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Opening Remarks by Assistant Secretary-General Ivan Šimonović, OHCHR’s expert meeting on Rights in Crisis, New York, 24 April 2013

Distinguished participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to welcome you here today at the opening of OHCHR’s expert meeting, Rights in Crisis. We organized this meeting to explore how basing economic policies on human rights standards can help to make economic recovery and growth more sustainable.

I am pleased to be joined today by Her Excellency Ambassador Yanerit Morgan, Deputy Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations. We have with us also a distinguished and diverse group of speakers from universities, international organizations, civil society, and governments – all of them leaders in their respective fields. And of course we have an equally distinguished audience. I encourage you all to actively participate in discussions.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
The issue before us is of critical importance. The impact of economic crises, financial regulations and economic policies on human rights is often neglected. The gravity of the global financial crisis and its human rights impacts show the need for a new approach. Over the course of this meeting I would ask you to consider what this new approach should look like?

In order to answer this question, we must also discuss several others, among them: what caused the financial crisis, what were its human rights and social impacts and how do we mitigate them? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these issues and will offer a few of my own.

What caused the crisis? According to General Assembly resolution 63/303, the crisis arose from systemic flaws in national and international monetary and financial architecture, de-regulation, the failure of existing systems to adapt to an increasingly complex and interconnected global financial system, rising inequalities, lack of accountability and global imbalances. These are substantial problems. Problems that can and should be examined from multiple angles and continue to be the subject of debates, including earlier this week at the annual meeting of ECOSOC with the Bretton Woods Institutions.

These debates reflect a growing consensus that financial institutions, economic policy decisions and global economic governance should be more transparent, accountable and democratically representative. These are not only expert opinions. Growing disaffection of many people with the status quo has led to the rise of popular protest movements like ‘Occupy” and “Los Indignados”.  If there is no change in a right direction, in addition to economic we are risking social and political global crisis as well.

Transparency, accountability and participation in decision-making are fundamental human rights principles and their neglect raises another question for you to consider today:  how do we translate the growing consensus for rights-based reform of financial systems into concrete measures that will promote economic stability and growth?

A second area that requires further examination is the nexus between financial crises, austerity measures, financial regulation and human rights. What are the impacts of the financial crisis and austerity measures on human rights? Our background paper, which Mr. Bat-Erdene Ayush will introduce in further detail, notes that at least 15 special procedures of the Human Rights Council have examined the human rights impacts of financial crises and/or austerity measures in addition to several human rights treaty bodies. The reports and concluding observations of these mechanisms find that many people have lost access to work, social welfare programs, and affordable food, housing, water and other basic necessities due to the crisis and austerity measures. Furthermore, they find that these impacts have been disproportionately borne by women, children, and vulnerable and marginalized persons.

How can we powerfully articulate these impacts to galvanize rights-based action? It can be difficult to put numbers to the human rights impacts of the crisis but there are indicators that suggest they are significant. According to the World Bank, 114 million more people are living below the poverty line than before the crisis. According to DESA, in 2011, there was a still-growing global employment deficit of 64 million jobs just to reach pre-crisis levels of employment. The forthcoming report of the High Commissioner to ECOSOC examines the impacts of the crisis and austerity measures on the enjoyment of the rights to employment and social security.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
We must continue to further our understanding of the connection between human rights and economic and regulatory policies. Such an improved understanding is a necessary basis for future advocacy efforts to promote human rights considerations in macroeconomic policies and financial regulations.

One potential response that economists and human rights activists alike support is progressive and human rights sensitive macroeconomic policies that give all persons equal opportunities for development. In this regard, the Special Rapporteurs on food and extreme poverty have called for the establishment of a social protection floor, a call that has been welcomed by the European Parliament. How can we design measures that promote inclusive growth and equality? How to best establish a social protection floor in the face of austerity measures that threaten even basic social services in many States?

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I also believe that we must take action to address the root causes of the crisis, to prevent its recurrence, and to address its impacts on the most vulnerable. Human rights norms, articulated in the UN Charter, the Declaration on the Right to Development and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights require that States act individually and collectively to guarantee the fulfilment of human rights and to create an enabling environment for development.

In this regard, the regulation of financial markets and actors through national mechanisms and international financial institutions is an exercise of State power that should promote the realization of human rights and be guided by the human rights principles of transparency, participation and accountability.
 As the High Commissioner said at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, “The rule of law must extend to the financial sector as well.” How to achieve this?

Ladies and gentlemen, let me conclude.

In current crisis lie both challenges and opportunities. The United Nations and the contemporary human rights regime emerged from the ashes of World War II to help us build a more just and peaceful world. The lessons learned from this crisis may lead to a more inclusive, sustainable development paradigm, a paradigm in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development, are within the reach of all persons.

Ladies and gentlemen, let us grab the opportunity!

New York, 24 April 2013