The transformative potential of the human rights economy


From a human rights perspective, the economy fails us. Inequalities are increasing; we consume more than the earth’s natural systems can supply; economic calculations neglect much of what is dear to many of us, such as community, traditions or concern for life; and economic decisions are often made without adequate democratic oversight.

Human rights have answers to these failures.

The concrete potential of human rights to transform the economy

Long-standing human rights principles such as non-discrimination, participation and accountability would have transformative potential if embedded in the economy.

These principles are not abstract: human rights bodies have specified how they should be applied. They set the direction needed to reorient economic policy to make economic processes and outcomes fairer for people and the planet. All states in the world have recognized the legal weight of these principles. Their application has enabled historically discriminated groups to demand and achieve change towards a more just society.

In economic policy-making, the principles of equality and non-discrimination, for example, require us to conduct our inquiries from the perspective of the most vulnerable segments of society and to consider how different groups, particularly those who live in poverty, can be affected differently by economic policies. This differs from much economic thinking, which typically starts from the perspective of the most important and influential players and typically measures outcomes in aggregate terms.

Human rights recognize and defend the differences in beliefs, cultures and convictions of individuals. In addition, the underlying principles and applications of indigenous peoples’ rights, as well as the rights to health, to life and the newly recognized human right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment help inform policies that respect the Earth’s natural carrying capacity.

Economics ignores this diversity, tending to operate within a narrow worldview of essentially market relations and ignoring the different approaches to valuing and managing the living world. Human rights can draw attention to this and other shortcomings of fundamental principles of economics by affirming the right to different cultures and worldviews, focusing on the most vulnerable groups and recalling that due process is as important as economic efficiency – or more. then.

To paraphrase the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, an essential step in ensuring positive societal outcomes from a particular economic policy is to take stock of the existing situation. An inadequate assessment of the full range of impacts of a proposed economic policy is inconsistent with the human rights obligation to take deliberate, concrete and targeted steps towards the realization of human rights. It also defies common sense.

Unique Human Rights Accountability and Redress Mechanisms

More importantly, human rights mechanisms provide redress to individuals or groups who have suffered discrimination or other forms of denial of their rights. These mechanisms of redress and accountability are what distinguish human rights economics from other branches of economics that also seek a more just and sustainable world.

There are other approaches to making the economy fairer. Donut economics, feminist economics, stratification economics, and ecological economics all share human rights values, principles, and goals, as do alternative economic discourses such as postcolonial economics, ReThinking Economics, or welfare economics.

What they lack, however, are the global accountability mechanisms of economic actors that exist in the area of ​​human rights. Their implementation can significantly strengthen efforts towards a fairer economy. Moreover, the social mobilizing power of human rights can lend considerable weight to these efforts.

“The social mobilizing power of human rights can lend tremendous weight to efforts for a fairer economy.”

A challenge to the human rights community

Human rights defenders have successfully sued private economic companies and held governments accountable to their human rights obligations.

Yet they could do so much more.

The human rights community has not been systematically proactive in ensuring that human rights principles and values ​​are reflected in economic policy, although it has increased its attention to the rights dimension man of economic policies in recent years.

To have more impact on economic thought and practice, human rights advocates must go beyond descriptions of problems and solutions. They should challenge systems, not symptoms, and implement activities to ensure that economic outcomes and the process of formulating and implementing economic policy are consistent with human rights.

“The social mobilizing power of human rights can lend tremendous weight to efforts for a fairer economy.”

This could involve dispelling common misunderstandings about human rights as they are not relevant to political choices. It would also involve pointing out the conceptual, legal, and social flaws of mainstream economics and challenging mainstream economics’ overly narrow focus on efficiency and growth. Human rights advocates should be more deliberate when working with progressive economists on the widely accepted ethical and accountability framework of human rights.

The human rights community could perhaps more usefully undertake concerted work to demonstrate the practical applicability of human rights principles in economics. Examples of how human rights can inform and influence economic policy include initiatives such as studies of the distributional effects of tax and social reforms on people vulnerable to discrimination, advocacy for economic justice based on human rights in South Africa and human rights impact assessments of proposed trade agreements.

Human rights have the potential to transform economic thought and practice and to create a fairer economic system for people and the planet, to promote social and economic justice, to integrate a plurality of points of view and of traditions and to be compatible with human rights in its two processes. and the results.

This potential can and must be put into practice.


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