The human rights framework, a major instrument for accountability, is under attack
1. The UN is explicitly an intergovernmental body; if UN member states do not like human rights (HR) and accountability, then the UN does not either.*
*: It is no coincidence that the Human Rights Council (HRC) receives only 3% of the UN’s budget, less than the UN library. Moreover, within the HRC powerful members like the US, Europe and Commonwealth countries consider only political rights, not economic, social and cultural rights.
2. Furthermore, regrettably, a move towards voluntary guidelines is underway throughout the UN. These lead to there being practically no HR influence in the SDGs which, if one really looks dispassionately, talk of ‘following-up’ rather than monitoring for accountability.** (Hilal Elver)
**: Accountability is to be thought-of in terms of answerability, but also of enforceability through mechanisms of redress and sanctions. The process of participation-in-accountability we often find is said to be open, but then participation is set up in a highly technocratic way so that the space for true contestation by claim holders is, in reality, reduced. (Peter Newall)
3. Given both the above, General Comments of the United Nations’ Human Rights Treaty Bodies have attempted to add flesh to the bare bones of HR treaty provisions.*** (Paul Hunt) A ‘beginning has thus been made’ to provide treaty provisions with detailed normative and operational content. (Hurrington and Stuttaford) But beware, trade-offs and deeply contextualized political realities necessarily enter the equation in this. (Alicia Yamin)
***: Using General Comments in their assessments of Periodic Country Reviews, specialized UN HR Committees produce ‘Concluding Observations’ that are not binding, therefore making it tough to demand accountability (not to mention the fact that many States are overdue in reporting, including some States that have never reported).
The UN Special Rapporteur on Poverty proposes a framework for ensuring that economic, social and cultural rights are recognized and implemented
The framework he proposes is centered around securing Recognition, Institutionalization and Accountability (RIA). (Philip Alston)
4. The Special Rapporteur makes the point of the importance of treating economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) straightforward as HR, rather than as ‘desirable goals’, ‘development challenges’ or ‘social justice’ concerns. He strongly justifies this since, ESCR specifically:
– focus our attention on the rights of individuals;
– direct policymakers to the internationally agreed HR standards, jurisprudence and accountability principles;
– introduce the needed element of immediacy;
– recognize and insist on dignity and meaningful participation of all individuals and;
– are intentionally empowering.
5. He goes on to state that consequences of neglecting ESCR include:
– the undermining of indivisibility;
– the fracturing of the hard-fought ideological and political compromise reflected in the Universal Declaration of HR;
– diminishing the prospects for eliminating extreme poverty and extreme inequality;
– producing conditions conducive to violent extremism; and
– eroding the legitimacy and credibility of the HR enterprise, particularly in the eyes of the billions of people whose fundamental needs continue to be of only minor relevance to the core HR agenda’. (P. Alston)
Is the idea of accountability in danger of being coopted, instrumentalized and emptied of political meaning?
6. Evidence exists that it is. Accountability has become a part of the comfortable discourse of ‘good governance’. One finds talk about accountability everywhere in multistakeholder processes, but with no reference to grassroots democracy. Responsibility for the enforcement of accountability has been shifted onto the shoulders of public interest civil society and social movements acting as watchdogs –however, without providing them with adequate resources and political space and clout. [The essential starting point is indeed to ensure that those rendered poor are made visible and, by one means or another, attain a space to speak and to have influence. (Paul Hunt)] The challenge thus is: Should this watchdog function be forcefully reclaimed?****
****: Social movements are indeed where change has to begin, because they affect the narrative directly and they are directly affected by the dysfunctionalities and injustices of the current system. Some feel this question is related to the need to actually resist a ‘broader’ program that replaces struggling-for-rights-and-empowerment with vaguer struggles based on ‘dignity’. In this context, the idea of accountability can and should be re-politicized by asking on all occasions ‘accountability by whom, for whom, for what purpose’? So, how is this to be done? Start with the claim holders. Find ways to support their struggles against dispossession and oppression and ways to defend the solutions they are coming up with. Social participation and control, especially by those who are living the problem, is the basis of accountability. (ESCR-Net)
We thus need a program and a way of organizing ourselves around the needed structural changes
7. La Via Campesina programs for land reform and for taking agriculture out of the free-trade context, seems to me to be really an excellent case study to look at and eventually to follow. The point the HR movement has to learn from them is that we have to better organize, to make our movements stronger and to learn to act together to demand accountability. I very much hope we will go that route. As is true for us in the HR movement, La Via Campesina is a movement that is aligned and networked, aiming at creating a post-capitalist world. But it would be an illusion, I think, to believe that our HR movement has gone far enough to be reaching the edge of ‘post-capitalism’ –much less doing so under the constraints of the still current capitalist domination. La Via Campesina is all about the creation of a new transformed productive system that works for farmers and consumers without extractive intermediaries –very much a HR objective. They, as we HR activists, are not about capitalist accommodation. (Francine Mestrum)
Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
– Should somebody who is not fully versed on social and economic issues voice an opinion about HR? For a number of reasons, I think that the answer is yes. We should not assume that experts are the only ones that have the rights to express themselves on issues that affect how society is organized. (Albert Einstein)
– I do come to the conclusion though that some people are so wedded to certain unrealistic ideas of human justice and rights that they cannot make concessions to necessities of any kind. They say: “This self-styled-equal-rights-based-democracy has aims and objectives that are simply not mine”. (These people, you actually do not want to do violence to –you just feel like smearing their faces…). (Philip Roth) This de-facto marginalization from HR we see is evident also in these people’s general assumption that economic, social and cultural rights are synonymous with development and poverty alleviation and need no special, separate addressing. Yet, as we by now well know, this is not necessarily the case: development initiatives can be non-rights promoting or protecting. (Philip Alston)
– When these same people’s beliefs are challenged, most hold onto them as though these are a life-vest on a sinking ship. The problem is that oftentimes their beliefs are the sinking ship. No one can decide what is right for you but you. What they ought to be going for is questioning some of the deep assumptions about their beliefs and ideology (and about HR…). They need to develop the ability to see that ‘other side’. And those few occasions when it does appear more likely and more valid, hop-on over. The fact that you are asking some guy or gal on the internet (or looking for it in a book or something) is itself part of the problem –you are looking to know what others think before acting. Lesson: Your ability to succeed and learn over the long-term is directly proportional to your ability to change what you believe in response to your ignorance and mistakes. (Mark Manson)
– One of the problems clearly is that many self-proclaimed development experts/advocates do not work with a rigorous enough perspective that searches for clarity and shared meanings, but instead start from a strong belief in the correctness of their views. They firmly believe they have the alternative for the future and once you start questioning these beliefs, they retract as if their personal integrity were threatened. Hence, what I very often feel to be a fear to even start a meaningful debate. (F. Mestrum)