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Should human rights obligations affect macroeconomic policy-making?

At a seminar held earlier this year at the UN Headquarters in New York, the United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, Mr. Ivan Simonovic, called for “progressive and human rights-sensitive macroeconomic policies that give all persons equal opportunities for development.” Mr. Simonovic was making his remarks at the seminar “Rights in Crisis,” convened by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in collaboration with the Center of Concern. The event was attended by human rights and economic experts, academics, staff of intergovernmental organizations and delegates of UN member countries.

Precisely what “human rights-sensitive” macroeconomic policies means was discussed by panel participants at the same seminar.

Atieno Ndomo, of the Millennium Campaign, addressed the example of Kenya. The country has adopted a very progressive constitution that includes an expanded bill of rights, with an elaborate affirmation of socio-economic rights and institutional mechanisms to deliver constitutional promises. The constitution goes as far as entrenching principles of equitable public finance management and equitable distribution of public finance allocations.

But Kenya’s macro-economic policy, she argued, was at cross-purpose with the human rights-oriented constitution. Among the key aspects of such policies she mentioned inflation targeting, which undermines ability to address social crisis and makes human development vulnerable to cut backs. Financing targets embedded in taxation are highly regressive, with a main focus on wage taxes while a limited one on corporate profits. Insufficient financial sector regulation and a commitment to capital account liberalization lead to attraction of short-term flows that make the economy vulnerable to sudden outflows and episodes of currency depreciation.  This situation in turn forces the need to borrow from the International Monetary Fund, which comes with conditions that further strangle the economy.

Radhika Balakrishnan, of Center for Women’s Global Leadership, cited the obligation to mobilize maximum available resources for the realization of human rights. This means that governments cannot ignore human rights obligations on the grounds of lack of resources, but rather must show that they are making the maximum use of available resources to realize human rights. She grouped the instruments that governments have at their disposal to increase resources for the fulfillment of economic and social rights in five categories: government expenditure, government revenue; development assistance; debt and deficit financing and monetary policy and financial regulation.

In her presentation, Marina Durano, of the University of Philippines, argued that macroeconomic policy makers, most prominently central monetary authorities, finance and budget ministers, and planning ministers, should be held responsible for the fulfillment of human rights commitments as they are part of the structure of the State –identified as the duty-bearer in human rights legal instruments. However, when it comes to monetary authorities, such as Central Banks, they may claim the need to be independent from the political process.

According to Ms. Durano, there is a need to reconcile such authorities’ claim of independence with human rights obligation. For this purpose, the concept of imperfect obligations, coined by economist Amartya Sen, might be helpful. In Sen’s view, “when viewed as ethical demands, rather than the narrower interpretation of human rights as legal instruments, the potential for fulfillment are more broadly shared across society; that is, that perfect obligations are not only specified (typically through legal means) but imperfect obligations come into play as it becomes necessary to also ask how each member of society and its multitude of organizations and institutions can contribute to pursuing the freedoms being sought.” Imperfect obligations “involve the demand that serious consideration be given by anyone in a position to provide reasonable help to the person whose human right is threatened the State.” So Ms. Durano argued that, under these parameters, even if a perfect obligation on the head of monetary authorities was denied, it was hard to deny the existence of an imperfect one.

Read more information on this event, including full agenda and papers.


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August 2018
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