Making the new economy work for human rights

The new economy is a potential boon for human rights the world over. How to realise that potential is a major challenge. 

The theme of the OECD Forum 2000 — “partnerships in the new economy” — may at first glance not appear to be relevant to the issue of human rights. After all, we live in a world where racial discrimination and gender inequality are daily realities for millions, where torture, arbitrary execution and trafficking in women and children remain common practice in many countries. With these serious and persistent violations to deal with, why should human rights advocates be discussing the new economy?

I would argue that while we must continually strengthen our efforts to fight the evils of intolerance and oppression, we should not underestimate the growing impact of the global economy on the enjoyment of human rights nor the potential of partnerships to bring its benefits to all people. Harnessing this potential and taking full advantage of the opportunity the new economy holds out is, I believe, one of the key policy challenges on the international human rights agenda at the start of the new century.

There can be no denying that in the past 50 years progress has been made in economic growth and wealth creation on a scale previously unimagined. This progress has been accompanied by significant improvements in human development indicators, such as life expectancy, levels of education and nutrition standards.

But it has also become evident that the global economy and the information technology revolution currently favour the “haves” of this world – those with assets such as education and economic resources – at the expense of the “have nots”. The evidence of growing disparities between the rich and the poor is difficult to dispute. The overall gap between the richest 20% of humanity and the poorest 20% doubled between 1940 and 1990. And if the gap between rich and poor countries is growing, so too is the phenomenon of poverty and exclusion within societies. In many developing countries, even those experiencing some increase in net national wealth, the gulf between the poorest in society and the richest has been growing dramatically. If economic growth has been unable to narrow this gap, what must be done to shift the tide and ensure that the new economy provides opportunities for all people?

Back to basics 

A necessary first step is to look with fresh eyes at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which came into being half a century ago. The Declaration proclaims the rights to education, to social security, to work and an adequate standard of living including food, housing and health care on the same footing as the rights to life, liberty and security of person, to equal recognition before the law, to freedom of movement and freedom of religion. The truth is that we have not promoted this broad range of human rights on equal terms, despite the fact that those rights have been translated into binding international obligations, most fully in the International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; on Civil and Political Rights; and in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

A “rights-based approach” to making the new economy work for all requires us to take each and every one of these commitments seriously. Such an approach would result in the full integration of the norms, standards and principles of the international human rights system into social and economic plans, policies and processes. It seeks to empower individuals by creating the conditions needed for popular participation in decision making and by strengthening institutions of governance and democracy. It recognises that a culture of human rights cannot flourish where people do not enjoy access to food, healthcare or education. In simple terms, the rights-based approach means that the priorities of governance at all levels are focused on ensuring respect for all human rights.

At its recent session, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights took an important step along this path by adopting a Resolution on the role of good governance in the promotion and protection of human rights. The Resolution states that transparent, responsible, accountable and participatory government, responsive to the needs of people, is the foundation upon which good governance rests, and that such a foundation is a sine qua non for the promotion of human rights.

The OECD’s work in the area of ethics and good governance has highlighted the importance of exercising power wisely and making good decisions over time across a spectrum of economic, social, environmental and other areas (see article by William Witherell). However, many aspects of the relationship between good governance and human rights need careful reflection and study. The Commission’s Resolution has requested my Office to invite all member states to give practical examples of activities that have been effective in promoting good governance outcomes.

Progress in human rights requires first and foremost that governments live up to their commitments. It is a matter of setting priorities and mustering political will. There are positive signs to report in this area. Governments are increasingly adopting national plans of action for human rights, seeking out best practices from other countries and recognizing the power of co-operation. Yet in many countries, due to severe lack of resources, the crushing burden of external debt, and an international financial and trade system which is often stacked against them, even best intentions are not enough.

Making the new economy work for human rights will also require that governments, international organisations, corporations, non-governmental organisations and wider networks of civil society join together in innovative, mutually beneficial alliances to achieve what none could accomplish alone.

Digital development 

Such partnerships will of course rely heavily on the main instrument of the new economy – the digital revolution. In his report to the upcoming Millennium Summit, United Nations secretary-general,

Kofi Annan, stresses how dramatically the digital revolution could stimulate economic growth and development if adequate resources and commitment were brought to bear. The core product of the digital revolution – information – has enormous power to affect the lives of people who have been excluded from the benefits of globalisation.

A concrete demonstration of the power of information and partnership announced in Mr Annan’s report is a new Health InterNetwork that will establish and operate 10,000 online sites in hospitals, clinics and public health facilities throughout the developing world. It aims to provide access to up-to-date health and medical information, tailored for specific countries. The initiative is being led by the World Health Organisation and the WebMD Foundation, in co-operation with other foundation and corporate partners.

Business leaders increasingly recognise that to be sustainable, the new economy must be based on shared values and respond to the aspirations of people everywhere. This is a crucial challenge. The United Nations is responding in an unprecedented way through the development of the secretary-general’s Global Compact initiative. The Global Compact is focused on engaging the private sector, in co-operation with wider civil society, in the UN’s work to advance human rights, core labour standards and environmental sustainability – to make globalisation responsive to human needs. In the area of human rights, the Compact’s principles call on corporations to ensure that, first, they uphold and respect human rights and, second, that they are not themselves complicit in human rights abuses.

Within the framework of the Global Compact, my Office is gearing up to advise, support and encourage businesses in implementing these principles. Just imagine how principled partnerships could contribute to improved access to education for all, or how technological innovation could help ensure adequate distribution of food, energy and building materials – all of which, by the way, would contribute to the realisation of fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration and the International Covenants.

Business is only one player in this, although a crucial one. The Global Compact framework should provide guiding principles for governments, international organisations and civil society just as much as for the private sector. What will happen if we don’t work together more effectively for the promotion and protection of human rights? In an increasingly interdependent world, my fear is that unless concrete action is taken now to make human rights a reality for all people, the progress made by many countries and the spread of democratic societies in all regions will not be sustainable. As the former US president, Franklin Roosevelt, put it more than sixty years ago: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

People are the essential members of any partnership. But they cannot be silent partners in the new economy. It is vital that they are active participants in the betterment of their own lives. To achieve this goal, human rights must be part of the central criteria for all key decisions in an age of globalisation.

©OECD Observer No 221/222, Summer 2000 

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