Tag Archives: human development

UN High-Level RoL meeting to take up HLP issues … maybe

by Rhodri C. Williams

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a seminar marking the tenth anniversary of Sweden’s government agency “for international peace intervention”, the Folke Bernadotte Academy (FBA). The topic of the seminar was rule of law (RoL) in general and this Tuesday’s UN conference on the issue in particular. The high level meeting at this year’s 67th session of the UN General Assembly is one of these periodic, frantic plenary meetings where all the states in the world along with a plethora of observers and NGOs culminate weeks of behind-the-scenes wrangling with (hopefully) the adoption of an outcome document that may push an important issue forward a few steps.

In the best case, the outcome will have legs even if the grandiosely named meetings themselves quickly fall into the obscurity of UN genealogy. Students are frequently bemused to hear that they failed to notice a “World Summit” hosted by the UN in 2005. However, few have failed to notice the resulting responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine. And for those of us in the rights-based humanitarianism branch, the strong endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement buried in paragraph 132 of the Outcome Document may come to be seen as a pretty important step in the long march from soft law to opinio juris. But I digress.

Some of the talk at the FBA seminar was about the high-level politics of the high-level meeting, and particularly an emerging tendency to distinguish RoL as applied at the international versus the national levels. This has apparently been one of the key debates surrounding the drafting of the outcome document, with states that see domestic RoL as one of their own virtues more inclined to promote it to others (and the targets of their exhortations curiously more interested in the international variant). However, all indications are that there will be a buffet-style compromise, with both national and international RoL, as well as various ‘nexuses’ in between on offer.

This is perhaps most clearly evinced in the UN Secretary-General’s preparatory report for the conference, which proposes the adoption of a broad and often ambitious programme of action. Some proposals are simply unrealistic (states should ‘remove any reservations’ to UN treaties they have ratified, para. 12). Others are curious to the point of evoking typos (UN post-conflict RoL assistance should ‘promote gender’, full stop – para. 24). However, the overall feel of the document is quite sound, reflecting an increasingly emphatic accommodation of legal empowerment and economic/social concerns in an area of practice that arguably began as a bastion of orthodox civil and political imperatives.

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Sweden versus social and economic human rights? Part 2: The right to water

by Rhodri C. Williams

In 2006, when I was still relatively new to this part of the world, I started participating in a working group run by Swedish Water House on water as a human right. At the time, only four years had passed since the UN Committee on Social and Economic Rights had read a right to water into the right to an adequate standard of living in their groundbreaking General Comment 15. The UNDP had just released its 2006 human development report on the global water crisis, which pinned blame firmly on misguided policies, not absolute scarcity or technical issues. DFID had just officially notified the world that water was a human right. The wind was at our backs. But not the Swedish Foreign Ministry.

In effect, what I had assumed would be an exercise in enlightened Swedes lecturing the world on the importance of recognizing the right to water turned out to be an exercise in enlightened Swedes lecturing official Sweden on this point. Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) had recognized the right to water, nor did they evince much enthusiasm. After a year of prodding, a pleasant but slightly beleaguered Foreign Ministry official attended an October 2007  seminar and conceded that “the government recognizes the right to water as emanating from the right to an adequate standard of living in article 11, paragraph 1 of the ICESCR” (seminar report, 12).

However, the lawyers had clearly been at work, and the “emanating” formulation (as opposed to recognition as a “free-standing right”) became a means of maintaining opposition to normative developments then underway in Geneva:

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Sweden versus social and economic human rights? Part 1: Benchmarking human rights

by Rhodri C. Williams

Last weekend, Swedish international lawyer Krister Thelin published a provocatively commonsensical proposal in Dagens Nyheter, one of Sweden’s two big broadsheets. In his article, Thelin, who sits on the UN Human Rights Committee, recommended that the countries of the world be assigned grades allowing comparison of their human rights performance. He argues that overcoming UN hesitations in this area would place greater pressure on non-compliant states and provide benchmarks to guide the performance of governments genuinely interested in performing better. Mr. Thelin also suggested that such an approach would be of immediate assistance in encouraging progress toward democracy and respect for human rights in the course of the ongoing ‘Arab Spring’ in the Middle East and North Africa.

This argument is sound in principle. Human rights are meant to be universal and applicable in equal measure to all the states of the world. Moreover, the vast majority of states have ratified human rights conventions and virtually none deny the existence or applicability of human rights as a matter of official policy. From this perspective, the failure of states to uniformly apply human rights is not only morally repugnant but hypocritical, and a grading system as proposed by Mr. Thelin would further expose this hypocrisy. The establishment of such a system would probably be more complicated than Mr. Thelin lets on, given that it would add further fuel to a number of debates within the field of human rights as well as in regard to the related fields of humanitarian assistance, development cooperation and transitional justice. However, one of the striking aspects of Mr. Thelin’s proposal, as it now stands, is that it does not entirely acknowledge the existence and significance of these debates.

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Sweden versus social and economic human rights … what gives?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I think it is fair to say that most of us non-Swedes view Sweden as an incredibly seductive place. Mind you, I refer not so much to sheer pulchritude (though any readers out there who think Swedes are past the beauty myth should check out this nonsense) as to social policy. In American terms, right-wingers view Sweden’s allure as dangerous and misleading, with wretched proletarian drones somehow managing to masquerade, year after year, as happy, well adjusted social democrats. Left-wingers, by contrast, drool unabashedly.

And what’s not to like, one might ask? Look around and you will observe a generous and well-funded welfare state balanced by privatization in all kinds of unexpected places, impressive gender equality, rule of law, one of Europe’s more frivolous right wing populist parties, the ability to power through global economic meltdowns without even getting your ponytail mussed, and social capital to burn.

Sweden also occupies a special place in the human rights pantheon. If Americans assume that their human rights record is beyond question because they wrote them, Swedes do the same because they embody them. Where other countries fuss endlessly over balancing public interests and individual rights, Swedes often seem to assume they are the same thing.  Swedes love human rights. At least, fifty percent of human rights. Curiously, in a country shaped by the labor movement, infatuated with solidarity and social justice, and punching well above its weight in development cooperation, economic and social rights seem not to be a polite topic for dinnertime conversation.

This realization has dawned on me gradually during my time here, but I was recently given a reminder by a proposal related to ‘grading’ countries on their human rights performance published in a leading Swedish newspaper (Dagens Nyheter) by a leading Swedish jurist (and former Bosnia colleague, Krister Thelin). My proposal to respond directly to Krister’s article was turned down by the DN editors on the unreassuring grounds of “insufficient space, among other things” (it seems that I have yet to stamp my authority on the world of Swedish punditry). Happily though, this gives me the opportunity to finally blog a bit more on local issues of relevance to TN.

All this by way of announcing two forthcoming posts on ‘Sweden versus social and economic human rights’, the first responding to Krister’s grading system proposal and the second focusing on Sweden’s approach to the right to water. Both are indicative of an apparent unease with this category of rights in a country that has absolutely nothing to lose from embracing them.  Sweden probably outperforms most other countries in the world in implementing these rights in practice, but eschews them in principle. Is it a question of local political culture, a hangover from the Cold War, both or neither? And what broader significance might it have in a world where social and economic justice claims remain both burningly relevant and persistently controversial? All this and more to come. Hej så länge!

Part 1: Benchmarking human rights (o9 September 2011)

Part 2: The right to water (15 September 2011)

The week in links – week 39/2010

A few interesting items last week:

  1. Nicholas Christoph at the NY Times lays out a scenario for a derailed referendum on the independence of southern Sudan to result in yet another post-Cold War genocide in early 2011 – and advises the Obama administration to put punitive pipeline bombing on the table as a foreign policy instrument.
  2. Lazaro Sumbeiywo and John Danforth provide a slightly more prosaic account of what is at stake in the upcoming referendum and take rather a different policy tack in plugging for increased development assistance to help Sudan improve its woeful MDG standing.
  3. Its twenty years since German unification, the event that bumped me out of my teenage apathy and into the slipstream of the New World Order we have all enjoyed the fruits of since. Foreign Policy reports on how Europe’s current economic woes relate to the deal cut back then, while NYT notes that South Korea is scrutinizing the unification model for events foreseeable over the next twenty.
  4. Its also been 20 years since the first human development report. Who knew? UNDP has a dedicated webpage including a number of new thematic research papers on “key issues and concepts of human development”
  5. Finally, a new journal has just come out of Penn Press that bundles together a lot of the issues a lot of TN readers hold dear: “Humanity is a semiannual publication dedicated to publishing original research and reflection on human rights, humanitarianism, and development in the modern and contemporary world.” Enjoy it, o those of you with access to academic databases, and may a little bit trickle down to the rest of us.