war, democracy. War itself has come to be called peace, so that it could go on forever. Praise of someone’s virtues or moral qualities simply ceased to rest on criteria of personal worth rather being achieved at the expense of somebody else’s vilification and degradation or by negating their qualities and virtues. (Santos)


  1. Capitalism, based as it is on an unequal exchange between supposedly equal human beings, is disguised painting an idealized reality so that its very name has fallen into disrepute. Colonialism, which was based on discrimination against human beings who were nothing but equal in a true way, ended up being accepted as something natural. The purported victims of racism and xenophobia have been invariably labeled trouble-makers before they were victims. As to patriarchy, which has been based on the domination of women and the stigmatization of non-heterosexual orientations, it has been accepted as something as natural as some moral preference endorsed by almost everyone. Limits have thus been imposed on women, homosexuals and transsexuals in case they did not know how to stay within their limits. General laws have been so selectively reported-on that have allowed them to violate impunity, under such pretenses as protecting law-abidingness. (Santos)


  1. Considering all this, the affected, the non-reported-on and those whose HR have been violated, settled mostly for resignation. Those who would not give up emigrated. Too often in history, things seemed about to explode, but they never really exploded because, when they did, they were not chronicled or were reported-on in a drawn-out and piecemeal fashion. But the result was that those who suffered from the explosions were either dead or poor and were picked up by history as underdeveloped or old or backward or ignorant or lazy or useless or mad –in any event, expendable. But they were the vast majority (!) even if an insidious optical illusion made them invisible. People were ‘socio-degraded’ to become expendable populations, such as immigrants or young people from peripheral areas. (Santos)


  1. It was generally accepted that the common good had to be based on the opulent wellbeing of a few and the destitute ill-being of the many. But there were those who would not accept such normalcy and therefore rebelled. The non-conformists were divided though. Their myopia caused them to be divided in that which was supposed to unite them and united in that which was supposed to divide them. That is why events were chronicled the way they did. (Boaventura de Sousa Santos)



Conventional history is made up of fallacies, sophisms (apparently clever but flawed arguments) and forgetfulness (not so innocent omissions) (Ernesto Sábato)


In a way, history portrays the lives of human beings who suffer the consequences precisely of the inaccuracies of a history that is actually imposed on them. (Albino Gomez)


  1. Only some historians tell us that changes in the world have been always caused by greed or by fear. Yet it is evident that we have gone through (too) long periods of greed. It is greed that has been a factor in forgetting values like solidarity, justice and HR. Now, for instance and for the first time in a long time, it is security not the economy that is at the center of conventional historians’ debates. Does that mean that we are going from a cycle of greed to a cycle of fear? Is that progress? History should want to give us a different reading: civilization has advanced not by confrontation, but by cooperation; not by war, but by peace; not by aggression but by tolerance; not by selfishness but by solidarity … and not by military security, but by human security and human rights. (Roberto Savio)


  1. Has the trajectory of conventional history –one claiming to chronicle for us a professional yet Western view of fairness and justice— been truly denouncing multi-dimensional crimes against humanity exposing the succession of competing imperial perpetrators? Too many historians ‘medicate’ us and manage to maintain a clear conscience amidst the crime scene that past (and present) history have been.* Is there such an awareness in them, a hidden culpability? …perhaps one that ebbs and flows depending on the ceaseless convenient forgetfulness of such historians. It is clear from history that empires have risen and fallen –and we remain confident that those who work for true global cooperation, HR and peace will outlast the empire with all its contradictions and denials. (J. Luchte)

*: Fast forward to modern history. I ask: Are silicon-based IT technologies fast-tracking socioeconomic gaps that conventional historians may fail to point out? (S. Harrison)


  1. As regards Northamerican history, its global role and mission to spread American values around the world, was divinely sanctified and historically preordained, thanks to the genius of its founding fathers. Jefferson’s ‘empire of liberty’, Roosevelt’s ‘arsenal of democracy’, and Reagan’s ‘shining city upon a hill’ are variants on the same theme of American pre-eminence, a country that sought to colonize the planet with its ideas. The problem, globally, is that American exceptionalism has increasingly come to have negative connotations. (N. Bryant)


  1. The truth is that, normally, we learn about history’s storylines in isolation. We might have a strong sense of the history of scientific breakthroughs or the progression of Western philosophical thought or the succession of French rulers, but we are not as clear on how each of these storylines relate to each other, to the have-nots, to the wretched of the earth and to HR. (T. Urban)


I hope social movements will be the ones to offer political responses to change the course and the contents of history


Their challenge is to be with one foot rooted in an accurate account of history (the real true before) and both eyes looking to the future.


  1. History is not a science; it is the art of showing a clean face and hiding the dirty and smelly behind of things. (Leopoldo Marechal) So, bottom line about history, we need to awaken the ‘investigative reporter’ in us all to constantly go after the human story behind conventional history. After all, journalism is the rough draft of history –and we want to be counted in shaping it. Those whose interests we claim to serve also expect it from us.


  1. Making history was never easy, and the current challenge is but one opportunity to make a tectonic shift in what is actually an unfathomable distortion.


  1. I am of the opinion we shall overcome, because we have truth on our side. Truth, for too long trampled by history, will prevail. (W.L. Cullen)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City




-How a Nearly Successful Slave Revolt Was Intentionally Lost to History.

Read more:   or

-History teaches us that the evil of some is only possible due to the indifference of others. (K. Theidon)

-It is a truism that we must remember the past or else be condemned to repeat it. But there are times when some things (but only some things!) are best forgotten. (David Rieff, The Guardian)


March and Rally to Close Riker’s Island September 24, 2016

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Rikers Island has been a cauldron of despair for decades. The brutality is endemic, and today violence is up even as the detainee population is down. Every day thousands of people are held in pre-trial detention simply because they cannot afford bail, leading to a litany of tragedies, such as the terrible death of Kalief Browder. Racial disparities are a hallmark of both Rikers Island and the broken criminal justice system it represents.

Horrific media stories and damning government investigations have become commonplace. There is no dispute that the Rikers Island Correctional Facility jails are dangerous, isolated, and woefully inappropriate for human beings. With all that we know about the human suffering on Rikers, the biggest scandal is that Rikers continues to exist at all.

As our nation finally confronts the error of mass incarceration and the failures of the war on drugs, communities across the country — including New York City — are rethinking policies to ensure public safety and health. A growing number of New Yorkers have come to a simple conclusion:

Rikers cannot be reformed; it must be closed. That is why two previous mayoral administrations have tried to close it. Those previous efforts stalled. Today, however, with growing momentum in New York City and around the country to fix our shameful, broken criminal justice system, the time is now for real solutions –it is time to finally


Closing Rikers will not be easy, but we know that it is possible and necessary, and that New Yorkers are up to the task. During his inauguration, Mayor de Blasio declared, “Our city is no stranger to big struggles — and no stranger to overcoming them.” As New Yorkers we must tackle this big struggle and re-imagine what a modern criminal justice system should look like, where justice and fairness is attainable to all, and where we heal the harms caused by a broken system by supporting the communities most impacted by its years of abuse.

Local Contact in the Bronx

There will be buses to the Rally coming from and returning to the Bronx. For more information please contact Joyce Wong at: and cell 917.331.0575.


Doctors Gone Bad – Slide Show and Television Program from Public Health and Social Justice

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A recently-updated, open access slide show and one hour television interview are now available on the Human Subject Experimentation/Torture/Hunger Strikes page of the Public Health and Social Justice website at These cover the history of human subject experimentation from World War II to the present (including the Nazi and Japanese medical “experiments;” the Tuskegee syphilis study; the Guatemalan STD study; the Willowbrook hepatitis experiments; Beecher’s seminal paper on unethical U.S. experiments; Pentagon studies involving chemical and biological agents, radioactivity, and illicit drugs; and contemporary controversies — e.g., unethical placebo-controlled trials in the developing world, the use of prisoners and the uninsured as research subjects, etc.). Also covered are doctors who murder and/or torture and doctors as terrorists and despots (e.g., Ikuo Hayashi [sarin gas on Tokyo subway], Ayman al-Zawahiri [leader of Al-Qaeda], Radovan Karadjic [war criminal, former leader of Bosnian Serbs], and Bashir Al-Assad [Syrian president]). Learn about how medical education and training inadequately cover the Geneva Conventions, military medical ethics, physician participation in torture and executions, and human rights) and what can be done to improve such training. Also on this page are presentations from Dr Steve Miles on physicians who torture and caring for torture victims. While you are browsing this page, be sure to check out all the open-access slide shows covering myriad other topics on the public health and social justice website at or (e.g the Incarceration Nation slide show on the Criminal Justice System page includes a discussion of the history of the death penalty in the U.S., including the involvement of physicians and drug companies – see

Martin Donohoe


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Human rights: Food for a detrimental thought


Human Rights Reader 394


Human rights are not just the prerogative of prosperous nations; (neither are social protection institutions). (M. Loewe).


  1. A widespread lack of understanding-of and misperceptions-about human rights (HR) is one of the mother-of-all-problems we have in our work. Therefore, in our HR work, we absolutely need to vernacularize, to give meaning and to frame HR so people can understand and then take ownership of their rights. The information most needed in this is the one to be used for myth busting in the realm of HR.


By now, we ought to know this


  1. Human rights particularly apply to those who are disadvantaged, excluded, ignored or demeaned. Consequently, HR do address the distributional, structural and other wrongs experienced by these out-groups. This actually means addressing five main purposes or dimensions of HR work, namely,
  • the redressing of disadvantages;
  • the addressing of stigma, of stereotyping, of prejudice and of violence;
  • the embracing of difference;
  • the pursuit and achievement of structural changes; and for the latter,
  • enhancing the voice and influence of claim holders leading to their staking of concrete claims.


  1. These five dimensions embrace the more dynamic conception of HR particularly as regards achieving equality. Using this disaggregation, HR are better able to respond to the real and concrete wrongs as experienced by women, children, minorities and other out-groups.


The aim of human rights work is not necessarily to eliminate difference, but to prohibit the detriment attached to such difference


  1. Coming as no surprise, eradicating this detriment will require structural changes, i.e., wide-scale transformations. In this sense, HR work aims at enabling claim holder participation in society (as per above) not only socially, but also politically. Tackling disadvantage is primarily aimed at socio-economic disadvantages, yes, but also at the right to equality addressing, among other, these groups’ under-representation in jobs, their under-payment for work of equal value, and/or their limited access to credit, property, or other vital resources. Therefore, tackling disadvantage encompasses more than addressing the maldistribution of resources; it also takes on board and aims to resolve the constraints that power structures impose on individuals, because of their dependent or oppressed status.


  1. What people can ultimately achieve is thus influenced by their economic opportunities, their political liberties, their exerting de-facto social power and their success in enabling conditions of good health, good education and freedom from hunger. In short, one of the functions of the right to substantive equality is to redress disadvantage by removing obstacles to genuine choice. Mind you that the right to equality not only applies to socio-economic disadvantage, but also applies to disadvantages associated with stigma and/or exclusion. (Note that disadvantage creates a veritable ‘cycle of disadvantage’, that is, disadvantage breeds disadvantage).


  1. A caveat here: Redressing disadvantage may not be sufficient if structural changes are not implemented at the same time! Because measures aimed at redressing socio-economic disadvantage can themselves cause stigma: ‘Accommodation’ to fit disadvantage in an unfair system is an assimilationist measure to be opposed on HR grounds.* (Sandra Fredman)

*: Accommodation’s goal is nothing but trying to make ‘different’ people fit into existing systems.


But there is no explicitly stated right to substantive equality, as such, under international human rights law… (Philip Alston)


  1. Treating people who are unequal the same way as the rest does not necessarily achieve equality; it can replicate disadvantage. We must, therefore, always identify the barriers people face –understanding that these barriers are created by others! Barriers may be legal, physical, institutional, administrative, economic, linguistic, cultural… We emphasize that not only wealth and income, but also many other factors determine inequalities. Note that the law does not require disadvantaged groups to conform to current practices and norms**, but puts the burden on the State to (again) ‘accommodate and embrace difference’. Therein lies the danger.

**: When we ask claim holders to think critically we are not asking them to think about how to accommodate and conform.


  1. Individuals and groups that have historically been disadvantaged need to adopt targeted positive measures that ultimately pursue redressing existing discrimination, ensuring the equal participation of all and, in no uncertain terms, demanding the redistribution of power and resources. Affirmative action is an example of this.


  1. Keep in mind that the State is mandated by international HR law to dismantle discriminatory practices and to target the disadvantaged as part of their obligation to prioritize individuals and groups who are excluded and discriminated against. But experience tells us that, when specific measures are taken to ensure greater inclusiveness, participation tends to be disproportionately for/from men, majority ethnic groups, wealthier, more educated households and people with a higher social status. This is why, to ensure inclusive participatory processes, inclusion must be deliberate. The first step for this is to identify those who are marginalized, as well as identifying the barriers they face. How? Asking them! Addressing all this is to uncover the underlying power dynamics. Subsequently, not only the legal framework will need reform, but also a revision transforming institutional structures will be called-for to ensure transparency and access to relevant information. This calls for a paradigm shift from addressing income inequalities to addressing inequalities in the realization of HR. (Inga Winkler)


COROLLARY: Applying the HR-based framework is one legitimate appropriate method to be used when confronting the destructive capitalist system; it fosters clearly alternative paths of action applicable all over the world


  1. Yes, but in too many countries the judiciary, supposedly responsible for defending people’s rights, is ignorant of international HR law despite the latter’s demonstrated role in social judicial jurisprudence coming from public interest litigation the world over.***

***: Furthermore, most judges are not socially and HR conscious; they are also political animals living in a neoliberal world; they are accountable for many a regressive HR ruling. So, when we talk about fairness of the rule of law, we have to specify fair to whom?


  1. Talking about legitimacy, it has always called my attention that we see overwhelmingly more studies on the violation of HR and far too few on the sustained licit or illicit privileges of the haves.****

****: Susan George has reminded us of the same as regards studies on poverty in proportion to those carried out on or about the wealthy, i.e., on wealth licitly or illicitly acquired…


  1. Hope: The resurgence in the last decade of a number of people’s movements and social struggles in the South –through campaigns on forest, water and land rights, on indigenous and dalit rights, on agricultural workers rights, on labor rights, on the rights of women, etc– provide us for guarded optimism. They represent the social basis to emulate for fundamental HR advances. (Sandeep Chachra) But beware: Some success is not the same as having decisively embarked in a process where the progressive realization of HR is being achieved.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-We have to make the new HR paradigm a reality for the sake of our own peace, our peace towards others, and our peace with nature and mother earth. Few people getting involved in small projects in small places the world over can indeed change the world. (Anwar Fazal)

-Human rights do not need wings, they need to deepen their roots. (adapted from Octavio Paz)

-Facetiously, someone said: “Are we watching human rights or human wrongs?”


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Human rights: Food for a thought to be conquered


Human Rights Reader 393


-Are human rights a shared charade or are they to be seen as a sign of moral and political progress?

-As a matter of priority, the struggle for substantive equality must, first and foremost, counter exclusion –particularly political exclusion, but also social exclusion. (Sandra Fredman)


Human rights: From indivisibility to invisibility? (Stefano Prato)


  1. Government policy makers are too often reluctant to (or, more so, indifferent about) giving their rights to the people –making human rights (HR) de-facto invisible. Take for example the fact that they ‘do not see’ hunger around them, simply because they have never experienced it. Calls for ‘intersectoral policy convergence’ is the best they (have) come up with. But how can they foster such convergence when there is no HR policy, e.g., not even a credible national assessment of hunger and malnutrition as HR problems? Intesectoral policy coherence is different from policies being coherent with HR standards and principles! Intersectoral coordination/ collaboration can hardly set limits to the sways and injustices of the market; HR do address the latter and, more, brings them center stage —ergo out of invisibility.


Are people in a healthy society mindful of the human rights of all human beings?


  1. In modern times, the HR framework has, more and more, allowed us to jump-start work that directly aims at solving the problems of discrimination and of marginalization. This, as a result of the fact that, in this endeavor, the justice system is not mindful of HR (to say the least) and has left us in the cold since it finds guilty people where there actually, way too often, are victims (often too of HR violations). And, as we all know, there is no harsh punishment for the rich and powerful when guilty.*

*: Beware of impunity! He who does not punish bad people, negatively affects good people. (Cicero, 106BC- 43BC)


  1. Also, not really mindful is the fallacious idea that, when it comes to HR protection, those suffering political and civil violence should enjoy privileged moral status compared with those who are victims of economic, social and cultural rights violations. Furthermore, the idea that the economic rights violations millions of people suffer from is not a global issue, but only the responsibility of the respective national government is equally fallacious. (Ndongo Samba Sylla)


  1. Additionally not mindful (or worse), is the fact that IMF and World Bank lending has repeatedly been embroiled in the violation of HR. Prioritizing country standards over universal principles actually ends up violating HR. This is precisely what happens in the context of this lending. After all, major client governments view HR considerations as an intrusion into their internal affairs. In their eyes, environmental and social standards are little more than impediments to fast growth. When these loans reinforce such country standards it invariably puts communities of claim holders and the environment at risk. Nobody doubts this any more. (Korinna Horta) [See the postscript for more on this].


Let’s not be discouraged, but rather provoked into action (David Zakus)


  1. Real breakthroughs in HR work are possible and are happening. To multiply this potential, further action is needed to overcome the forces of political inertia that have doomed past global initiatives on HR. Implemented initiatives tend to end with an echo or ring of earlier initiatives or interventions only to become more micro-level, more short-term project-oriented and more fractured –with donor support for HR initiatives ever harder to find. Seen in perspective, current efforts not only seem, but are less ‘unique’ or ‘new’ and do carry the worrisome risk of failure. The issue here is that these interventions we so often see, by themselves, do not overcome the political impediments and inertia that already overwhelmed past efforts to achieve impact. Overcoming these impediments has less to do with the availability of knowledge and evidence and much more to do with entrenched global governance issues –or to put it another way, with the deplorable political economy of current development policies and actions.


  1. Today, the main hurdles and sources of friction remain the same ones that repeatedly undermined efforts in the past 40 years. Depressing, no? Discouraging? No! Rather a call to action given that, in the battle for high-level policy attention, the forces of political inertia work constantly to push HR to a low priority repetitive cycle. As said, the perennially ‘intersectoral coordination’ proposed instead will, alone, simply not cut it: Calling for complementary actions across sectors does not, by itself, automatically give rise to fairer HR policies!


  1. Moreover, when it comes to HR actions, issues of conflict of interest among development actors are a source of further deep concern and division.** These concerns are not without warrant. There is significant evidence of how the engagement with the private sector has distorted and/or undermined public policy especially towards HR. There is a need for strong and credible protections against conflicts of interest, but only counted public-private partnerships (PPPs) take this responsibility as a key issue to seriously address —this, nothing but a reflection of the extreme asymmetries of power.

**: Note that having conflicting interests is different from having conflicts of interest; we all have the former…


  1. Large corporations –often part of now-fashionable multistakeholder platforms and PPPs– use several strategies to deflect public attention about their (negative) influence, namely
  • blocking or diverting efforts to put in place public regulations,
  • coopting policy makers,
  • intensely using cash for lobbying against such regulations,
  • directly attacking UN agencies’ positions,
  • financing social campaigns designed to shape public opinion (often maliciously reframing issues of HR as ‘issues of personal choice’).


  1. These corporations thus pursue private ends that undermine public policy and trust in public institutions and, way too often, they offer pledges that are seldom followed-through –with no mechanisms put in place to follow-up, track and report on the same. (The preceding is clearly evident in relation to the right to health and the right to nutrition).


If all the above does not provoke us into action, then what?


Moral suasion is clearly not enough.


  1. The conclusion here is that strong firewalls against private sector engagement in public policy and regulatory issues must be implemented and enforced and UN agencies are to play a crucial normative role in this providing needed guidance. Public interest civil society organizations and social movements must continue championing this cause!


  1. It is further not realistic for UN organizations to seek private donor funds claiming a neutral status as ‘trusted facilitators of independent action’. An effective system of governance of HR action must be deeply rooted in the norms, member state solemn agreements and the institutional architecture of the UN system. Publicly watchdogging the UN’s accountability on this is crucial.*** (Michael Clark, FAO)

***: Consider also: It has been a colossal mistake to weaken the UN system replacing it by plutocratic, economic, social and cultural rights-skeptical groups such as the G8, the G7 and the G20 –not to speak of the ‘Davos clan’ of plutocrats. (Francisco Mayor)


  1. In an interesting twist, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has likened HR violations to seismic signals that come before an earthquake, and has further provoked leaders to take actions now. He is of the opinion that disaster will strike unless these seismic signals are released gradually and soon through wiser people-centered policy making, i.e., where the interests of all humans override the growing pursuit of the narrowest, purely economic, national and ideologically-limited agendas.  Otherwise –as the reading of human history informs us– a more sudden release, when it comes, will be a colossus of violence and death.****

****: The Chinese character for crisis combines the characters for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. Our ability to improve HR depends critically on our ability to recognize and address dangers, but also to seize opportunities made possible by recognizing that crises offer rare opportunities to pursue extraordinary options not normally available. (Jomo K. Sundaram)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



The meaning of justice and the IMF.

Plato insisted on defining justice as ‘the preference of the stronger’.

I found this interesting. It made me think of the IMF’s description (in terms of representation) as ‘an organization that operates according to the preference of the stronger’. Neoliberalism, you know, is not a new thing, but merely a rebranding of what capitalism has always been (as with Neo-conservatism) and, in good part, an institutionalization of anti-communism. Otherwise, neoliberalism is the drive for absolute and unconditional power of access and control of every country in the world by the US and its preferred Northern allies. The IMF, created as an instrument of the UN, was perverted from the principles established at Bretton Woods, i.e., from being a cooperative system of global governance to one that is only international within the self-interested scope of the US and its allies. The IMF has simply become mostly an instrument of US (and EU) foreign financial policy (together with its other, military instrument of power projection, NATO). The US orients its hegemony upon the global topography of states and alliances and operates via the IMF and other ‘international’ organizations to infringe upon national sovereignty through conditionality, sanctions –a situation similar to recipient countries having to sell themselves into slavery due to debt. After all, nearly every economy is dominated by US-controlled or US-orchestrated institutions. Neoliberal ideology is identified with science, but a Machiavellian science that cynically benefits the exceptional, the saved. Lex Americana (the ever accelerating Americanization of the world –a variant of imperial ideology) is the law of conquest, of slavery and of land annexation –despite the mask of its rational and ‘scientific’ systematization. It represents an ideological justice that (platonically) suits the preference of the stronger. The IMF acts as a purportedly benevolent global loan shark of last resort; it has managed to ensnare in its global web nearly two thirds of the countries of the world. This lender of last resort imposes conditions that pretend to be scientific and professionally modern –and, most of all, non-political; but we know it only reads neoclassical economics. Yet, this pretending is only a public relations and ideological mask which plunges the borrower country into financial troubles. The IMF represents the weaponization of global finance for the interests of the rich countries of the North. The IMF often condones corruption given that there is lots of money, but due to the aforementioned ideological restrictions, the money is filtered back into the commercial economy through expenditures not relating to the needs of the vast majority of people. The population continues to struggle economically and is disempowered politically. Conditionality, in this sense, is an economic stratagem of political control, a network of decisions, a series of surveillance actions of each country pertaining to political economic activity. The sovereignty of the borrower nation, its capacity for autonomy and self-governance, is severely restricted. These policies are ultimately counter-productive, tying the government’s hands, and causing massive dislocation amongst working people, job losses, cuts in benefits and services and higher taxes. In other words, these policies do not work, and are not meant to work, but are imposed merely to benefit the US and its ideological allies. The IMF, as a bank, is simply interested in cost recovery, stripping assets and expanding the web of private, household debt. It is neither interested in facilitating social and economic progress nor is it interested in HR. If one were not convinced that the IMF cares not for the borrower nations, consider that the IMF has never erased $18 billion Apartheid era debt, which according to the ‘Doctrine of Odious Debt,’ is clearly problematic. Debt cancellation organizations are seeking to highlight the debt slavery being promulgated by the IMF and the World Bank. So now you know: The IMF, the power projection of full spectrum dominance, have been unmasked and must now be resisted for the sake of global equality, human rights, peace and freedom. It is time for an end to political masochism and cowardice, a decision requiring a cultural revolution. (J. Luchte)




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Human rights: Food for a people’s thought


Human Rights Reader 392


Allow me to start this Reader with an homage to the late Urban Jonsson with whom I worked for many years on many human rights issues –not always agreeing, it has to be said. I have quoted him dozens of times in the Readers given his, better-to-none, clear thinking on these issues. Here are a few more of his thoughts:

  • In human rights (HR), it is not necessarily about ‘blaming and shaming’; it is about bringing the parties to agree on what is required for the progressive realization of specific HR. (Urban Jonsson)
  • I am no longer worried about the fact that all HR are the prerogative of individuals, reflecting the liberal origin of the idea about HR. I thus always refer to the emerging collective rights as having the same prerogative as individual rights. (Urban Jonsson)
  • The common denominator in the use of ‘stakeholder’, ‘entitlement’ and ‘basic needs’ approaches in development parlance is crucially that, in each of them, there is no duty-bearer with correlative duties! (Urban Jonsson)
  • Another common denominator, this one for the non-realization or violation of a HR, is the lack of capacity of claim-holders to claim their rights and/or the lack of capacity of the duty-bearers to meet their duties (let alone the fact that most claim-holders are not even aware that they have inalienable rights). As for duty-bearers, if they do not have the capacity (or are objectively limited) to meet a duty, they cannot be held accountable (they may themselves be claim holders to a higher level of duty bearers). But, mind you, the State is the ultimate duty-bearer and, yes, there are also many important non-state-duty-bearers with obligations that are increasingly recognized in everyday HR work. (Urban Jonsson)
  • By paying central attention to exclusion, disparity and injustice, the HR framework directly addresses the basic or structural causes of development problems, at the same time giving preferential attention to the needed legal and institutional reforms, as well as to the needed systematic review of existing national policies. (Urban Jonsson)
  • Human rights principles inform the content of good governance efforts. The HR framework addresses all key dimensions of governance, including public participation, access to information, and accountability. A critical aspect of good governance is the government’s capacity to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. Ultimately, it is the simultaneous realization of all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that contributes most to good governance. (Urban Jonsson)


Now, for the topic of this Reader:


Where and how ‘the mandate given by the people’ does/has not work/ed

It is true that the academic discipline of human rights uses certain words that (have) become stereotypes and clichés that rather ‘complexify’ simple people’s clear human rights demands.


  1. The Paris Climate Agreement teaches us something I purport illustrates how states ignore the people’s mandate. Delegates in Paris said: “It is true the agreement is not sufficient to meet climate’s long term goals, but we were able to put-in a so-called ‘ambition mechanism’. Starting in 2020, countries have to update their climate pledges every five years and make new pledges that are more ambitious”. We can switch ‘climate change’ for ‘HR’ and this is precisely what we find in the SDGs in relation to HR, namely ambitions, aspirational language. A real shame —ambition mechanisms simply push boundaries to avoid binding commitments.
  2. Whereas the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’ phrasing is similar to the one found in declarations about HR enacted after the liberal revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries (i.e., stating that Everyone Has The Right To…), its twin International Covenant, the one on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights affirms the States’ acknowledgement of specific rights (i.e., stating that States Parties Recognize The Right Of Everyone To…). This is an important difference! Moreover, while the UN’s Civil and Political Rights (CPR) Committee has a long catalogue of decisions taken on individual complaints, the first equivalent decision taken by the UN’s Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) Committee happened only in September 2015, regarding a case in Spain. There are enough elements to clearly assert that ESCR instruments do impose people-mandated-binding-obligations as-enforceable-as those from CPR instruments. There is the wrong assumption that the difference in language used by CPR and ESCR statutes is explained by a hierarchical relation of the first over the second. Shattering this false assumption requires broad efforts to move beyond the ideological dispute that caused the political and legal discourses on the CPR and the ESCR covenants to grow apart for several decades. Part of the effort should be made in the United States where, let us not forget, social welfare and freedom were once, not so long ago, rightly considered to share the very same importance. (D. Cerqueira)


What loosely using the concept of ‘mainstreaming human rights’ does not do to respect the mandate given by the people


When it comes to mainstreaming human rights, vaguely grand-visioning them is not enough; mainstreaming human rights must mean actively incorporating them into concrete political processes!


  1. Questions to ask here include: Does mainstreaming HR result-in or bring-about the ‘integration of the core HR values’ and an alignment of core HR values across UN and other development organizations? Does it bring about an enhanced collective effort and increased literacy of staff thereof on HR values and skills in order to incorporate these in their respective strategic planning and daily work? Experience shows that the incorporation of HR needs to be a deliberate and integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programs in all political, economic and social spheres.


  1. Mainstreaming is not about adding a HR component or even an equality component into an existing activity. Mainstreaming needs to go beyond and increase people’s participation and this means bringing the experience, knowledge, and interests of women, men and children as claim holders to bear on the development agenda.


  1. What is ultimately required is: changes must be made in the goals, strategies, and actions of these plans so that claim holders (can) de-facto actively participate-in and influence, as well as benefit from all development processes.


  1. The goal of truly mainstreaming HR thus is equivalent to the transformation of unequal social and institutional structures into equal and fair structures. For this, strong citizens and claim holders engagement are key. Most important is for them to review all existing major policies and measures specifically for the purpose of achieving the fulfillment of HR and of equality. Attention needs to be paid to issues of implementation and sustainability if the journey from-idea-to-reality is to be comprehensive and complete.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



-Only those who have to struggle daily for their liberty and rights ultimately deserve them. (Goethe)

-The difficulty we face lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones. (John Maynard Keynes)

-Money is always available for war, but scarce for peace. The fact is that there are many more interests in military expenses than there are in poverty, injustice and HR. (Roberto Savio)

-Compassion is not just feeling with someone, but seeking to change the situation. Frequently, people think compassion and love are merely sentimental. No! They are very demanding. If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action! (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)