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G20: The summit must not forget human rights

The global economic crisis is worsening human rights abuses – while distracting world leaders from addressing them

Published in: Guardian Unlimited

Turmoil tends to be bad for human rights, and the current global economic crisis is no exception. The consequences are not just the obvious ones - more poverty, setbacks in education and healthcare, further marginalisation of the downtrodden, backsliding in economic development. The response of governments also risks intensified human rights abuse. As the world's leading economic powers gather in London for the G20 summit, their willingness to address this possibility is the first step toward avoiding it.

To begin with, growing joblessness and economic hardship will give rise to discontent and protest. Without countervailing international pressure, governments will be tempted to respond to protests with violence and repression.

The Russian and Chinese governments, for example, have enjoyed considerable popular support at home in large part because their economies have been growing in leaps and bounds. Now that their economies are slowing, they face the prospect of mounting unhappiness as people lose jobs and hope. That could lead to demonstrations against economic dislocation and protests in front of shuttered factories. Moscow's and Beijing's traditional reflex has been to silence these voices of desperation.

China already is arresting petitioners seeking redress from the government, lawyers representing them, and bloggers publicising their grievances. Russia responded to a recent protest in Vladivostok by sending special troops from Moscow over seven time zones to crack down. Such repression makes it less likely that economic stimulus plans and other emergency measures will be responsive to the needs of the poor and disaffected.

Governments are also often tempted to deflect the blame by scapegoating others. We can expect fingerpointing at minorities, who might be said to steal jobs or compete unfairly, and growing nationalism, as governments blame their hardships on external forces or simply try to change the subject. Mounting xenophobia and hate-mongering may be among the results.

The hardest hit by any recession tend to be those at the bottom of the economic barrel. Migrant workers, already vulnerable to abuse, become further subject to exploitation when they feel their jobs are at risk, including underpayment and nonpayment of wages, as well as physical and sexual abuse. Ordinary workers attempting to form labour unions or complain about working conditions are more at risk of reprisal. Women in all lines of work can expect greater discrimination than usual.

Deprivation can also lead to enhanced competition for limited resources. That can spark armed conflict and its often-attendant atrocities and displacement. When conflict takes on an ethnic dimension, as occurred in Darfur, the combination can be particularly explosive.

Meanwhile, governments, burdened by unprecedented financial demands and mounting debt, are less likely to take on expensive ventures to promote human rights. Peacekeepers protecting civilians from slaughter, tribunals bringing war criminals to justice, capacity-building programs promoting the rule of law, training programs to encourage government officials to respect rights might all be in jeopardy.

Perhaps more dangerous, governments may simply be distracted. Why bother with, say, trying to stop the killing in Somalia when there is hardship and desperation back home? And when rights-respecting governments turn their backs, more nefarious actors are always waiting in the wings, ready to take advantage. The British prime minister Gordon Brown's decision to invite the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi to the G20 summit to represent Africa is a worrying example of deafness to human rights concerns amid the response to the economic crisis. Given the systematic repression and bloodshed that have characterised Meles's rule - the UK suspended direct budget support to Ethiopia after the government's killing of protesters in 2005 - surely a better choice could have been found to represent Africa.

Civil society might still try to sound the alarm and re-engage governments' attention, but they too are feeling the squeeze as charitable funds shrink.

Ironically, the economic crisis will not be all bad in human rights terms. In the United States, tighter budgets have encouraged several states, including most recently New Mexico, to re-examine their use of the death penalty, which, after legal challenges, is far more costly than lengthy imprisonment. Other states, such as New York, are questioning the viability of mandatory prison terms for non-violent drug offenders, opening the door to policy changes that could help reduce excessive sentences and ease the massive overincarceration of racial and ethnic minorities.

Similarly, the widespread perception that the economic crisis was caused by lax financial regulation may encourage governments to promote better governance across the board, including on issues of official corruption and accountability. But these positive dimensions to the economic crisis are vastly outweighed by the potential negative ones.

So what is the best way for the major G20 powers to avert major human rights setbacks with their potential to compound the problems of economic deprivation? By being attentive to the problem, recognising that these possibilities are not inevitabilities, and redoubling their efforts.

Not that that is easy. The distractions are compelling. But the possibility of an explosive increase in human rights abuse as the economy sinks requires intensified attention. The G20 might begin by establishing a working group to ensure that human rights are not forgotten or undermined as the world responds to the crisis. A little preventive care is in order.

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