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Restructure debt to spend more on human rights, expert urges

GENEVA (1 October 2021) – Global discussions on trade and development starting this weekend must put human rights at the heart of any solutions for the debts that cripple poorer countries’ ability to deliver essential services, a UN human rights expert appointed by the Human Rights Council said today.

“Debt is a human rights issue,” said Attiya Waris, the UN Independent Expert on debt, other international financial obligations and human rights, ahead of the 15th session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD 15), which starts Sunday.

“When countries are burdened by debt, they don’t have the money to ensure access to their human rights, including services such as water and food or, during the pandemic, vaccines, hospitals and medical personnel,” she said.

“Human rights take money. People understand this now, more than ever, after a year and a half of a global pandemic,” Waris said. “What we need now is debt restructuring, tax justice firmly grounded in human rights, systemic reform, and effective measures to address illicit financial flows.”

She added that “the debt situation is so serious globally that one is reminded of the African proverb ‘poverty without debt is wealth’.”

The high-level summit, hosted by Barbados online because of COVID, aims to highlight the urgency of reducing inequality and vulnerability through trade and development that works for everyone.

“The Conference is taking place as the world grapples with intertwining crises piled on top of crises,” she said. “There is a health crisis, a socio-economic crisis with growing inequalities within and across countries, a climate crisis, and a human rights crisis and on top of it all, a looming debt crisis affecting low and middle income countries.

“We need to stop talking and take action,” she said. “We need urgent reform of the international debt architecture, the way lenders put pressure on developing countries to pay unpayable debts. Human rights must not be left out of the equation when we look for the effective, sustainable debt relief and restructuring that low and middle-income countries urgently need.”

Detailed recommendations on how this can be accomplished are contained in the report of her predecessor on international debt architecture reform and human rights, which will be presented to the UN General Assembly Third Committee on 22 October.


Ms Attiya Waris (Kenya) took up the function of 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 on 1 August 2021.

She holds a PhD in Law and is a specialist in Fiscal Law, Policy and Development. She is the first female Director of Research and Enterprise at the University of Nairobi. Prof Waris teaches at the Law School, University of Nairobi, Kenya and has previously taught in South Africa, Rwanda, Malaysia and the United Kingdom. Prof Waris has researched and published on global and regional issues. She published 'Tax and Development’ (2013) offering links between tax and human rights and her more recent publication ‘Financing Africa’ is the first publication globally to map out African fiscal systems.

Follow the Independent Expert’s work on Twitter: @IEfinanceHRs

The Independent Experts and Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Comprising the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, Special Procedures is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms Juana Sotomayor, Human Rights Officer (+41 22 928 9814/ juana.sotomayor@un.org)

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / renato.rosariodesouza@un.org).

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.

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