Robin Willoughby

Human rights are increasingly viewed through the rhetoric of military intervention, democracy and political freedom, whilst the UN’s pivotal role in securing social and economic rights in the developing world continues to be marginalized.

The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be rightly lauded as a landmark in international attempts to formalize the rights and responsibilities between governments and their citizens. If we ask if the Declaration has proven a success, however, we need only glance at a few statistics; almost three billion people live in poverty on less than US$2.50 a day, and the number of hungry people actually increased this year to nearly one billion people.[1] As the world reaped record levels of harvests in 2008, the most basic right to food is still denied to around 1 in 6 people on the planet.[2] But how did we get to this situation?

    An answer to this can be simply put: on the international stage, the world’s most powerful nations have prioritised those human rights associated with political freedom and peace and security, at the expense of those rights related to economic justice.

    In the sphere of peace and security, the richest nations have used their political and military clout to pursue a highly defined and specific human rights agenda, highlighting the importance of themes such as intervention, democracy and political freedom. This trend is illustrated by the creation of such bodies within the United Nations (UN) as the Peace Building Commission and Counter-Terrorism Committee, as well as by the growth in interventionist peacekeeping missions. At the same time, more human rights bodies have been created under the purview of the UN Security Council, such as ad hoc tribunals to address human rights abuse in places such as Rwanda and Yugoslavia.[3]

    International discussions on human rights are invariably focused on such themes as the danger posed by terrorism, threats to democracy in Zimbabwe or the need to invade Iraq in the name of human rights. This constricted view has also led to the widespread incorporation of military terminology into human rights semantics. ‘Humanitarian intervention’ can be used to describe a military invasion; ‘muscular humanitarianism'[4] has become a label for aid and reconstruction work; and US-based human rights advocates recently described the need for a ‘peace surge'[5] to solve complex political problems in Darfur.

    New actors have moved into a combined human rights and humanitarian fold. The EU is developing a rapid reaction force as part of its human rights-based foreign policy, while NATO has incorporated a ‘structural intervention force’ to intercede in countries that are perceived as ‘failed states’, humanitarian emergencies or threats to peace and security. The World Bank has also entered into this new arena, incorporating a reconstruction and intervention arm into its operations, as witnessed in the aftermath of the South East Asian Tsunami in 2006.

    The result of this prioritisation of democracy, peace and security and ‘humanitarian’ causes can be seen in a split between those human rights laws most palatable to the Global North, and those most urgently needed by the majority world. Unlike the one-sided prioritisation of individual human rights and security issues by the largest powers, economic and social rights have been severely sidelined.

    The largest financial powers, led by the US and EU, now channel economic policy and implementation through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Through these bodies, their founding members are able to impose a vision of human rights and economic development that conforms to their own geo-strategic and political vision. According to this thinking, the removal of trade barriers, growth of capital accumulation and empowerment of business will lead to an inevitable ‘trickle-down’ effect to the poor to secure human rights.

    In contrast, the UN remains heavily marginalised as an actor within economic affairs. The UN agencies vested with the authority to ensure economic rights and freedoms have been downsized, marginalised or silenced as a voice in policy making. The UN Economic and Social Council – the UN body endowed with the authority to promote economic rights and full employment – has never been fully enabled to fulfil its mandate. Under pressure from the larger economic powers, much of its authority has passed to the preferred international institutions of the Global North: the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

    A similar fate has befallen the UN Conference of Trade and Development (UNCTAD). During a series of conferences in the 1990s, the most powerful members of the UN – led by the US – threatened to cut funding to UNCTAD unless it conformed to the dominant ideological thinking of economic globalisation. Initially created in 1969 to offer a voice to the developing world and a negotiating forum on economic policy between rich and poor nations, the forum has now been sidelined and merely offers ‘technical advice’ to poorer countries.[6]

    Other UN agencies such as the UN Development Program (UNDP) are currently threatened with further funding cuts or marginalisation. Last year, under a barrage of criticism from the US media (described as ‘rising like Frankenstein’s monster to challenge the power of the UN Secretariat'[7] and as ‘cavorting with a roster of thug governments'[8]) the US Congress cut its funding to the agency, diverting the money instead to UN bodies that fit with the US vision of development and human rights, namely the UN Entrepreneurship Initiative and UN Democracy Fund.

    Such a marginalisation of the UN role in economic development has resulted in an almost complete lack of intellectual pluralism in discussions of our future direction to secure economic rights. The model of free-market economic growth and the ‘trickle down’ theory of wealth to secure basic needs have been broadly accepted and institutionalised, at a time when poverty, inequality and hunger are increasing for the majority of the world according to the UN’s own figures, in large part because of these very policies.

    With human rights viewed through such a narrow prism, some analysts suggest that both the UN and other aid agencies could be perceived as a ‘Trojan Horse’ for the economic and political interests of the most powerful nations.[9] Following from this logic, it is perhaps little surprise that there has been an increasing distrust of UN staff and humanitarian workers in the field.

    Rather than a focussing on a narrowly imposed view of human rights, the anniversary of the UN Declaration gives us the opportunity to take stock of global priorities. An agenda that promotes peace, security and democracy has resulted in a form of ‘military humanitarianism’ and security-based human rights that play into the hands of the most economically powerful. In addition, the promotion of the economic rights of the majority world has been institutionalised in the World Bank and IMF, leading to a highly ideological attempt to secure basic human rights.

    To respond to these challenges, international governments should equally prioritise all of the rights and responsibilities in the UN Declaration to include those on economic justice, such as the right to adequate living and social protection, fair remuneration, and the right to adequate food and shelter. Such a holistic approach would help government and international bodies to tackle other complex human rights problems such as peace and security, terrorism and gender relations.

    A rejuvenated UN has a key role to play in such a prioritisation of basic human rights. To achieve this aim, the UN should regain its independence as a forum for economic policy making. The organisation can only play a central role in global governance if it can act independently and incorporate different visions of economic development, rather than follow the ideological constraints of the World Bank and IMF. A much needed rethink on the future world economic direction would aid the UN’s image in the eyes of those countries most in need of its help.

    The recent coordinated bailout of the global banking system shows that if international governments feel there is sufficient cause then they can coordinate and act with remarkable speed. The ‘bottom billion’ excluded from the benefits of economic globalisation are now waiting for their own government bailout. It is through these policies that we can achieve the wishes of the original drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: political pluralism, peace and security and true economic and social justice for all.

    Robin Willoughby is Research Officer at Share the World’s Resources (STWR), an NGO advocating for essential resources such as food, water and energy to be shared internationally. He can be contacted at: robin(at)



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