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Human Rights and Foreign Debt

The imperative to address the effects of foreign debt on human rights arises from the principle of international assistance and cooperation, which is implicit or explicitly provided for in the Charter of the United Nations and numerous other binding international instruments.

The Charter of the United Nations identifies the overall purposes of international economic and social cooperation. Article 1 (3) of the Charter states that the purposes of the United Nations include the achievement of “international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex,
language, or religion”. In article 56 of the Charter, Members States have pledged themselves “to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the Organization” to achieve these purposes.

Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “[e]veryone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized”. An international order characterized by extreme indebtedness of low- and middle-income countries and an attendant inability to fulfil their human rights obligations to their citizenry is inconsistent with this entitlement.

Under article 2 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, each State party “undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures”.

In terms of article 22, of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Economic and Social Council “may bring to the attention of other organs of the United Nations, their subsidiary organs and specialized agencies concerned with furnishing technical assistance any matters arising out of the reports [submitted by the States Parties to the Covenant] which may assist such bodies in deciding, each within its field of competence, on the advisability of international measures likely to contribute to the effective progressive implementation of the present Covenant”.

States parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child are obliged to undertake measures for the implementation of the economic, social and cultural rights set out in the Convention to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international cooperation (art. 4).

Similarly, article 4 (2) of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, states, with regard to economic, social and cultural rights, that “[e]ach State Party undertakes to take measures to the maximum of its available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international cooperation, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of these rights, without prejudice to those obligations contained in the present Convention that are immediately applicable according to international law”.

In addition to the foregoing instruments, which are legally binding on their States parties, there are a number of other instruments that have been adopted by various United Nations bodies (especially the United Nations Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly) that highlight the adverse impact of external debt on the enjoyment of human rights and evince the political commitment of the international community to the enhancement of international
cooperation in the field of human rights. These political commitments reinforce the obligations of States under international human rights law concerning, inter alia, international assistance and cooperation.

Article 3 (3) of the Declaration on the Right to Development proclaims the duty of States “to cooperate with each other in ensuring development and eliminating obstacles to development” and that “States should realize their rights and fulfil their duties in such a manner as to promote a new international economic order based on sovereign equality, interdependence, mutual interest and cooperation among all States, as well as to encourage the observance and
realization of human rights” (see General Assembly resolution 41/128).

In paragraph 10 of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, the World Conference on Human Rights reaffirmed “the right to development, as established in the Declaration on the Right to Development, as a universal and inalienable right and an integral part of fundamental human rights” and in paragraph 12 called “upon the international community to make all efforts to help alleviate the external debt burden of developing countries, in order to
supplement the efforts of the Governments of such countries to attain the full realization of the economic, social and cultural rights of their people”. In paragraph 13, the Conference recognized “a need for States and international organizations, in cooperation with non-government organizations, to create favourable conditions at the national, regional and international levels to ensure the full and effective enjoyment of human rights”.

The Vienna Declaration, in paragraph 13, essentially calls for a holistic approach to human rights by calling upon States to “eliminate all violations of human rights and their causes, as well as obstacles to the enjoyment of these rights”.

Finally, the Millennium Declaration, from which the eight MDGs were drawn, not only makes substantial reference to human rights; it also underscores that international cooperation is an essential element of the global response to the debt crisis. In paragraph 13 of the Declaration, States committed themselves “to an open, equitable, rule-based, predictable and non-discriminatory multilateral trading and financial system” and, in paragraph 16, they expressed their resolve “to deal comprehensively and effectively with the debt problems of low- and middle-income developing countries, through various national and international
measures designed to make their debt sustainable in the long term”. In paragraph 28, the States resolved to “take special measures to address the challenges of poverty eradication and sustainable development in Africa, including debt cancellation”.

Overarching MDG 8 places additional responsibility on the international community to assist and contains a specific commitment to an “enhanced programme of debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries and cancellation of official bilateral debt, and more generous official development assistance for countries committed to poverty reduction”.

United Nations concern with foreign debt and human rights

The issue of foreign (or external) debt has been on the agenda of various United Nations human rights bodies for more than two decades. Since the 1990s, the
Commission on Human Rights and, subsequently, the Human Rights Council, have, in a number of resolutions and decisions, adverted to the challenges that excessive foreign debt burdens and economic reform policies pose for the realization of human rights, especially in developing countries.2 Since 1997, those bodies have also attempted to address such issues through the establishment of thematic mandates, which have undergone several changes over the years.

The concluding observations of the various treaty bodies on the country reports submitted to them also indicate that high external debt burdens and dependency on foreign assistance can constitute obstacles to efforts by States parties to comply with their human rights treaty obligations, particularly those relating to economic, social and cultural rights.