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Expert meeting on the integration of economic, social and cultural rights into conflict early warning systems

Distinguished colleagues,

All of us here today understand viscerally that violations of economic, social and cultural rights are of profound concern per se and should be avoided or redressed. But today’s meeting promises to shed light on an often overlooked, but crucial issue: the links between denial of economic, social and cultural rights and ensuing violence, unrest and conflict.

Clearly, violations of economic, social and cultural rights may lead to violence. This has been demonstrated throughout history. When they are deprived of opportunities and resources; when they are subjected to the whims of the powerful; when public resources are confiscated by corruption and poor governance; and when their voices in economic governance are suppressed and denied – at such times, and in all regions, people may rebel, and countless uprisings confirm this fundamental truth.

Moreover, although no single narrative can explain every war in history, it seems empirically evident that deprivation, discrimination, scarcity and poverty drive war.

Conflicts also frequently – and perhaps invariably – generate violations of economic, social and cultural rights, including often massive damage to the economic, social and cultural rights of specific marginalized or disadvantaged groups, and to the rights of women.

But the question before you today goes even deeper than the linkages I have just cited. Can violations of economic, social and cultural rights be viewed as predictors of conflict and social unrest? If so, it may be possible to discern patterns that indicate when and how preventive action can decisively shift the trend and de-escalate tension. By including these patterns in our models for early warning and coordinated action – for example, in the framework of the Secretary-General’s Human Rights Up Front policy – we could immensely strengthen prospects for peace and true development. This is a prospect that generates real hope.

The question is whether we can develop tools of sufficient clarity that they can detect these risks before the spark ignites. And I believe we can.

Today, the world economy is in a highly turbulent period characterised by massive inequalities in income, employment, health care, education, and social security. According to our sister agency ILO, some 61 million jobs have been lost since the start of the economic crisis in 2008. Although several economies are now generating new jobs, the situation is still deteriorating in many others. Last year, over 201 million people were unemployed – 30 million more than in 2008 – and that number is now predicted to increase steadily. Minorities, migrants, older persons, and persons with disabilities suffer disproportionately.  Young people – regardless of their educational achievements – are by far the worst hit. This is a recipe for social discontent, extremism, and violence. We do not need a crystal ball to know that to ward off disaster, we must take action to bring young people greater opportunities.

Corruption is another issue with profoundly negative consequences for human rights, peace, security and development worldwide. Money that is siphoned by corruption out of the public treasury – or extracted, as bribes, from the pockets of the people –is money that could otherwise have been spent to progressively realize economic and social rights; to lift people out of poverty; to provide children with education; to bring essential health-care to families. Corruption damages development, exacerbates inequality, weakens governance and institutions and frays the fabric of society. It generates rage – the burning rage of the destitute adult who knows that the money which could have been spent on medicine for her or his children has been stolen by a contemptuous official or private sector actor.  Equally, the political corruption that allows rich and powerful private actors and industries to exercise policy and regulatory “capture” critically erodes the capacity of, and confidence in public sector institutions to meet their human rights obligations.     

Your discussions promise to be fascinating, and I look forward to your conclusions.

For more on ESCRs, see OHCHR's Economic, Social and Cultural Portal

English: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/ESCR/Pages/ESCRIndex.aspx
Spanish: http://www.ohchr.org/SP/Issues/ESCR/Pages/ESCRIndex.aspx
French: http://www.ohchr.org/FR/Issues/ESCR/Pages/ESCRIndex.aspx