Targeting the G-8, United Nations human-rights officials (“independent experts”) have issued a call for a global financial-transaction tax “to offset the costs of the enduring economic, financial, fuel, climate and food crises, and to protect basic human rights.”
The May 14, 2012, statement is among the most blatant examples of how far the international human-rights community has strayed from human-rights principles by blundering into complex and highly partisan political debates on economics.
Olivier De Schutter, U.N. special human-rights rapporteur on the right to food, proclaimed: “Where the world financial crisis has brought about the loss of millions of jobs, socialized private debt burdens, and now risks causing significant human rights regressions through wide-ranging austerity packages, a financial transaction tax (FTT) is a pragmatic tool for providing the means for governments to protect and fulfill the human rights of their people.”
Magdalena Sepúlveda, another U.N. special rapporteur (her bailiwick is poverty and human rights), expressed confidence that the presumably massive revenue stream from such a tax “would fill government deficit holes, but should be channelled to fighting poverty, reversing growing inequality and compensating those whose lives have been devastated by the enduring global economic crisis.” Neither expert made any mention of possible social, economic, or political costs.
These statements raise many questions, aside from the obvious issue of the plausibility of the proposal and the rank amateurism of its reasoning. In fact, other human-rights officials and civilian groups have inveighed against austerity measures with the claim that they violate human rights. The Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe warned Portugal that “employment, housing, education, and social and medical assistance are vital social rights that may not be ignored even in times of economic crisis.”
Any number of respected economists would remind these officials and activists that it is precisely unsustainable overspending on generous state benefits that has led citizens in many welfare states to the point where they now face painful reductions and unmet expectations. Others would argue for more taxes on businesses and rich people, and for printing money in order to “stimulate growth.”
But should international human-rights officials, who are supposedly independent and nonpartisan, promote particular policy approaches to problems such as reducing sovereign debt? What vision of human rights animates the view that the economic hardship citizens are now facing around the world constitutes a human-rights violation that can be addressed by redistribution of wealth through taxation mandated by human-rights law? Answer: It is a politicized vision of human rights propounded by leftist organizations and politicians who have long been poaching on the transcendent concept of human rights and freedoms. As Indian economist Jagdish Bhagwati noted in 2003, human rights “is the in term, much as ‘socialism’ was three decades ago, and its moral resonance immediately gets you onto higher ground and gives you a free pass with the media and the public.”
Political parties are free to promote collectivist solutions and to try to form governments, with popular consent, in order to institute policies following such principles. U.N. human-rights officials, on the other hand, ought to steer clear of politics as they promote universally applicable principles and standards.
At present, the U.N. Human Rights Council has established 36 “special procedures.” In addition to the mandates noted above, they monitor such diverse issues as “the right to safe drinking water,” “human rights obligations related to the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and waste,” “the right of everyone to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health,” the right to “adequate housing.” And, of course, the U.N. now has a rapporteur on “the effect of foreign debt on human rights, particularly economic, cultural and social rights.” All of these concern serious social and political challenges, and areas of suffering and deprivation that democratic processes need to address. Some of these issues will also require international cooperation among U.N. member states.
The question is whether these problems can be solved within the matrix of human rights.
Making them into human-rights issues leads logically to the political conclusion that states — not civil society — can and should solve them. The proposals of the U.N. special procedures examining these issues generally recommend strong state intervention, even though interventionist states have generally been the violators of human rights in the historical fight for human rights properly understood. The new U.N. human-rights proposals will lead to more powerful states and international bureaucracies with more coercive powers over the individual — which is far from the notion of human rights as rules that keep states from limiting freedom. Meanwhile, U.N. special rapporteurs on human rights such as freedom from torture, freedom of expression, and freedom from discrimination toil away, their impact increasingly diluted as the Human Rights Council creates more and more mandates to monitor more and more “new human rights.”
Traditionally, the United States has sought to push back against this development and keep the concept of human rights wedded to the rule of law, and respect and promotion of liberty. However, the Obama administration is clearly receptive to the idea of domestic social and economic policy embedded in a superstructure of international human-rights law. In its 2010 national report to the Human Rights Council, the Department of State highlighted “social benefits provided by law,” “Federal housing assistance programs,” and the adoption of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as examples of American commitment to human rights.
This sentiment is shared by prominent American academics. In a piece in the Huffington Post, Risa Kaufman, executive director of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School, wrote that “by extending health care coverage to new, under-served groups, the ACA squarely responds to concerns repeatedly raised by international human rights bodies and experts about racial disparities in U.S. health care policy.” According to the logic of the State Department and Kaufman, the U.S. Constitution would thus hinder American fulfillment of its human-rights obligations, should the Supreme Court find the ACA unconstitutional.
Thus, even in the U.S., whose diplomats fought Soviet attempts to gut human-rights treaties in the 1950s, “human rights” no longer seems to mean life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
— Jacob Mchangama is head of legal affairs at the CEPOS think tank in Copenhagen and co-founder of the newly formed Freedom Rights Project. Aaron Rhodes is former director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and co-founder of the Freedom Rights Project.