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Human rights hopes frustrated at Addis Ababa financing summit

On July 16th, governments adopted the Outcome of the Third Conference on Financing for Development, held in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), called the “Action Ababa Action Agenda” (AAAA or the “Outcome”).

The broad-based disappointment of civil society with an outcome document that has very little to welcome was evident in statement after statement, including the collective one issued by the hundreds of CSOs in the Financing for Development Group. A number of process failures – that some delegates confessed to have never seen in a UN process before — converged to reach the poor outcome.

Analyzing the outcome from the standpoint of human rights principles, the balance is not different. It is true that, out of all the FFD Conferences, this Third one takes the distinction of being the one making the highest number of references to human rights. But it also has the dubious distinction of having done the least to uphold them, sadly demonstrating once again that quantity does not equal quality.

In several reports, RightingFinance had stated that the litmus test for a human rights approach to the post-2015 development agenda would be whether it took a human rights approach also to its means of financing. In a report four months ago analyzing the Zero Draft for negotiations leading to the Addis Ababa conference, RightingFinance had welcomed the human rights references the document contained. But it warned, already at that early stage, that without significant further work on the core chapters, rhetorical references to human rights would be frustrated.

Nowhere is the failure to achieve this best characterized than in the response released by the Women’s Working Group on Financing for Development:

“The AAAA might leave the impression to some that it is strong on gender equality, women’s empowerment and women’s rights. However, while the AAAA, importantly notes in the first paragraph a commitment to respect all human rights, including the right to development, and that member states will ensure gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment, it lacks an integrated, consistent and explicit human rights based approach.”

The last proposal on which countries unsuccessfully tried to reach agreement in Addis Ababa exemplifies this contradiction between human rights aspirations and the means required to achieve them. The proposal advocated establishing a global body where developing countries could participate in the decision-making on international tax cooperation matters that today stays in the hands of a club of rich countries. A clear consensus is emerging about the central place an increased mobilization of tax revenue holds in a human rights approach to financing development. But mobilizing such revenue is not possible without more democratic and accountable practices in setting norms that govern international cooperation on tax matters. Moreover, individual countries’ attempts to broaden the tax base without systemic reforms to key principles in international tax cooperation could lead to outcomes counterproductive for human rights. For instance, this would be the case when expanding the tax base by increasing the proportion of taxes paid by the poorest.

But this is not the only area in which the AAAA ultimately dropped important proposals that could have, in their different ways, made human rights rhetoric operative.

Discussing trade and investment treaties, the AAAA dropped proposals to address the contradictions between such agreements and their dispute settlement clauses with human rights commitments. The final text settles for a weaker reference: “The goal of protecting and encouraging investment should not affect our ability to pursue public policy objectives. We will endeavour to craft trade and investment agreements with appropriate safeguards so as not to constrain domestic policies and regulation in the public interest.”

On debt, the AAAA refuses to even a cursory mention of the Guiding Principles on Foreign Debt and Human Rights, adopted by the Human Rights Council in 2011, or a any commitment to link debt sustainability assessments to countries’ needs to finance their human rights obligations. It is worth noting that the Monterrey Consensus had at least established a link between debt sustainability and Millennium Development Goals.

A cross-cutting concern is the AAAA’s strong optimism on the role of the private sector, without evidence to back it up and without parallel recognition of the role of the State and commitments to regulate to protect human rights and the environment. A reference to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – although coming in the context of voluntary initiatives – is a welcome one in this regard, but there was no similar recognition of the ongoing work to develop binding rules on transnational corporations and human rights. The Outcome dropped important safeguards that would have helped make Public-Private Partnerships and blended finance – a trendy modality that consists of using aid as an incentive to attract private sector funding to a project –more consistent with human rights principles. Requirements that Public-Private Partnerships should be transparent, provide affordable infrastructure services and safeguard fiscal resources of the State, did not survive in the document finally adopted.

The AAAA seems to make a positive contribution to operationalizing human rights in regards to safeguards for international financial institutions where it welcomes “efforts by new development banks to develop safeguard systems in open consultation with stakeholders on the basis of established international standards,” and “encourage[s] all development banks to establish or maintain social and environmental safeguards systems, including on human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment.” Yet, even this agreement comes with the qualification that safeguards should be, among other things, “efficient, and time-sensitive,” which in light of the history of the deliberations is clearly intended to weaken them.

It is possible that civil society expectations from the conference set the bar too high. But, then, a comparison with previous FFD conference commitments should make the AAAA look better. This is not the case. As mentioned in the CSO final press conference in Addis Ababa, for more than 20 areas the AAAA’s language represents a retrogression over commitments from the Monterrey Consensus (2002) and the Doha FFD Review (2008). Sadly, some of those are also highly relevant to human rights. Such is the case of the strong language on inequality, and on the link between macroeconomic policies and poverty reduction, present in Monterrey and Doha and absent now.

Such is the case, too, for the references to universal access to services. This is in stark contradiction to the UN Secretary General’s statement that the AAAA launches a new social compact to deliver social protection and essential public services for all. Actually, a commitment to universal access to social infrastructure and inclusive social services was already part of the Doha FFD Review. The AAAA weakens such pre-existing commitment by qualifying it as applicable when “nationally appropriate” and “fiscally sustainable” –this latter an expression typically associated to the calls to impose user fees on services or just cut them. Moreover, there were no new resources committed for this purpose as attempts to have a global fund for such priorities were resisted and ultimately defeated by Northern countries’ opposition.

There are silver linings. One is the action of a growing and vibrant civil society. CSOs did succeed in swaying public opinion and the way many governments approached the issues on the agenda, including the intergovernmental tax body. In fact, the key battle-lines were drawn around the key issues civil society decided to prioritize. Had the process facilitated a balanced representation of the voices of all countries, civil society influence would have been more felt in the Outcome, too.

Also, the FFD follow up process, historically crippled to ensure it lacked any teeth, has been improved (by the way, also thanks to a strong civil society advocacy). A Financing for Development Forum will have to now meet every year, to produce a negotiated outcome on the implementation of FFD. The AAAA commitments do not replace, but only add to those from Monterrey and Doha. All of them together can be seen as part of a financing for development compact that will be the subject-matter of such follow up process. With that, the small window at the UN for a normative assessment and development on international financial policy issues, and their coherence with its existing framework of human rights, sustainable development, and other values, continues. So does the struggle.


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