Human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals: The global governance architecture and its impact on human rights in Africa

by Subhas Gujadhur Blog, Contemporary and emerging human rights issues

In January 1941, the late President FD Roosevelt delivered a speech which led to the Atlantic Charter, a joint declaration with the late Sir Winston Churchill which contained their vision of a peaceful world order after the war. This new world order was to rest on four pillars,trade and finance, on the one hand peace and human rights on the other. The first two were further developed at the conference of Bretton Woods in 1944; human rights and the establishment of legal framework for a peaceful post Second World War order were left to the United Nations. In hindsight, this early crossroads already seems to symbolise the conceptual avenues that the two fields would take in the decades that followed.

The recent global financial and economic crises have exposed, once again, the dangers of unfettered liberalisation. All reasonable critiques of the crises show the most malign effects – unemployment, social decline, famine and other adverse impacts on human rights – will be felt most sharply in poor countries. The crises threatened much of the progress made towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) over the past eight years. Goals related to hunger, child and maternal mortality, education, progress in combating major diseases are the least likely to be met.

Moreover, the high subsidies and protective measures in the agricultural sectors of developed countries have also had an impact on African agricultural development, by depriving it of part of its export market. As a result, exported products fetch lower prices on the international market, thereby lowering the incentives for agricultural production. African countries, meanwhile, have been strongly exhorted to open their markets. As a result, African farmers have to compete with cheap imports at home and dwindling opportunities abroad, all the time managing dwindling commodity prices.

Many of these issues have been raised by African and other developing countries in the context of the Doha round of trade negotiations. Of critical importance to Africa is the elimination of trade-distorting barriers in agricultural products coupled with elimination of trade-distorting subsidies, particularly in developed countries. Such steps would have an enormous positive impact on food security in many developing countries, most particularly in Africa. The completion of the round, or an early harvest on some of the issues pertinent to African agricultural trade, is therefore essential for the realization of a rules-based, fair, equitable and free international system of trade, particularly in food and agricultural commodities. This must be an indispensable part of a long-term solution to fight against global food crisis and to fulfilling every African’s right to food.

Several pledges were made over recent years to address the challenges to Africa’s sustainable development. These efforts are reflected in the 2005 World Summit Outcome, the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, and the 2005 G-8 Gleneagles Summit Declaration. However, while all these efforts have added momentum to the commitments made by world leaders in the Monterrey Consensus, there is a need to acknowledge the persistent gap between what has been promised and what has been delivered. The amount of aid is just as important as the quality. While some of the developed countries have stepped up efforts to meet their commitments, one concern for us in Africa is that most of the recent increases in aid are due to debt relief and humanitarian assistance and so do not reflect additional resources available to finance development programs.

Indeed, when these two components of aid are removed, it is clear that there has not been any significant change in real aid flows since 2004. Therefore, if donors are to meet their pledge to double aid flows to Africa by 2011, there has to be a significant scaling up of aid this year and next year, and beyond.

The current global financial and food crises have presented many challenges and obstacles towards the practical enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, especially the right to food and the right to development. The canon of international human rights law (comprising civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights) offers a comprehensive legal definition of fundamental elements of human well being and human dignity. Therefore, any trade or other prescribed economic policy that goes against the principle of human rights either in design or practice lacks moral and political legitimacy.

While the primary human rights obligations of States rest within their jurisdictions, international human rights law also places obligations upon States with regard to international assistance and cooperation. These obligations require that States refrain from actions including in the context of applying trade and economic policies that could interfere directly or indirectly with the human rights of other countries as well as their own. Such extraterritorial obligations mean that steps should be taken to ensure that activities undertaken by States individually or within the multilateral process including trade negotiations do not undermine the ability of other States to meet their domestic human rights obligations.

In this context, there is an urgent need for the international community to uphold its responsibility for international assistance and cooperation for the realisation of human rights. As the Open-Ended Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals meets for its seventh session in December 2013 at the United Nations in New York, there is a need to integrate a better coherence between the right to development, the realisation of human rights as a whole, and trade and economic policies.

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