Human Rights Council Holds Separate Interactive Dialogues with Independent Expert on Foreign Debt and with Special Rapporteur

OHCHR

The Human Rights Council in a midday meeting held separate interactive dialogues with the Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt on human rights and with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Attiya Waris, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights, said that there was no doubt that the progress achieved in poverty reduction in the last two decades had been jeopardised by the pandemic.  Constraints in fiscal space, especially at a time of heightened need of health services, social protection schemes and measures to counter food inflation and increased poverty, only exacerbated inequalities.  Ms. Waris said that she intended to focus her work on the following six thematic areas: fiscal legitimacy and human rights; engaging the evolving nature and role of the State; crises, natural emergencies and financial obligations; the environment, illicit financial flows, debt and financial transactions; transparency of financial and tax information and digital systems; and the global fiscal system and its implications for human rights. 

In the discussion, speakers said the burden of foreign debt exacerbated numerous problems faced by least developed countries and other countries.  Some countries were in a deep crisis, sparked by the pandemic.  Small island developing States were in particular danger from climate change, which impacted the social and economic wellbeing of the country.  Effective debt management policies associated with reducing external debt were a must to promote economic growth.  Developing countries’ debt was of concern as it was disproportionately affecting people in marginalised populations.  Speakers called for stronger international solidarity in alleviating debt and challenging illicit financial flows.  

Speaking in the discussion with the Independent Expert on foreign debt were Egypt, Cuba, Angola, Libya, Venezuela, Malaysia, Iraq, Kenya, Maldives, China, Namibia, Cameroon, Pakistan, Indonesia, Russian Federation, Benin, Algeria, South Africa, Tunisia, Botswana, Malawi, Bolivia and Iran.

Also speaking were the Indigenous People of Africa Coordinating Committee, Action Canada for Population and Development, Mother of Hope Cameroon Common Initiative Group, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales Asociación Civil, Associazione Comunita Papa Giovanni XXIII, Institut International pour les Droits et le Développement, Sikh Human Rights Group, Prahar, Integrated Youth Empowerment – Common Initiative Group, and Global Welfare Association.

The Council then held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said that situations of conflict and insecurity frequently disproportionately impacted the most marginalised members of society.  Such treatment of minorities often compounded pre-existing inequalities based on religion or belief and other identifiers, such as their ethnicity, race and gender.  Actors often targeted religious or belief minorities to further their political, socio-economic, and military objectives – or to invoke crisis conditions to justify or ignore human rights violations.  The Special Rapporteur warned against homogenising experiences, since this approach was often reductive, concealing complexities affecting the lives of millions of peoples amidst conflict and crises.  He suggested reform to both policy and practice, ranging from that of States to humanitarian actors, civil society and social media companies.  In conclusion, Mr. Shaheed said that diversity should be seen as a source of strength and pathway to enrich societies and achieve resilience.  By better appreciating religious or belief minorities’ specific needs and vulnerabilities in conflict and insecurity, the international community could better mitigate and prevent suffering in future and leave no one behind.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers recognised the role of religious leaders in conflict as they negotiated and conciliated while being at risk themselves.  They highlighted that religious extremism was an important driver for conflict as seen, among others, in Western Africa, the African Horn and the Middle East.  They were concerned about the scale, severity and systemic approach of discriminations against religious minorities in many countries.  The importance of respecting religious and ethnic minorities and including them in conflict resolution efforts was repeatedly highlighted.  The depiction of religious minorities and of those challenging the religious status quo as terrorists was condemned.  Concerns were expressed over the increased instrumentalisation of conflicts.  Religion must never be used to ignite war, hostility, violence or the shedding of blood; those were the consequence of a deviation of religious teaching. 

Speaking in the dialogue on freedom of religion and belief were the European Union, Brazil on behalf of a group of States, Denmark on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic States, Morocco on behalf of a group of Arab States, Poland on behalf of a group of countries, Austria on behalf of a group of countries, Sovereign Order of Malta, Canada, Egypt, United Kingdom, Sierra Leone, Nepal, Fiji, Venezuela, France, Malaysia, Iraq, Cuba, Luxembourg, India, China, Senegal, Namibia, Armenia, Netherlands, Cameroon, Indonesia, Mauritius, Russian Federation, Cambodia, South Africa, Sudan, Holy See, Bangladesh, Slovakia, United States, Belgium, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Israel, Azerbaijan, Albania, Croatia, Georgia, Hungary, Malawi, Malta, Jordan, Yemen, Ukraine, Iran, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia, State of Palestine and Syria.

Also speaking were World Jewish Congress, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Jubilee Campaign, World Evangelical Alliance, International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Conselho Indigenista Missionario, British Humanist Association, ACT Alliance – Action by Churches Together, Minority Rights Group and Interfaith International. 

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here.  All meeting summaries can be found here.  Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-ninth regular session can be found here.

The Council will next meet at 4:15 p.m., when it will hold an interactive dialogue with the new Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, followed by an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment. 

Interactive Dialogue with the Independent Expert on the Effects of Foreign Debt on the Full Enjoyment of Human Rights

Documentation

The Council has before it (A/HRC/49/47), the report of the Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights, on taking stock and identifying priority areas: a vision for the future work of the mandate holder.

Presentation of the Report

ATTIYA WARIS, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights, said her mandate began at a time of complex and competing crises, with the vast majority of the world’s population facing uncertainty about the future and deepening inequalities, including socio-economic impacts either resulting from or being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Although estimates varied, between 115 and 150 million additional people were living in extreme poverty in the last two years.  There was no doubt that the progress achieved in poverty reduction in the last two decades had been jeopardised by the pandemic.  There could not be effective promotion and protection of any human right without States ensuring adequate financial resources to comply with their obligations and commitments in a timely manner.  Constraints in fiscal space, especially at a time of heightened need of health services, social protection schemes and measures to counter food inflation and increased poverty, only exacerbated inequalities. 

In this mandate, the burden of unsustainable debt, the losses incurred due to illicit financial flows, the weakness of effective taxation of multinational corporations, and the urgency to address and regulate financial systems were, among others, all crucial areas to better understand and challenge pervasive inequalities within and between countries.  Ms. Waris said she intended to focus her work on the following six thematic areas: fiscal legitimacy and human rights; engaging the evolving nature and role of the State; crises, natural emergencies and financial obligations; the environment, illicit financial flows, debt and financial transactions; transparency of financial and tax information and digital systems; and the global fiscal system and its implications for human rights.  She said she would be visiting Pakistan in May 2022 and Argentina in August 2022.  

In conclusion, the Independent Expert explained that the weight of pre-COVID-19 public and private debt levels was a matter of serious concern, and there were substantive grounds to fear a systemic debt crisis, with more sovereign and private defaults to come.  She called for a response to the current debt crisis, including by putting in place temporary debt standstill, emergency financing, debt relief, restructuring and cancellation; and for the prevention of a vicious cycle of debt by ensuring that the international debt architecture reform was based on human rights standards and principles, which offered a transparent, coherent and universally recognised framework that could inform the design and implementation of a debt restructuring mechanism and provide a just, equitable and durable solution to debt crises.

Discussion

In the dialogue, speakers said that the implementation of human rights obligations required a whole-government and whole-society approach, which needed to be supported by resources.  The burden of foreign debt exacerbated numerous problems faced by least developed countries and other countries.  Despite efforts to mitigate the effect of debt, the situation of many countries remained fragile.  Some countries were in a deep crisis, sparked by the pandemic.  It was important to assist developing countries and least developed countries in achieving a viable level of long-term debt, with coordinating policies to restructure it and implement appropriate policies.  Small island developing States were in particular danger from climate change, which impacted the social and economic wellbeing of the country.  The impact of COVID-19 had aggravated the debt risk of developing countries and the spread of inflationary pressure to emerging and developing countries was of concern.  The former should take greater steps towards debt relief and reducing the pressure put on.  Effective debt-management policies associated with reducing external debt were a must to promote economic growth.

Other speakers reiterated their appreciation for the work of the Independent Expert and the six thematic areas on which she focused her report.  They concurred that the pandemic had exacerbated existing inequalities and revealed competition over scarce resources.  Developing countries’ debt was of concern as it was disproportionately affecting people in marginalised populations.  For human rights to be respected and fulfilled, resources were needed.  Speakers called for a stronger international solidarity in alleviating debt and challenging illicit financial flows.  The need to create fiscal and economic capacity for developing countries to meet and realise various economic obligations was noted.  The exacerbated adverse effect of climate change on developing economies was highlighted as a source of concern. 

Interim Remarks

ATTIYA WARIS, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights, said comments from Member States had been taken note of.  The report was a preliminary report, and she remained open to additional issues that could come up.  There had been a lot of conversation on the need to move away from a charity approach to a more solidarity-based approach, avoiding making people feel that they were vulnerable.  Illicit financial flows were a crucial point for many countries.  Undocumented and unregulated firms were of concern.  Issues on economic building blocks would be examined by the Independent Expert over the next few years – it was important to make sure that there was technology transfer happening into developing countries.  The concern of the small island States on the issue of sustainability was noted.  She remained open to engage with all States, and was happy to continue to engage on topics not listed in the report.  One of the entities she intended to continue to engage with was the United Nations Tax Committee, and she hoped this would allow for linkage between rights and resources, providing a bridge to get between the different levels in the United Nations.  On re-categorisation of States, she would go into it further.

Discussion

In the discussion, speakers denounced how proposed reform programmes offered by the Bretton Wood institutions were affecting developing countries.  Development assistance projects had created a vicious cycle where recipient countries relied on such institutions for development.  Developing countries should dictate their needs to allow foreign aid to be used more effectively as this would help prevent donors from assuming the success of a project.  Austerity measures were denounced, and speakers called for human rights to be put at the centre of the development of the fiscal system.  During the last decade, the adverse effect of international fiscal policies such as austerity measures had added stress on developing countries’ economies.  The issue of the effect of foreign debt on human rights was still among the many challenges that developing countries were facing and assistance was needed to help them attain long term debt sustainability.  Other speakers appreciated the commitment of the Independent Expert to explore such mechanisms and go beyond the traditional mechanisms with a human rights sensitive perspective.  Financial obligations were part of the development of a country but during a global crisis they posed a threat to human rights such as the right to development.  The case of Argentina and its largest International Monetary Fund loan in history was mentioned. 

Concluding Remarks

ATTIYA WARIS, Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights, said the dialogue had given her a lot of food for thought.  It was critical to continue to engage with all States, and she would continue to do so in all ways.  She also aimed at engaging with various other relevant stakeholders, and she would keep this group as wide as possible, and it would include international financial institutions, and United Nations entities such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the United Nations regional commissions.  She would maintain a regular and fluid engagement with civil society and academia.  She would engage in a constructive way aiming to help Governments to identify policies to address the Sustainable Development Goals that had lain dormant for the last two years.  The diverse concerns of many countries were noted.  In March 2023, she would address the Human Rights Council in an interim report.  She had been actively participating in a series of events, including in the Social Forum on issues of debt, and also with the General Assembly on a debt architecture. 

On engagement with international institutions, she had already sent letters to the International Monetary Fund on raising the needs to consider environmental and social issues in their mechanisms, and had received an interesting response in that regard.  In addition, the next report would be focusing on a global inter-governmental tax body, and the call for contributions would be upcoming.  Not only did rights require resources, but resources were also rights, and there were deep concerns across the globe on debt and the need to restructure, and to deepen understanding on how much debt a State could take on, as at the end of the day, it came down to what future generations were going to pay back.  Restructuring budgets as a transitional budget as COVID-19 ended and then restructuring it constantly was the ideal path to take, and all countries should consider this, not only developing countries.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Documentation

The Council has before it (A/HRC/49/44), report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, addressing the rights of persons belonging to religious or belief minorities in situations of conflict and insecurity.

Presentation of the Report

AHMED SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said that over 2 billion people – or 1 in 4 persons – were affected by climates of fragility, conflict and violence.  Situations of conflict and insecurity frequently disproportionately impacted the most marginalised members of society, especially where violence, stigmatisation, and discrimination represented a continuation rather than a break from recent history.  Such treatment of minorities often compounded pre-existing inequalities based on religion or belief and other identifiers, such as their ethnicity, race and gender.  Worryingly, the COVID-19 pandemic had further amplified many prevailing vulnerabilities and fragilities, especially in conflict zones.  The Special Rapporteur expressed his deep concern about the scale, severity and systematic nature of human rights violations perpetrated against members of religious or belief minorities during conflicts and insecurity, often at least partly because of their religion or belief.  He observed that conflicts and crises affected religious or belief minorities alongside others by virtue of living in these fragile settings, rather than necessarily because of their religion or belief identity.  

Amidst existing and emerging crises, people of every religion or belief system had suffered – and indeed, people from diverse belief systems contributed to that suffering in certain circumstances.  Actors often targeted religious or belief minorities to further their political, socio-economic, and military objectives – or invoked crisis conditions to justify or ignore human rights violations.  The Special Rapporteur warned against homogenising experiences, since this approach was often reductive, concealing complexities affecting the lives of millions of peoples amidst conflict and crises.  Moreover, it was essential not to overstate or overestimate the role of religion in either furthering conflict or peace-making efforts to the exclusion of other factors and motivations involved.  There were neither entirely “religious” conflicts nor entirely “religious” solutions.  “Religionising” conflicts may render conflict even more intractable and peacebuilding more elusive.  

His report contained several recommendations for key stakeholders on how they could advance a human rights-based approach for better protecting and promoting the rights of religious or belief minorities, and laying the groundwork for inclusive transitions from conflict and insecurity towards durable peace.  He suggested reform to both policy and practice, ranging from that of States to humanitarian actors, civil society and social media companies.  In conclusion, Mr. Shaheed mentioned that diversity should be seen as a source of strength and pathway to enrich societies and achieve resilience.  When the human rights of one community was compromised, all the society suffered.  By better appreciating religious or belief minorities’ specific needs and vulnerabilities in conflict and insecurity, the international community could better mitigate and prevent suffering in future and leave no one behind.

Discussion

In the discussion, speakers thanked the Special Rapporteur for his work over the past six years and welcomed his recommendations to ensure the participation of belief minorities in peace making, peacebuilding and transitional justice process.  They recognised the role of religious leaders in conflict as they negotiated and conciliated while being at risk themselves.  Speakers welcomed the Rapporteur’s nuanced discourse yet highlighted that religious extremism was an important driver for conflict as seen, among others, in Western Africa, the African Horn, the Middle East and elsewhere.  The report was commended for its findings.  

Some speakers insisted on the need to prevent discriminations based on beliefs, including in the context of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine.  They condemned its aggression in the strongest possible terms and supported the call of Mr. Shaheed to include minority religious actors in conflict resolution processes.  The importance of respecting religious and ethnic minorities and including them in conflict resolution processes was repeatedly highlighted.  The use of protecting Russia’s religious space as part of Mr. Vladimir Putin’s narrative to justify his military aggression was condemned. The depiction of religious minorities and those challenging the religious status quo as terrorists was further condemned.  

One speaker said peace needed to be holistic and underlined the importance of multi-religious efforts in peace building as religious actors were often first responders who were providing religious assistance and life-saving emergency aid.  Other speakers were disappointed that the report was not submitted in a timely manner and was not translated in all United Nations official languages.  The topic of the report was deemed important and pressing, however, it was regretted that the Special Rapporteur did not take into account all the details that were submitted to him.  It was disappointing that the report focused on certain violations and not others and that it was ignoring massive violations of human rights.  Some speakers said that the information contained in the report was selective and politicised to suit the Rapporteur’s political mission, a behaviour that undermined the trust in Special Procedures as a whole. 

Interim Remarks

AHMED SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief, said his mandate required him to report on and examine existing obstacles to the freedom of belief or belief for all purposes, and he had an obligation to investigate them in this context.  He had many caveats on the report – it was a global survey, examining challenges.  Delegations who had an issue were invited to re-read the report, as efforts were made to be balanced and measured and rely on sources that were appropriate to the mandate-holder.  Regarding Islamophobia in certain countries, he had issued a report on this not long ago, and delegations should look into it seriously.  He hoped that country visits would allow him to examine examples of good practice.  With regard to social media companies, these should be mindful to apply human rights standards, both in contextual areas but also in being transparent as to how they were doing this, and should work to protect vulnerable parts of society who were frequent targets of online abuse.

On prevention and peacebuilding and avoiding instrumentalisation, it was important to take an evidence-based approach to issues, bearing in mind intersectional dimensions so that no faith-based community was monolithic, and bearing in mind the most vulnerable communities.  There were a variety of tools available for engaging in this.  Inclusivity in who was engaged in this process was necessary.  Key themes were inclusivity and ensuring that nobody was left behind, and making sure that all worked together towards the same goals, using the tools that were out there, which could be useful operational guides in moving up.  States and faith, religious and belief actors were a range of stakeholders that should be brought together.  The empirical evidence of the situation had to be brought together, whilst promoting a bottom-up approach.

Discussion

Speakers regretted the rise in conflicts and how this impacted negatively religious communities.  They were concerned about the scale, severity and systemic approach of discriminations against religious minorities, among others, in a number of countries.  The only way to secure a future was by working together.  The international community must remain committed to religious freedom.  Concerns were also expressed about the use of counter terrorism measures to discriminate against minorities.  Speakers were convinced that the protection of minorities must expand beyond current mechanisms and needed to address the root causes of discrimination.  Gender specificities were highlighted so as to allow women to express their religious belief without any fear.  Further concerns were expressed over the increased instrumentalisation of conflicts.  Speakers said that religion must never be used to ignite war, hostility, violence or the shedding of blood; those were the consequence of a deviation of religious teaching.  One speaker said that members of religious minorities were particularly vulnerable and that laws against forced conversation and blasphemy were unacceptable in the twenty-first century.  Another speaker regretted that the Special Rapporteur had to postpone his field visits due to the pandemic and invited him to resume his plans as soon as possible. 

Concluding Remarks

AHMED SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief, said he was grateful for the candid responses of all speakers today.  Today was his last presentation to the Council, and he thanked all for the engagement with his mandate, and thanked them for their increasing interest in the issue.  At the beginning of the work, he had suggested ways of increasing the impact of the mandate, including new tools, and highlighted the needs for better synergy across the work, including with the Universal Periodic Review mechanism and other United Nations mechanisms.  He was pleased with the positive response to his call to mainstream freedom of women in the Sustainable Development Goals, and the importance of the situation of women.  He welcomed the warm collaboration with many stakeholders, including at grass-roots level.  An increasing number of actors were working on the issue of freedom of religion or belief.  Governments which had received him for an assessment of their situation were thanked, as were civil society actors in their tireless commitment to human rights.  The report made suggestions on how to work to increase freedom of religion or belief.  Societies flourished when all opinions were consulted and all elements of society were included.  Human rights were a fundamental part of the vision of the world.  State and non-state actors should uphold human rights and respect and promote freedoms and rights, including minorities, whether in conflict or in peace. 

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2022/03/le-conseil-des-droits-de-lhomme-est-saisi-de-rapports-sur-la

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