Constructing a Global History of Human Rights and Development

The history of global human rights has been, as Joseph Slaughter puts it: “hijacked” by Euro-American narratives (Slaughter, 2018). It has been claimed, through history books and the institutional memory of bodies such as the United Nations or Amnesty International, that human rights can be traced back to documents such as the Magna Carta, that they were intellectually developed and promoted globally through the ages of Enlightenment and Imperialism, and that they were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

Even in recent decades, attempts to frame and conceptualise the latest milestone of human rights, which took place at the height of globalisation in the 1970s, was a Western ‘revival’ or ‘rediscovery’ of human rights as a transnational tool through which states could be held accountable for their violation of rights. Crucial reference points for scholars today include the so-called ‘Human Rights Utopia’ of the 1970s (see Moyn, 2010) or the development of ‘New’ Human Rights two decades later (see Nelson & Dorsey, 2008). To reconstruct the past, scholars often seek changes in the discourse of global institutions; they analyse the most widely reported human rights movements; they call upon the emergence and establishment of organisations such as Amnesty International; they run keyword searches of major international newspapers; and they look to the political discourse of major global players, all of which are largely based in the Global North.

No wonder, then, that the major turning point of the transnational human rights movement is so precisely associated with the year of 1977, when Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize and US President Jimmy Carter incorporated human rights into the country’s foreign policy. The so-called utopia that was set forth during this transformative moment in history was that human rights came to represent an alternative to anti-establishment movements against US imperialism and consumerism. It also represented an alternative to socialist states, which for many of the Left was proving to be a disappointing avenue for meaningful change. A transnational social movement of solidarity was also imagined as the key to holding states accountable for the human rights violations of their own citizens.

The result of this revisionist history is not only an incomplete picture, but what Walden Bello calls “the [structural] resubordination of the [Global] South within a US-dominated global economy” (Bello, 1994 cited in Slaughter, 2018). As the agency of Global South-identifying actors is denied, so is their role in shaping what today are known as rights of self-determination, sustainable development, peace, minority, and rights to natural resources and the environment, among other things.

Yet there exists an alternative history to human rights that has been obscured through attempts to narrate the past. This history has been prevented from entering the debate, I would argue, for three key reasons: first, dominant historical narratives emphasise actors and institutions of the Global North as the leading protagonists in the process of the construction of human rights. Second, and as a result of the first, methodological approaches have been limited by what is perceived as the spaces within and through which concepts and practices of human rights are constructed and diffused globally. Third, potential alternative sources of ideas surrounding human rights and their global diffusion are and have almost always been brushed aside as anything but potential sources of human rights: they have been labelled as socialist, anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, and even terrorist, none of which could possibly be compatible with human rights.

But the issue does not stop at asking the right questions. The problem cannot be solved simply by asking whether and if so what Global South actors and organisations contributed to human rights norms, concepts, and practices, but also how they did so. And this requires returning to the drawing board methodologically. If potential contributions do not take place within dominant institutions, state-to-state dialogue, and major international organisations, then we need to look beyond these spheres for our evidence.

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International support for the least developed countries: moving out of the mainstream

Next January the next United Nations Programme of Action for least developed countries (LDCs) will launch in Doha. It will set the framework for the next 10 years of international support for the world’s 46 officially poorest and most structurally disadvantaged countries, home to around a billion people.  

LDCs are low-income countries confronting severe structural impediments to sustainable development. Membership of the category is based on three criteria: income per capita, human assets and economic and environmental vulnerability.  

Assistance for LDCs currently falls under three categories: trade, aid and a range of ad hoc measures broadly aimed at help with taking part in the international system, such as lower contributions to the UN budget and support for travel to international meetings like the annual UN General Assembly.  

Support is largely based on the premise that LDCs are artificially or temporarily excluded from global commerce. Preferential market access, temporary development assistance and help with participating in multilateral processes are intended to tackle this defect, in turn helping the LDCs ‘catch up’.  

Dating to 1971, the category is the only one recognised in UN and multilateral legal texts. There is no official ‘developing country’ or ‘middle income’ category with associated support measures. Low income countries are not specifically targeted, and the small and vulnerable states are only recognised as a working group at the World Trade Organisation. They are not acknowledged in the legal texts. 

Although donors don’t meet aid pledges and support doesn’t go far enough, official targets are possible because the LDC group is officially recognised in the UN system and has legal bearing. An example of such a target is the commitment by developed countries to deliver 0.15-0.20% of gross national income (GNI) in development assistance to LDCs. The European Union offers duty-free, quota-free market access to LDC exports under its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme for LDCs. 

The theory behind support for LDCs is implicitly based on the mainstream economics view that LDCs lag behind because they aren’t exposed enough to correct market prices and conditions. The removal of so-called distortions like overseas tariff and non-tariff barriers, alongside temporary development assistance and help taking part in the global system, is supposed to free up these economies to play a fuller role in the international economy. Economic growth will drive development and reduce poverty. 

The evidence shows that for most LDCs this theory never worked. Until the pandemic the economies of some LDCs were performing well. Up to 12 could leave the category in coming years. A few, like Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar, were able to take advantage of lower tariffs for their garment exports. These three countries account for 87% of imports to the EU under EBA.  

But half were supposed to meet the criteria by 2020, according to international targets. 12 graduations falls well short. The six that have left since the formation of the category in 1971 have not all done so because of better international market access or special support measures. Commodity exports, tourism or improved health and education are mostly responsible.  

The remaining LDCs aren’t catching up. The gap is widening. The pandemic devastated the group. Gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 1.3% on average in 2020, with the economies of 37 contracting during the year and extreme poverty in the group rising by a staggering 84 million. But even before Covid, average real GDP per capita for the group had long diverged from other developing countries and the rest of the world.  

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Debt Moratoria in the Global South in the Age of Coronavirus

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Official calls are mounting. On March 23, African Finance Ministers met virtually to discuss their efforts on the social and economic impacts of COVID-19. Amidst a broad recognition of chronic financing gaps to meet development and climate objectives, they called for a moratorium on all debt interest payments, including the potential for principal payments for fragile states. The United Nations General Secretary addressed the G20 emergency meeting conference call on COVID-19. Along with calls for medical and protective equipment, the need to prioritise debt restructuring was stressed, “including immediate waivers on interest payments for 2020”. The World Bank President addressed the emergency G20 Finance Ministers encouraging bilateral IDA relief without missing the opportunity to plug for structural reforms. 

The G20 statement replete with grand aspirations, but no timeframe specified to fulfil them, was vague in respect to debt issues and far short of what is needed: “We will continue to address risks of debt vulnerabilities in low-income countries due to the pandemic.” Hardly commensurate to the alarm bells that have been ringing loudly and repeatedly over the past five years of growing debt difficulties in a number of countries. Read More »

Advocates of the SDGs have a monetarism problem

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UN Secretariat Headquarters, New York. UN Photo.

More expansionary fiscal and monetary policies are needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals

This month, the international community will gather at the United Nations in New York to review progress on the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are intended to reduce poverty, hunger and economic inequality and promote development, particularly in developing countries. But only one of the SDGs, #17, says anything about how to finance all the efforts. While SDG 17 calls for more international cooperation and foreign aid, it only suggests that developing countries strengthen domestic resource mobilization (DRM) by improving their tax collection and curtailing illicit financial flows, etc.

While important, this approach neglects much bigger problems with the prevailing set of macroeconomic policies that hamper the ability of developing countries to increase public investment, employment and scale-up the long-term investments in the underlying health and education infrastructure needed to achieve the SDGs. The policy framework used in many developing countries is characterized by an overly restrictive low-inflation target achieved by using high interest rates and backed up by strict inflation targeting regimes at independent central banks.Read More »

From Addis to Davos: International Development Finance gets Conspicuous

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The theme of the 2018 World Economic Forum was, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” Its six richest attendees each boasted an estimated net worth of $5.2 billion or more, or the same amount as the total burden of Somalia’s outstanding debt, which, amid the splendor of the event, Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre  met with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde to discuss clearing. In this era of extreme global inequality, it is estimated that the United Nations agenda of seventeen sustainable development goals (SDGs) known as Agenda 2030, will require 4.5 trillion dollars of investment per year to be realized, or more than twice the amount expected to be available from traditional official development assistance (ODA) alone. Due to the increasing concentration of private wealth in the global economy, discussions around development finance have focused on private sector engagement, rather than more traditional, ODA from predominantly Western donor governments and multilateral institutions.Read More »

A Soft Law Mechanism for Sovereign Debt Restructuring

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By Martin Guzman and Joseph E. Stiglitz

The ultimate goal of sovereign debt restructuring is to restore the sustainability of public debt with high probability[1]. But this is not happening. Since 1970, more than half of the restructuring episodes with private creditors were followed by another restructuring or default within five years[2] — evidence inconsistent with any sensible definition of “restoration of sustainability of public debt with a high probability.” This evidence suggests that relief for distressed debtors is often insufficient for achieving the main goal of a restructuring, delaying the recovery from recessions or depressions, with large negative social consequences.[3]

The lack of a statutory regime for dealing with distressed sovereign debt makes sovereign debt crises resolution a complex process — marked by inefficiencies and inequities that take multiple forms[4]. The current non-system is characterized by bargaining based on decentralized and non-binding market-based instruments centered on collective action clauses and competing codes of conduct. The IMF often plays the role of the facilitator in this process of bargaining between a distressed debtor and its creditors.[5] But it has not always been successful in ensuring that restructuring needs are addressed in a timely way — indeed, it has often failed; and as we have already noted, even when restructuring processes have ultimately been carried out, they have often not been deep enough.[6]Read More »

UN report on access to medicines is an opportunity for sustainable solutions

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September’s UN special session on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) was a vivid reminder of the shared responsibility of governments to promote research and development (R&D) combat global health threats. The complexity of the AMR threat made clear that a combination of market forces, policy incentives, and regulation, as well as norms and standards was needed to ensure innovation that would deliver accessible and affordable treatments.

The report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines offers an important opportunity for national governments, UN organizations, philanthropies, civil society, and pharmaceutical manufacturers to move forwards and address this challenge. AMR is just the latest global health priority that cannot be resolved with the current incentive system for investing in medical R&D. AMR threatens to render a whole range of treatments ineffective and reverse 20th century advances in medicine. Numerous other health priorities are neglected because they do not present a business potential for investment, and millions of people lack access to medicines and treatments that are priced out of reach.

In a world of unprecedented medical advances, these unmet needs present a moral dilemma, and one of the most critical challenges for humanity. The Panel, on which I had the privilege to serve, makes a number of concrete proposals to promote needs-driven R&D financing and to expand access to medicines for people in need. As a whole, the report makes short-term and long-term recommendations towards introducing more systematic and sustainable approaches to meeting unmet needs in innovation and access.

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Human rights are not losing traction in the global South

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An indigenous Filipino woman sells bracelets. Source: Flickr/Andy Enero

Stephen Hopgood’s The Endtimes of Human Rights and Eric Posner’s The Twilight of Human Rights Law have set off an important debate about whether human rights have run out of steam as a force for human progress. Other commentators such as Sam Moyn have argued that human rights no longer have the power to mobilize international condemnation and moral pressure against totalitarian regimes. Posner argues, for example, that the rapid expansion in the ratification of human rights treaties since the 1990s has had no impact on the respect for human rights. Further, since the end of colonization, human rights movements such as the right to self-determination, the civil rights act in the US, and overall equality in the US have run out of steam.

On closer reading and reflection, these arguments tell a very partial story about human rights.  They are limited to human rights as civil and political rights to end brutal authoritarian rule, as law in international treaties to be enforced by the UN human rights system, and as a mission of international institutions embodied in international treaties and bodies, both inter-governmental and non-governmental.  Indeed, these opinions reflect a view of human rights as a civilizing mission of the Western world by the use of law and political power—a vision of the dominant human rights scholars and organizations.

Yet there are other ways of understanding the process of human rights progress. As Michael Ignatieff forcefully argued at a recent conference at Kings College, human rights is not about international law but about politics: “moral politics expressed as or clothed in law”. And the politics is not just about foreign policy goals of powerful states.Read More »