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2009 Amnesty International Report. It's not just about the economy ... it's a human rights crisis

2009 Amnesty International Report. It's not just about the economy ... it's a human rights crisis

By Irene Khan

The global economic recession reproduces the pattern of climate change: the rich have caused most of the destruction, but it is the disadvantaged who suffer the worst consequences. We walk on a tinderbox of inequality, injustice and insecurity that is about to explode


In September 2008 I was in New York to attend the UN high-level meeting on the Millennium Development Goals, the goals agreed by the international community to reduce poverty by 2015. One after another, delegations spoke of the need to allocate more funds to eradicate hunger, to curb preventable deaths of babies and pregnant women, to provide clean water and sanitary conditions, or to educate girls. The lives and dignity of billions of people were at stake, but the will to back the speech with money was very limited. When I left the UN building, I saw on the news screens a very different story from another part of Manhattan: the collapse of one of the largest investment banks on Wall Street. It was a very telling sign of where international attention and resources were really focused. In the blink of an eye, rich and powerful governments were able to raise sums far greater than they had been able to find to curb poverty. They pumped money into failing banks and stranded economy stimulation programs that had been allowed to drift aimlessly for years.

By the end of 2008 it was clear that our two-sided world - deprivation and greed, or the impoverishment of the many to satisfy the greed of the few - was sinking into a black hole.

The global economic recession reproduces the pattern of climate change: the rich have caused most of the destruction, but it is the disadvantaged who suffer the worst consequences. From migrant workers in China to miners in Katanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, people desperately trying to get out of poverty are bearing the brunt. The World Bank has predicted that another 53 million people will be pushed into poverty this year, in addition to the 150 million affected by the food crisis last year, wiping out the gains made in the past 10 years. According to figures from the International Labor Organization, between 18 and 51 million people could lose their jobs. There is increasing hunger and disease due to the drastic rise in food prices, and more people homeless and destitute due to forced evictions and foreclosure of mortgaged assets.

It is still too early to predict all the effects that the waste of recent years will have on human rights, but there is no doubt that the shadow that the economic crisis will cast on these rights will be long. It is also clear that governments have not only renounced economic and financial regulation in favor of market forces, but have also failed miserably to protect human rights, lives and people's livelihoods.

Billions of people suffer insecurity, injustice and humiliation. We are facing a human rights crisis.

"The world needs a different leadership, a different model of politics and also economics, something that works for everyone, and not just for a privileged few."

The lack of food, employment, clean water, land and housing, together with the increase in inequality and insecurity, xenophobia and racism, violence and repression, make up a global crisis that requires global solutions based on cooperation. international law, human rights and the rule of law. Unfortunately, powerful governments are looking back at themselves, trying to tackle exclusively economic and financial problems in their own countries and ignoring the global crisis around them. If at some point they consider taking international action, they are limited to the economy and finance, thus reproducing the mistakes of the past.

The world needs a different leadership, a different model of politics and also of the economy, something that works for everyone, and not just for the privileged few. We need leaders who promote in the States the change of national interests and the narrow-mindedness of multilateral collaboration, so that solutions are inclusive, complete, sustainable, and respectful of human rights. The alliances forged between governments and companies seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of marginalized sectors must end. Pacts of convenience that exempt abusive governments from accountability must disappear.

The many faces of inequality

Many expert voices point out that millions of people have been rescued from poverty thanks to economic growth, but the truth is that many more are still in the same situation; progress has been too fragile (as the recent crisis has shown) and the cost on human rights too high. In recent years, human rights have all too often been relegated to the background, as the whirlwind of savage globalization generated frenzied growth. The consequences are clear: increased inequality, deprivation, marginalization and insecurity; shameless and unpunished repression of protests; and a general lack of repentance and accountability among those responsible for the abuses (governments, large companies and international financial institutions). The growing signs of violence and political unrest are adding to the global insecurity that already exists due to the bloody conflicts that the international community seems unable or unwilling to resolve. In other words, we are walking on a tinderbox of inequality, injustice and insecurity that is about to explode.

Despite sustainable economic growth in many parts of Africa, millions of people continue to live below the poverty line and struggle to meet their basic needs. Latin America is possibly the most unequal region in the world, where indigenous communities and other marginalized groups in rural or urban areas are denied the right to health care, clean water, education and adequate housing, despite the impressive growth of national economies. India is emerging as an economic giant in Asia, but it has yet to address the hardships suffered by its poor urban population or marginalized rural communities. In China, the gap between the living standards of rural and migrant workers and the well-to-do urban classes widens even further.

Today, the world's population is overwhelmingly urban and more than a billion people live in slums. In other words, one in three city dwellers resides in precarious settlements with little or no access to basic services, and under the daily threat of insecurity, violence and forced evictions. Sixty per cent of the population of Nairobi, Kenya lives in slums: Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, is inhabited by one million people. To give another example, some 150,000 Cambodians are at risk of being forcibly evicted due to land disputes, land grabbing and urban and agro-industrial redevelopment projects.

The inequality derived from globalization is not exclusive to developing countries. According to the report published in October 2008 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), also in industrialized countries "economic growth in recent decades has benefited the rich more than the poor." The United States, the richest country in the world, is ranked 27th out of 30 in the ranking by index of endemic poverty and widening income disparity of OECD members.

From the disadvantaged urban sectors of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, to the Roma communities of European countries, the stark reality is that many people are poor because of the open or overlapping policies of discrimination, marginalization and exclusion adopted or tolerated by the State and applied with the connivance of companies or private actors. It is not a mere coincidence that many of the world's poor people are women or migrants, or belong to ethnic or religious minorities. It is also no coincidence that maternal mortality remains one of the leading causes of death in our time, despite the fact that minimal spending on emergency obstetric care would save the lives of hundreds of thousands of women of childbearing age.

A clear example of the collusion between companies and the State to deprive people of their lands and natural resources and leave them plunged into poverty is the case of indigenous communities. In Bolivia, many indigenous Guarani families in the Chaco region live in what the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has described as a state of servitude analogous to slavery. For his part, the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, following his visit to Brazil in August 2008, criticized the persistent discrimination that underlies the development of policies, the provision of services and the administration of justice related to communities indigenous people of the country.

Inequality extends to the justice system itself. International financial institutions, eager to strengthen the market economy and encourage investment by foreign companies and private actors, have financed legal reforms of the commercial sector in several developing countries. However, no comparable effort has been made to ensure that poor people can claim their rights and seek redress in court for violations by governments or companies. According to the UN Commission for the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, around two-thirds of the world's population lack meaningful access to justice.

The many forms of insecurity

As various factors coincide in a climate of economic recession, the number of people living in poverty and suffering human rights abuses is likely to increase. First, the structural adjustment policies led by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) up to 10 years ago have weakened social safety nets in both developing and developed countries. These policies were conceived to create conditions within states that would support the market economy and to open up national markets to international trade. They led to the promotion of a minimal state in which governments abolished their obligations regarding economic and social rights for the benefit of the market. In addition to invoking economic liberalization, structural adjustment policies promoted the privatization of public services, the deregulation of labor relations, and the reduction of social security mechanisms. The payment of fees promoted by the World Bank and the IMF in areas such as education and health care often put these services out of reach of the poorest sectors. Now, at a time when the economy is on the tightrope and unemployment is growing, far too many people suffer not only loss of income, but also social insecurity as there are no welfare mechanisms to support them in difficult times.

Furthermore, global food insecurity, despite its severity, does not attract sufficient attention from the international community. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), almost a billion people suffer from hunger and malnutrition in the world. Hunger has skyrocketed due to food shortages caused by decades of underinvestment in agriculture; by trade policies that promote unfair competition by lowering prices with the consequent ruin of local farmers; by climate change, which leads to greater water shortages and soil degradation; by the pressure of the population increase; and by rising power generation costs and the sudden massive demand for biofuels.


In many places, the food crisis has been exacerbated by discrimination and political manipulation of food distribution, by the obstruction of much-needed humanitarian aid, or by insecurity and armed conflict, which have impeded the development of the agriculture or have denied the population access to the resources necessary to produce or buy food. In Zimbabwe, where five million people were dependent on food aid at the end of 2008, the government used food distribution as a weapon against its political opponents. In North Korea, authorities deliberately restricted food aid to suppress and starve the population. In Darfur, "scorched earth" counterinsurgent tactics by the Sudanese armed forces and pro-government Janjawid militias destroyed livelihoods and killed many people. In Sri Lanka, the civilian population displaced and trapped by the conflict in the north of the country were deprived of food and other humanitarian assistance because the armed group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam prevented people from leaving the area and because the Sri Lankan army did not allow full access to the area of ​​aid organizations. Possibly one of the most scandalous cases of violations of the right to food in 2008 was the refusal, for three weeks, by the Myanmar authorities to authorize the urgently needed international aid 2.4 million survivors of cyclone "Nargis", even as the government diverted its own resources to fund a flawed referendum on an even more flawed constitution.

Adding to the rise in food prices is the layoff of hundreds of thousands of migrant or foreign workers as export-led economies slow and give way to protectionism. Remittances sent by foreign workers - which amount to about US $ 200 billion annually, twice the amount of international development aid - is an important source of income for several low- and middle-income countries such as Bangladesh, the Philippines, Kenya or Mexico. . The decline in remittances means lower income for governments and, therefore, less funds for basic goods and services. Furthermore, in some countries, the decline in the export of labor leaves in the villages a panorama of disillusioned, angry and unemployed young men, who become easy prey for extremist politics and violence.

Meanwhile, although the labor market is contracting, migratory pressure continues to mount, and host states resort to increasingly severe methods to keep migrants outside their borders. In June 2008 I visited the public cemetery of Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, where the unidentified graves are silent testimony to the truncated efforts of African migrants to enter Spain. In 2008 alone, 67,000 people undertook the dangerous journey through the Mediterranean to Europe, and it is not known how many died during the journey. Those who managed to reach Europe live in the shadows, without identity documents, exposed to exploitation and abuse, and, since the adoption in 2008 of the European Union (EU) directive on returns of irregular migrants, it hangs over their heads. the danger of prolonged detention followed by expulsion.

Some EU Member States, such as Spain, have signed bilateral agreements with African countries to return migrants, or directly to prevent them from leaving the place of departure. Mauritania, for example, sees in these agreements a license to arbitrarily detain, confine in precarious conditions and expel without any legal remedy a large number of foreigners who are in its territory, without evidence of the intention of these people to leave. the country and even though it is not a crime to leave Mauritania irregularly.

As the number of people living in increasingly precarious conditions increases, social tensions grow. One of the crudest examples of racist and xenophobic violence took place in South Africa in May, where 60 people lost their lives, 600 were injured and tens of thousands were displaced, despite tens of thousands entering the country. to flee the political violence and misery of neighboring Zimbabwe. Although official investigations did not determine the causes of the attacks, it is widely believed that they were motivated by xenophobia and competition in access to employment, housing and social services, in a situation aggravated by corruption.

Economic recovery depends on political stability. Yet the same leaders who are struggling to compose stimulation programs aimed at resuscitating the global economy continue to ignore the bloody conflicts in various parts of the world that generate massive human rights abuses, exacerbate poverty and endanger regional stability.

The economic and social conditions in Gaza, besieged and shaken by military bombardments, are bleak. The political and economic aftermath of the conflict in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories are felt far beyond their borders.

The conflicts in Darfur and Somalia are fought in areas with fragile ecosystems, where the increasing difficulty of obtaining water or providing food to sustain the population is both a cause and a consequence of continuous wars. The massive displacement they have caused has saturated the capacity of neighboring countries, which now also have to deal with the effects of the global economic crisis.

In the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, greed, corruption and economic interests, in competition with the political games of power in the region, have impoverished the population and trapped it in a vicious cycle of violence. Reconstruction and recovery efforts in this immensely resource-rich country are delayed due to declining foreign investment in the wake of economic decline.

In Afghanistan, pervasive insecurity has limited the access of the population - especially women and girls - to food, health care and education. Insecurity has spread to neighboring Pakistan, already suffering from the government's inability to fulfill and enforce human rights and tackle poverty and youth unemployment, and is dragging the country into a spiral of extremist violence.

If there is any lesson to be learned from this economic crisis, it is that borders between countries do not insulate us from damage. Finding solutions to the planet's worst conflicts and the growing threat of extremist violence through greater respect for human rights is a key piece that must fit into the broader goal of reviving the global economy.

From recession to repression

On the one hand, we are threatened by the danger that the increase in poverty and the dire economic and social conditions could lead to political instability and generalized violence. On the other, the recession may be accompanied by increased repression if affected governments (especially those with authoritarian leanings) decide to clamp down on dissent, criticism, and public exposure of corruption and economic mismanagement.

In 2008 we are experiencing the anticipation of what to expect from 2009 onwards. When people took to the streets to protest rising food prices and the dire economic situation, even peaceful demonstrations were harshly responded to in many countries. In Tunisia, strikes and protests were suppressed with force that caused two deaths, numerous injuries and more than 200 prosecutions - some of them crowned with long prison terms - against suspected organizers. In Zimbabwe, political opponents, human rights activists and trade union representatives were attacked, kidnapped, detained and killed with impunity. In Cameroon, after violent protests, at least 100 protesters were shot dead and many more imprisoned.

In times of economic difficulties and political tensions, openness and tolerance are necessary so that discontent and discontent can be channeled into constructive dialogue and the search for solutions. However, it is precisely at this juncture that the space reserved for civil society is shrinking in many countries. In all regions of the world, human rights activists, journalists, legal professionals, trade unionists and other leaders of civil society are harassed, threatened, attacked, unjustifiably prosecuted or killed with impunity.

As governments try to stifle criticism of their policies, media censorship tends to rise, adding to the threats journalists already receive in many countries. Sri Lanka has one of the worst records in this regard, with 14 killings of journalists in the country since 2006. Iran has restricted freedom of expression on the internet and bloggers have been imprisoned in both Egypt and Syria. China relaxed control over the media in the run-up to the Olympics, but soon resumed its old habits of blocking websites and exercising other forms of censorship. The Malaysian government banned the publication of two prominent opposition newspapers, fearing criticism it might receive before the elections.

The opening of the markets has not necessarily led to more open societies. In recent years, the Russian government, emboldened by the economic power afforded by high oil and gas prices, has taken an increasingly nationalist and authoritarian stance and has actively sought to undermine freedom of expression and attack his critics. Now that the Russian economy is struggling with falling oil prices and rising inflation, and social unrest is spreading, the authoritarian trend could be further accentuated.

China continues to crack down on those who criticize its official policies and practices with an iron hand. Thus, official corruption and bad business practices are not stopped until the scandal breaks out and great damage has been caused, as happened a few years ago with the alarm of bird flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or the HIV epidemic / AIDS, and more recently with the case of melamine in products containing milk powder. The Chinese authorities have reacted by executing in resounding acts those found guilty of corruption, but they have done little or nothing to change the behavior of companies or the country's state apparatus.

Having an informed and empowered citizenry to hold themselves to account is a much more useful way to ensure that governments and businesses do their jobs well. Freedom is an asset to be encouraged, not repressed, at a time when governments are trying to stimulate the economy.

A new leadership model

Poverty, inequality, injustice, insecurity, and oppression are hallmarks of poverty. They are, without a doubt, human rights problems that will not subside if only economic measures are taken. On the contrary, they require a strong political will and a comprehensive response that takes into account political, economic, social and environmental aspects in an encompassing framework of human rights and the rule of law. They require collective action and a new leadership model.

"The G20 member states must embrace universal values ​​and confront their own murky track record and double standard on human rights."

Economic globalization has brought about a shift in the geopolitical balance of power, and a new generation of states, in the form of the G-20, claims their place in world leadership. The Group of 20 - made up of China, India, Brazil, South Africa and other emerging economies from the global South, as well as Russia, the United States and prominent Western economic powers - claims to be a more accurate representation of the political power and economic weight of the world. real world. That may be so, but to become true world leaders, the G-20 member states must embrace universal values ​​and confront their own murky track record and double standard on human rights.

It is true that the new US administration is setting a very different course from George W. Bush on human rights. Barack Obama's decision, within 48 hours of assuming the presidency, to close the Guantanamo detention center within one year, unequivocally denounce torture, and end the CIA's secret detention practices, is Praiseworthy, as is the new government's decision to submit the United States to the elections of the UN Human Rights Council. However, it is early to know whether this government will demand respect for human rights from countries like Israel or China with the same frankness and vehemence with which it demands it from others like Iran or Sudan.

The European Union continues to maintain an ambivalent position regarding its commitment to human rights. While staunch on issues such as the abolition of the death penalty, freedom of expression and the protection of human rights defenders, many EU member countries are less willing to comply with international standards on the protection of persons refugees and the elimination of racism and discrimination within their territory, or to admit their collusion with the CIA in the extraordinary renditions of persons suspected of terrorism.

Brazil and Mexico are staunch supporters of human rights in the international sphere but, unfortunately, they often neglect what they preach abroad within their borders. South Africa has repeatedly blocked decisions by the international community to pressure the government of Zimbabwe to end political persecution and electoral manipulation. Saudi Arabia detains thousands of people suspected of terrorism without trial, detains political dissidents, and severely restricts the rights of migrant workers and women. China has a very poor criminal justice system, uses punitive forms of administrative detention to quell criticism and is the country that carries out the most executions in the world. The Russian government has allowed arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, as well as the proliferation of extrajudicial executions with impunity in the Russian regions of the North Caucasus, and threatens those who dare to criticize it.

The G-20 governments have an obligation to respect and uphold international human rights standards to which the international community has adhered. If they don't, they will undermine their own credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness. Their goal is to find a way out of the global economic crisis, and they claim that their efforts will also benefit people living in poverty, but no economic recovery will be sustainable or equitable without paying special attention to human rights.

Those who decide the destinies of the world must lead by example. A good start for the G-20 members would be for them to clearly state that all human rights - economic, social and cultural, civil and political - are equally important. For a long time, the United States has denied the validity of economic and social rights and is not a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; at the other extreme, China is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Both countries must immediately adhere to the respective treaties. Likewise, all G-20 members have to ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2008. However, signing these international treaties is only one step. in what is to be done.

Nuevas oportunidades de cambio

La pobreza en el mundo, exacerbada por la coyuntura económica, ha propiciado la formación de una plataforma que reclama vivamente un cambio en los derechos humanos. Al mismo tiempo, la crisis económica ha alumbrado un cambio de paradigma que abre oportunidades a las transformaciones sistémicas.

«Los gobiernos deben invertir en derechos humanos con la misma determinación con la que invierten en crecimiento económico.»

En los últimos 20 años, el Estado se ha ido retirando o ha renunciado a sus obligaciones de derechos humanos en favor del mercado, creyendo que el crecimiento económico reflotaría cualquier barco. Ahora que la marea está bajando y las naves empiezan a hacer agua, los gobiernos están cambiando radicalmente sus posiciones y hablan de una nueva arquitectura económica mundial y de un sistema internacional de gobernanza en el que el Estado tiene más protagonismo. Este cambio ofrece la oportunidad de frenar también la retirada del Estado de la esfera social y de rediseñar un modelo de Estado más cercano a los derechos humanos que el que ha caracterizado la forma de hacer política de los últimos 20 años. Asimismo, deja la puerta abierta para replantearse por completo la función de las instituciones financieras internacionales en relación con el respeto, la protección y la realización de los derechos humanos, incluidos los económicos y sociales.

Los gobiernos deben invertir en derechos humanos con la misma determinación con la que invierten en crecimiento económico. Deben ampliar y apoyar las oportunidades en materia educativa y de salud; deben acabar con la discriminación; deben empoderar a las mujeres; deben fijar normas universales y sistemas eficaces para hacer rendir cuentas a las empresas por sus abusos contra los derechos humanos; y deben construir sociedades abiertas donde se respete el Estado de derecho, la cohesión social sea robusta, se erradique la corrupción y el gobierno rinda cuentas de sus actos. La crisis económica no puede servir de pretexto a los países más ricos para recortar su ayuda al desarrollo. La asistencia internacional es si cabe más importante ahora, durante el declive económico, para que los países más pobres puedan prestar los servicios básicos de salud, educación, salubridad y vivienda.

Asimismo, los gobiernos deben trabajar conjuntamente para resolver los conflictos sangrientos. Al estar todo interrelacionado, ignorar una crisis para concentrarse en otra es la receta perfecta para agravar las dos.

¿Aprovecharán los gobiernos estas oportunidades para fortalecer los derechos humanos? ¿Asumirán y cumplirán las empresas y las instituciones financieras internacionales sus responsabilidades en materia de derechos humanos? Hasta ahora, los derechos humanos apenas se han dejado ver en los diagnósticos y recetas propuestos por la comunidad internacional.

La Historia muestra que la mayoría de las luchas por lograr grandes cambios –como la abolición de la esclavitud o la emancipación de las mujeres– no comenzó a iniciativa de los Estados, sino por el empeño de personas de a pie. Los logros obtenidos en el establecimiento de un sistema internacional de justicia, en el control del comercio de armas, en la abolición de la pena de muerte, en la erradicación de la violencia contra las mujeres o en el protagonismo de la pobreza y el cambio climático en la agenda internacional se deben en gran medida a la energía, la creatividad y la perseverancia de millones de activistas en todo el mundo.

«Hoy «exigimos dignidad» también para los presos de la pobreza, para que puedan cambiar sus vidas.»

Debemos recurrir al poder de la gente para presionar a nuestros líderes políticos. Por eso, Amnistía Internacional, junto con numerosos socios locales, nacionales e internacionales, lanza en 2009 una nueva campaña. Con el lema «Exige Dignidad» movilizaremos a las personas para que pidan a los actores nacionales e internacionales que rindan cuentas por los abusos contra los derechos humanos que generan o agudizan la pobreza. Cuestionaremos leyes, políticas y prácticas discriminatorias y pediremos la adopción de medidas concretas para superar los factores que empobrecen y mantienen a las personas en la indigencia. Con el fin de erradicar la pobreza, llevaremos al centro del debate las voces de los más desfavorecidos e insistiremos en que se les permita participar activamente en las decisiones que les afectan.

Hace casi 50 años, Amnistía Internacional nació para pedir la liberación de los presos de conciencia. Hoy «exigimos dignidad» también para los presos de la pobreza, para que puedan cambiar sus vidas. Tengo la certeza de que, con la ayuda y el apoyo de nuestros millones de miembros, simpatizantes y entidades asociadas de todo el mundo, lo conseguiremos.

Irene Khan – Prólogo del Informe 2009 Amnistía Internacional.


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