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12 May 2009

At the end of his official visits to Norway and Ecuador (28 April to 8 May 2009), the United Nations Human Rights Council's Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights, Cephas Lumina, highlighted the need for creditor and debtor countries to work in close and open collaboration to promote responsible financing, and fair and transparent treatment and management of foreign debt, to ensure that all countries are able to fulfill their human rights obligations.

The Independent Expert visited Norway and Ecuador to explore their unique roles in the debate about illegitimate debt and to learn from the experiences of these countries in addressing this complex issue as well as the process of conducting a national debt audit, as was completed by Ecuador last year, with the aim of disseminating lessons learned and to contribute to the international dialogue on this topic. He met with government officials, civil society organizations and academics to gain a broad perspective and a diverse set of opinions.

The Independent Expert stressed that “in order to adequately and fairly address the current debt situation in low- and middle-income developing countries, the shared responsibility of debtors and creditors and the obligation of international cooperation must be fully acknowledged.” In both Ecuador and Norway, there was wide support for a fair and transparent debt arbitration mechanism, under the auspices of the United Nations, as an appropriate forum for addressing foreign debt. Such a mechanism would need to be guided by the principles of inclusivity and equity, in which the interests of both creditors and debtors would be respected. The absence of an internationally accepted definition of illegitimate debt was cited by both government and civil society as an obstacle in the efforts to systematically address the debt issue on a global level. Norway has funded a project to be implemented by UNCTAD which will examine this issue. The Independent Expert welcomes these efforts to support exploration of the issue, and encourages other countries to support similar initiatives.

He was encouraged by the high level of dialogue between government and civil society on issues related to debt in both Norway and Ecuador.

In Norway, the Independent Expert met with representatives from government bodies and civil society organizations who played key roles in Norway’s decision to cancel debt incurred from the Norwegian Shipping Export Campaign for five countries including Ecuador. Cancellation of this debt was a one-off debt relief policy measure in acknowledgment of its shared responsibility as a creditor.

One of the key aspects of civil society organizations’ successful advocacy efforts in Norway was close engagement with a broad spectrum of government bodies and political parties, both those in power and particularly those in opposition who may find it easier to support politically sensitive positions. Close collaboration with civil society organizations in Ecuador allowed for the exchange of and access to important information that would have otherwise been difficult to obtain in their respective countries.

In Ecuador, the Independent Expert met with government and civil society organizations who played key roles in the national debt audit. Key aspects to take into account when considering such an audit include full transparency of process and content, examination of the levels of debt which were used to fulfil human rights obligations via social spending for example, and substantive participation by the public.

The Independent Expert is grateful to the governments of Norway and Ecuador - both of which have issued standing invitations to special procedure mandate holders of the Human Rights Council - for their openness and support for the mission.

“The link between debt and human rights is clear. Excessive debt burdens impede progress towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and pose a significant challenge to the realization of human rights by undermining the human rights obligations of States. Rigorous, transparent and participatory debt audits which examine the impact of debt on the full enjoyment of human rights can be an important step in this process” he stated.

He concluded: “I am delighted that there are international initiatives to further elaborate the concept of illegitimate debt and I encourage debtor and creditor countries to re-assess the impact of their financing decisions on the ability of debtor countries, especially the poorest, to achieve their development objectives and to design national policies that would enhance their capacity to fulfil their human rights obligations. I also encourage debtor and creditor countries alike to support rigorous, transparent and independent examinations of national debt portfolios to assess the impact of debt on countries’ ability to fulfil their human rights obligations. Such efforts should be undertaken while keeping in mind the importance of the broader context of responsible financing. Real and concrete support is also urgently needed at the international level for a fair, transparent and independent debt arbitration mechanism and for universal guidelines on responsible financing.”

The Independent Expert will submit a full report on the visits to Norway and Ecuador to the Human Rights Council in June 2010.

A longer version of Mr. Cephas Lumina's statement is available on his mandate's webpage

Mr. Cephas Lumina was appointed ‘Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights’ by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2008. He is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. The mandate covers all countries.

Mr. Lumina currently teaches law at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. For further information on the mandate of the Independent Expert, please visit the website: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/development/debt/index.htm


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