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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Urgent transition towards Human Rights Economy needed, says High Commissioner

24 May 2024

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


“International Economic Law and Human Rights: From Conflict to Cooperation”, Vienna School of International Studies, 24-25 May


Video Message

Dear Colleagues, Friends,

I regret that I am not able to join you for this timely conference.

Our global economic system is broken – it is trapping millions in extreme poverty, entrenching inequalities, holding back climate action, and fuelling the rise of authoritarianism, instability and conflict.

Wherever I travel, I see the deep pain inflicted by an overarching economic system and prevailing thinking that neglect and, at worst, push back on rights. Recently, for example, in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, people continue to suffer from an intractable resource-driven conflict. And it is a good reminder of how economic systems come together and play out in violent conflict situations.

Put simply, the global economic system was not designed with the needs, aspirations and rights of the many in mind. And so, it has institutionalized far-reaching human rights costs, often enabling the obscene concentrations of power and wealth we contend with today.

Yet, in its capacity to evolve, our economic system can be part of the solution. This is particularly true of international economic law, which often fails to take account of human rights.

From trade treaties to investment agreements, business regulation to development frameworks, we must urgently move towards full alignment with international human rights law. In many areas this can be achieved through a more progressive and integrated reading of existing standards; elsewhere, we need targeted and effective reforms.

We also need to move swiftly towards a more inclusive, equitable and effective international financial architecture, to transform global economic governance.

Your conversations over the next two days have an important role to play as we navigate the way forward, including at the upcoming Summit of the Future in September this year where States have an opportunity to reset international cooperation; an opportunity that cannot be missed.

The long overdue overhaul of our international financial architecture must be guided by the values and protections ingrained in international human rights law. Our level of ambition must be high. Let me highlight what this looks like in five key areas:

  • Concrete progress in reforming the international financial institutions, including the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund, so their policies and financing decisions are firmly anchored in human rights, and their governance structure gives greater voice to countries of the Global South.
  • Second, a fair and effective multilateral mechanism and legal framework for sovereign debt relief and restructuring that addresses debt distress without undermining investment in the rights to health, education, social protection and other public goods.
  • Third, stronger international tax cooperation to combat the corrosive effects of tax evasion and unfairly distributed tax revenues from multinationals, with States engaging constructively on the proposed United Nations Framework Convention on International Tax Cooperation.
  • Fourth, landing on an indicator for economic success that takes us beyond GDP so that we have a holistic picture of how economies are delivering on people's rights, with disaggregated data to support robust action on discrimination.
  • And finally, a lifeline for getting the Sustainable Development Goals back on track, through a massive injection of financing that is largely concessional and avoids pushing countries further into the debt spiral. And it’s interesting that the recent IMF Board decision on special drawing rights has been a real step in the right direction.

Along with the need to recalibrate the international system, States have an equally urgent project at home.

Governments, everywhere, must recognise the necessity – and the rewards - of transitioning towards a Human Rights Economy - one that works for people and planet. And that’s what we launched last year, the concept of the Human Rights Economy, which means that economies are focused on delivering on ‘all human rights for all’ – civil and political; economic, social and cultural; the right to development; and the right to a healthy environment. It means this comprehensive view of human rights.

By ensuring that economic policies, laws and other measures are grounded in rights, governments can shape economies that are properly equipped to tackle the root causes of inequalities and insecurity, drive essential investment in public goods, strengthen institutions that underwrite the rule of law, manage the disruptive impacts of digital technology and accelerate climate and environmental action.

A Human Rights Economy also places a premium on devising a smart mix of measures that can bring business models and operations into alignment with corporate human rights responsibilities.

The role of the private sector is absolutely critical. I welcome the leadership shown by progressive business actors, and I’ve met many of them over the last year. We need to see more companies follow their example, including through engagement at our annual Forum on Business and Human Rights, a platform for generating forward-thinking ideas for driving implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

With a fundamental shift of this nature, we can expect to rebuild the trust that has so dangerously been eroded within societies and between States. We can already see some promising results from our engagement with governments, communities, civil society and others on the Human Rights Economy.

For example, in Jordan, in outlining options towards a human rights-based approach to taxation and public finance, or in Kenya on integrating human rights analyses and approaches into budget processes at the county level, or in Zambia on avenues for ring-fencing the rights to food and education in the context of debt restructuring, and in Serbia on contributing human rights-based and “leave no one behind” analyses to address inequalities that are faced by some of the most marginalised communities.

A key vehicle for our work, the Surge Initiative, brings together human rights and economic expertise. Such multidisciplinary approaches, along with creative partnerships, are really critical to realizing the full potential of human rights as a catalyst of systemic change.

This message - of rights as the path to solutions - is at the core of my Vision Statement, which we published earlier this year, and which was inspired by the global conversations that were held to mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Over 140 States made pledges during the Human Rights 75 Initiative to take concrete, transformative action – which is a remarkable demonstration of recommitment to human rights at this moment of crisis upon crisis.

Dear Colleagues,

I hope that we can draw on your expertise, on your insights, on your collaboration as we, collectively, work to move towards the fairer and more peaceful world that was envisioned by the drafters of both the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I wish you all the best for your discussions and look forward to hearing about your conclusions and recommendations.

Thank you.