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Vienna human rights conference echoes concerns on finance rules

Twenty years after the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights and its Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action were adopted, more than 140 civil society representatives from around the world gathered at Vienna to commemorate the occasion. The 2013 conference, convened under the theme “Strengthening the Human Rights Movement Globally: Vienna +20,” was held in Vienna on June 26-27, and agreed on an Outcome Document that was presented by civil society at a High Level Conference on Vienna +20 hosted in the same city by the Austrian government.

The 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights was groundbreaking in several respects. To a new generation of human rights advocates, it may be difficult to appreciate how many of the achievements that today are taken for granted were product of hard debate and negotiations that took place in the lead up to that historic gathering. One of them was overcoming the artificial divide that prevailed during the Cold War times between civil and political rights on the one hand and economic, social and cultural rights on the other. The Conference consecrated the principles of interdependence and indivisibility of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural, a characterization that has become commonly accepted today.

Just as the commemoration of Vienna + 20 allowed a look at the achievements of the conference playing over two decades, it allowed a look at the changes in the world and debate on the responses they merit. Noticeably, the concerns that groups such as RightingFinance have been voicing about the role that financial regulation and macroeconomic policies play in the respect, protection and fulfillment of rights are echoed and broadly supported in the Outcome Document approved by the participants. The Outcome Document states that “When governments choose to service financial debts over social ones, and when financial regulation is in the interest of finance rather than people, the most marginalized suffer, while those who profited from financial speculation enjoy impunity.”

Since economic policies are an exercise of state power, it is logical to infer that “human rights norms and standards must guide all stages of the design, implementation and monitoring of national and global economic policies.”

Adding its voice to the growing chorus of human rights criticisms of contractionary economic policies (“austerity”) as a response to fiscal and debt crises, the document asserts that “counter-cyclical, rather than pro-cyclical, macroeconomic policies – subject to ex ante and ex post facto human rights impact assessments – have been the best safeguard against disproportionate human rights backsliding in changing economic conditions.” It also reminds governments of the duty of States to use any tools – including budget, tax, monetary, deficit financing, debt resolution and financial regulation—to maximize all available resources to fully realize economic and social rights.

The Vienna + 20 Outcome also incorporates advances in the development of extraterritorial obligations on human rights. The document decries that “The approach of limiting human rights obligations territorially has led to substantial gaps in human rights protection that have become more severe in the context of globalization over the past 20 years.”

Extraterritorial human rights obligations are not new. They were already a feature of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, according to which every individual “is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”

But legal and scholarly efforts to better define the contours of these obligations have received special impulse in the last decade. In fact, a number of UN Special Rapporteurs upheld the extraterritoriality of human rights obligations from the vantage point of their different mandates, lending their support to guidelines on the subject that had been produced by leading experts in 2011.

Among other things, the Outcome says that States are obliged to shape, regulate and tax any cross-border financial flows in rights-realizing ways” and “ensure that universal human rights standards . . . take primacy over trade, investment, debt, tax or finance commitments.” Since many of the fiscal and monetary measures that States could take are conditioned on the international monetary system, it is good that the document also makes reform of the international monetary system part and parcel of the obligations of cooperation for the protection of human rights that all States hold.

The Outcome also provides useful insights into the limitations of the current system to treat human rights abuses by companies with a transnational presence. The demand for States to develop a new international legal body complementary to national jurisdictions was, barely a few weeks after the conference, picked up by a coalition of more than 80 governments that tabled it as a proposal before the Human Rights Council.

The risk of inadequate financial regulation undermining enjoyment of human rights is raised in the Outcome Document: “Human rights-centered financial regulation is essential to protect the public, especially the most marginalized, from financial sector abuses and the threat of global financial systemic collapse which gave pretext for austerity. . . .  This implies restoring the public role in effectively regulation financial markets and banking system.”

Recognizing the key connection between the budget shortfalls that are affecting governments in the post-crisis period and the unexpected bailouts of financial firms that were justified as a necessity during the 2008 Great Recession, the document calls for firewalls “to prevent any resolution of failing financial institutions from relying on public funding.” It also says that “Governments must ensure that no one is above the law by breaking up “too-big-to-fail/jail” financial institutions…”

At the same time, the document also made justice to the uneven weight that different States have on the mechanisms that could control financial flows by mentioning that “States with greater capacities in global economic policy-making have greater responsibilities to protect human rights.”

Another important issue, in line with the indivisibility of human rights, is the important role of civil and political rights for human rights-based in finance that the document acknowledges: “People’s rights of transparency, access to information and participation must be embedded in how economic policies are formulated, decisions are made and policies implemented.” Indeed, nothing better to drive home the concept of indivisibility of rights than the practical difficulties faced by vulnerable and discriminated groups trying to demand inclusion in financial policy-making processes. Shrouded by the alleged “technical” nature of such processes, the limited participation in them serves often as a ploy functional to the interests of small minorities that enjoy the economic benefits of the chosen policies.

The 2013 Outcome Document, like its 1993 predecessor, is full of notions that, while not a departure from human rights principles, develop them in light of new realities. Even if not the product of governments, the document can be predicted to have an equally bright future as a tool for a new generation of human rights advocates.

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