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HRC46 | Council debate on poverty shows progress but approach to ‘win-win’ cooperation polarises

Cooperation to enhance development or eradicate poverty is not and cannot be a substitute for scrutiny of human rights, or conducted in the absence of accountability

Update, 24 March: The Council adopted the resolution on ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’ by a vote of 26 in favour, 15 against, and 6 abstentions. Representatives from Austria, India and Mexico used this opportunity to raise concerns related to the use of unclear terminology, emphasising that it must conform to international standards. Speakers also emphasised the importance of faithfulness to the Council’s full mandate, as expressed in its founding documents, and of the engagement of civil society in the Council’s future discussions on the issue of cooperation for human rights.

At a high-level panel in early March, the Human Rights Council rightly affirmed the importance of rightsholders’ participation to the success of poverty alleviation projects specifically, and sustainable development overall.

 ISHR is disappointed, then, that the main sponsors of the panel have rushed to table a draft resolution on ‘mutually beneficial’ cooperation (often also described as ‘win-win’) which not only pays no heed to the discussion, but which undermines those very principles.

 The panel was requested by a resolution of the same name adopted in June 2020 and featured statements from OHCHR and high-level officials from ASEAN, China, Sierra Leone and the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation. Although civil society representation was excluded, nearly all interventions shared best practices that underlined the importance of multi-stakeholder approaches; respect for indigenous and rural communities’ customary practices; and the interlocking nature of the most successful strategies – addressing food security, access to education, adequate healthcare, social protection and discrimination, including on the basis of gender.

Cooperation a complement, but not a substitute, for promoting human rights

 In the dialogue following, many governments reaffirmed the role of international cooperation – but insisted that this needed to be a means to an end, namely the goal of protecting and promoting human rights. Cooperation as an end in itself – and as which privileges ‘mutually beneficial’ outcomes for governments over the impacts on individuals – simply does not pass muster when it comes to the principles the Council was created to uphold.

 Furthermore, cooperation to enhance development or eradicate poverty is not and cannot be a substitute for scrutiny of human rights, or conducted in the absence of accountability. Delegates from Australia, the EU, Germany and Baltic States raised concern that limiting cooperation to merely that which is ‘mutually beneficial’ in the eyes of governments could result in efforts falling far short of making actual – sometimes hard – changes to advance the protection and respect of human rights for individuals and communities.

ISHR’s statement to the panel, delivered jointly with the Global Initiative on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, also emphasised this point. As Sarah M Brooks, ISHR programme director, simply put it: ‘The objective of development cannot simply be economic growth, but rather full enjoyment of all human rights for all… alleviation of extreme poverty does not and will not necessarily lead to the realisation of rights’.

UN experts have put it even better: former UN rapporteur on extreme poverty Phillip Alston stated that ‘the achievement of development objectives and the respect for human rights obligations… are mutually reinforcing, but they are not synonymous’.

 Meaningful efforts to pursue sustainable development, in line with UN goals and human rights standards, must not privilege some rights over others, but embrace the interrelatedness of all rights. They must be developed in conjunction with communities, including civil society actors and human rights defenders, and have strong accountability and monitoring mechanisms.

A rights-based approach for growth and recovery

 This is not just an approach which is ethical, or good for human rights. Increasing evidence shows that it is good for business, too. Creating a sustainable investment climate is no longer simply about lowering barriers to entry or perpetuating a race to the bottom on wages and working conditions, but about fostering rule of law and enabling participation, transparency and inclusion.

 These are the same principles that should underlie global efforts to combat COVID-19 and to ‘build back better’ – including through cooperation between and among governments to ensure that human rights are central to the recovery. This is a point that has been reiterated time and again by the UN’s human rights office, its chief Michelle Bachelet, and a range of other experts and governments.

 But in the draft resolution the Council is considering, it is a point that is conspicuously absent.

‘It is deeply disappointing to see the Human Rights Council use its limited resources and time to not only water down the importance of human rights and the role for civil society in COVID response and recovery’ says Brooks, ‘but to embrace a view fundamentally in opposition to its mandate’.

 ‘Mutually beneficial cooperation’, as the Norwegian delegation stated, places ‘an emphasis on non-interference rather than honest dialogue’.

 As ISHR has said in the context of other, similar efforts, the Council and its members should direct their efforts and limited resources to fulfilling the important work it has to do. Pursuing both cooperative dialogue and critical approaches to ensuring governments uphold their human rights obligations is the only meaningful way forward.

The full statement delivered by ISHR and the Global Initiative on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR) can be viewed below.

Madame President, esteemed members of the Panel,

The intersection of human rights and economic inequality is a perennial concern.

Many dignitaries and delegations have noted the importance of understanding the impact of COVID-19 on poverty worldwide. We agree, and would highlight that COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to tackle inequalities and the systems and structures that reproduce them.

Yet, as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has said, despite this opportunity COVID continues, one year on, to have dire impacts on rights. An alarming number of policies that sought to address impacts of COVID-19 were ‘maladapted, short-term, reactive, and inattentive to the realities of people in poverty’.

In resolving our current and future challenges, there is an important role for cooperation among all stakeholders: governments, international organisations, economic actors and civil society. And there is an important need to speak in clear and well-defined terms about the ways in which this cooperation upholds human rights.

Shared commitments to abide by the VDPA require States to reinforce the important link between democracy, development and human rights, namely the rights of the human person as the ‘central subject’ of development. People need to be empowered to know and claim their rights, and – especially for those already marginalised – to participate in the design and implementation of decisions, policies and programmes that impact them directly.

There is, at the same time, a primordial need to ‘draw a distinction between the achievement of development objectives and the respect for human rights obligations’. As the former Special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights reflected, ‘the two are mutually reinforcing, but they are not synonymous’. In other words, alleviation of extreme poverty does not and will not necessarily lead to the realization of rights.

This Council has long sought to ensure discussions on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development inform, and are informed by, the discussions that happen in this room. The objective of development cannot simply be economic growth, but rather full enjoyment of all human rights for all.

This cohesion is central to whether current approaches to development, and development cooperation, are being carried out ‘in a manner that conforms to human rights obligations and in particular [that] provides for meaningful accountability mechanisms’. This means avenues for airing grievances without fear of attack or retaliation, and for pursuing remedy in the case of violations, through the courts or otherwise. Human rights defenders, especially of ESC rights, play a critical role – and attacks against them not only violate the right to defend rights, but also put the goal of inclusive development at risk.

To the members of the panel:

There are many examples of development initiatives or programs that have led directly to the violation of human rights, and also examples of economically developed countries where human rights are not realized. This calls into question the arguments for a causal link between development, including poverty alleviation, and the realization of human rights. What are the key policy elements needed to ensure that a decrease in the level of extreme poverty is positively correlated with an increase in the protection and promotion of human rights?

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