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Collective action by States fails to pass human rights audit, new publication argues

Consistent with the Millennium Declaration’s recognition that all States “have a collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level,” Millennium Development Goal 8 (“MDG 8” or “Goal 8”) contains a number of specific commitments on the sort of international cooperation required on areas such as aid, trade and debt.

But how much did MDG 8 respond to human rights imperatives and how far did its implementation go in promoting human rights? What historical and legal trends were the backdrop to MDG 8 and what hope can we bear for the future as the international community evaluates a potentially new generation of development goals?

A chapter Mac Darrow and I co-authored for a book recently published by Cambridge University Press tries to provide answers to these questions. The book, “The Millennium Development Goals and Human Rights: Past, Present and Future,” was edited by Malcolm Langford, of the University of Oslo, Andy Sumner, at University of Sussex and Alicia Ely Yamin, at Harvard University.

Inter-governmental debates on obligations of international assistance and cooperation under international human rights law have long been fractious and polarised, echoing post-colonialist justice claims and the ‘New International Economic Order’ debates of the 1970s. These debates have been reincarnated and re-oxygenated by continuing democratic deficits in global economic and security governance; adverse impacts of the global financial crisis in many poorer countries; great power exceptionalism and associated threats to multilateralism; and clashing foreign policy, security, trade, and climate change interests, among many other factors.

In spite of that, our chapter argues, the human rights framework supports, in several respects, the idea of an international ‘compact’ under which resource-constrained countries with a demonstrated commitment to internationally agreed development goals should be able to rely upon international support from richer countries towards those ends.

Looking, however, at the concrete content of MDG 8 from a human rights perspective yields some troubling results.

For starters, there are specific challenges in applying a human rights assessment to MDG 8 when compared to MDGs 1-7. In applying a human rights approach to MDGs 1–7, the essence of the undertaking is to improve the human rights compatibility of goals that, in broad terms, resonate quite strongly with existing human rights standards. For instance one may note, from a human rights perspective, the incompleteness of the targets for MDG 2 (on education) in failing to include human rights requirements that (universal) primary education be free, compulsory, and of a certain quality. But surely nobody would deny that, in principle, ensuring that boys and girls have completed primary education goes in the direction of human rights legal requirements, even if not as far.

In contrast, when it comes to MDG 8, most of the targets appear human-rights–neutral, with the probable exception of Target 8.E (ensuring affordable access to essential drugs on a sustainable basis). In other words, meeting the relevant target might in practice either promote or frustrate legally binding obligations under human rights instruments. Whether we think about aid volume or effectiveness, debt relief, or enhanced market access, there are a raft of factors that will determine whether the achievement of the target in question will likely support or impede the realisation of human rights. As a result, additional levels of analysis are necessary to sustain conclusions about human rights compatibility.

Analyses of the aid-related dimensions in MDG 8 reveal the well-known and oft-repeated lack of achievement of pledges by donor countries to raise ODA to certain targets (even though in absolute terms, ODA has been rising since 2002). But our chapter queries more profoundly the quality aspects of ODA, especially the developments in the last decade regarding the agenda on aid effectiveness. From a human rights perspective, the principles on aid effectiveness embodied in the Paris Declaration such as ownership, alignment or harmonization, presented opportunities but also tensions and risk factors. Building on country case studies, we discuss how it was some of these risks and tensions actually materialized in the implementation of the agenda.

Donors generally took debt relief targets of MDG 8 to require fulfilling commitments on the provision of debt relief through the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative and, later on, its expansion through the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative, as well as the implementation of the Debt Sustainability Framework for Low Income Countries, launched by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in 2005. From this standpoint, one could say there were remarkable achievements.

But a further examination of issues of debt relief and sustainability shows a less satisfying picture. There was a disjunction between human rights (or even Millennium Development Goals) financing needs and the granted debt relief, disjunction widened with the impacts of the global financial crisis in 2008-09. Perversely and paradoxically, the Debt Sustainability Framework, set in motion by the Bretton Woods Institutions since 2005 to avoid overindebtedness, severely curbed the potential for debt policy to operate as a tool for debtor countries to fulfill their human rights commitments associated with the MDGs. Our analysis in the book remains an understatement of the ensuing problems as it did not cover most recent relaxations of the Debt Sustainability framework that have allowed countries to carry and repay growing levels of debt while still being termed not “at risk.”

According to our analysis, also, the lack of a rules-based framework for dealing on a systematic basis with not only existing sovereign debt issues but also those that the future may bring, remains a glaring omission. Because of this, the “comprehensive, sustainable, and long-term solution to the debt problems of developing countries” promised in MDG 8 remains elusive.

The trade components of MDG 8 are mostly framed as progress in market access and subsidy reduction. Assessing the status of unilateral trade preferences, and bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations, we argue that there are less than straightforward links between those measures, on the one hand, and the achievement of the MDGs, let alone human rights, on the other.

From a human rights perspective, trade policies that come to be embedded in binding trade rules are a bigger concern. This is because oftentimes the agreed rules are the result of negotiations between countries with highly asymmetrical capacities and bargaining powers. The pitfalls of trade policies may not be learned but in the course of implementation and impact assessment. Thus, flexibility for modifying or even rolling them back as required on the basis of learning is needed. And, yet, it is very rare that trade rules, once adopted, are revisited. Clear example of this is the poor performance of inbuilt mechanisms for impact assessments of trade rules in the WTO. But institutionalized, inbuilt mechanisms to perform assessments of such agreements from a human rights perspective are lacking altogether, even though methodologies to do so have continued to evolve, and impact assessments carried out by different groups offer strong evidence that trade and investment rules may have significant adverse human rights impacts.

Last September all countries agreed on a roadmap towards the adoption of development goals in 2015. In the context of that process, the enormous gaps between development commitments and results, and the inability of many people to emerge from poverty without international assistance, have led to renewed calls for more effective and sustained international cooperation. Many of the problems with the current sorry state of implementation of Goal 8 could be addressed if its successor is in close alignment with the international human rights framework.

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February 2017
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