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Momentum Building to Realign Economic Policies with Human Rights

Statement by Human Rights Watch, Bretton Woods Project, Center for Economic and Social Rights, and Eurodad

Representatives from The Gambia, Malaysia, Chile, and several human rights organizations speak on a joint panel at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 26, 2023. © Human Rights Watch

When High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk opened the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) session this month, one of his main messages was the dire need to reform both economic policies and the international financial architecture to align with human rights.

The high commissioner’s remarks and the weight of his office will only increase the growing momentum to systemically reform the current global economic order and put human rights at its center.

The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) presented a report to the HRC that laid out a path to advancing what it terms “human rights economies.” In a striking confluence of perspectives, three countries from three different regions – The Gambia, Chile, and Malaysia – co-sponsored an event at the HRC with our organizations to discuss one of these proposed reforms: addressing the debt crisis by aligning international financial institutions with human rights.

Speaking at the event, the state representatives described in strikingly similar terms how the global response to the current economic crisis is crippling their governments’ ability to ensure people’s wellbeing and rights, while also advocating to overhaul the system in order to integrate human rights.

The ambassador of The Gambia, H.E. Muhammadou M. O. Kah, made an urgent plea for integrating human rights impact assessments into International Monetary Fund and World Bank operations, saying “it is impossible to exaggerate the[ir] value.... These assessments, which are based on openness and participation, provide nations with a compass to direct their recovery efforts in accordance with their human rights and environmental commitments.”

The ambassador of Chile, H.E. Claudia Fuentes Julio, highlighted the need for “more redistributive fiscal policies and efforts that seek to put an end to corruption and illicit financial flows.”

The deputy permanent representative of Malaysia, Rina Hanis Rodzli, called for a “total rest of the global institutions that impact our lives,” and offered to “collaborate with like-minded states and international institutions to address the root causes of debt crises and promote a fairer global economic order, based on the principles of human rights.”

Additional speakers offered concrete recommendations for such reforms. The UN Independent Expert on foreign debt, Attiya Waris, called for applying human rights to access to information and participation, as well as addressing private debt, while Peggy Hicks of OHCHR described how the office is working with national governments to integrate human rights into, for example, budgeting.

Human Rights Watch shared recommendations from a report it released this week on the International Monetary Fund’s flawed approach to lending. The Center for Economic and Social Rights, drawing from a new toolkit, laid out five concrete reforms to better address debt, such as holding private creditors accountable and supporting domestic resource mobilization.

With the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund set to meet for their annual meetings in Marrakech next week, and the landmark Summit for the Future, called by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, on the horizon, the mounting demand and consensus for a human rights economy able to build more just societies and address the climate crisis offers hope that we are at a pivotal moment in global policies.

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