Top Issues 2017

Top Issues 2017

Social Justice Connection has once again prepared a list of the world’s most pressing problems involving human rights issues in development finance for the coming year.

Although progress was made, some of the issues for 2016 continue to be a concern, such as climate change and gender inequality. Other issues have also emerged as high priorities, such as internal migration, the huge amounts of money hidden in tax havens and the shocking increase in attacks on human rights defenders.

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Attacks on human rights defenders have been a prevalent issue over the past few years. There were 185 activists killed throughout 16 nations in 2015. The Coalition of Human Rights in Development has started a petition wanting international financial institutions (IFIs) to take responsibility in defending human rights defenders from attacks. The coalition, which includes SJC, wants the institutions to create a space where public participation is encouraged. Moreover, it also includes that IFIs must “ensure that their activities do not cause or contribute to human rights violations, including taking necessary measures to identify and address human rights risks in all of their activities.” The petition was signed by more than 150 organizations, including human rights, development, and environmental groups.

Latin America is a continent where many killings of human rights defenders occur, according to a rapport published by Amnesty International in 2016. Out of the 185 killings that occurred in 2015, 122 of these were in Latin America. Honduras and Guatemala are two nations where many killings occur, the former being the country with the highest number per capita of murders of activists. In Guatemala, defenders of indigenous rights and of the environment were the targets of the greatest number of attacks between the year 2000 and August 2015. As such, Amnesty International has written a list of recommendations for Honduras and Guatemala to follow in order to protect human rights defenders. One of these recommendations is for the government authorities to publicly recognize the validity of the defenders’ work. Another one is for these same authority figures to abstain from using language that could defame defenders, including words such as “enemies” or “terrorists”. One way to harm these defenders is to label them as either “unpatriotic or antidevelopment”. This provides the government with a reason to discredit their work.

Canadian mining companies operating in Latin America have been subject to criticism due to their involvement in attacking human rights defenders. One of the more infamous cases involved the shooting and subsequent death of Mariano Abarca Roblero on November 27th 2009. He was the leader of a group in Mexico opposing a mining project by the Blackfire Exploration Company in the town in Chicomuselo in Chiapas. It was found that the mining company had paid of a sum of approximately $20,000 CAD to the local mayor Julio César Velásquez Calderón. Calderón claimed the payment was made in order to protect the company from opponents of the project. Roblero was an important figure in leading the dissent against the Blackfire Exploration’s project. He was quite renowned in his community. He gave a speech in front of the Canadian embassy in Mexico City in July 2009 that gave him considerable notoriety. Canadian companies are prevalent in Latin America’s mining activities. They control between 50 and 70 percent of the continent’s mining businesses.

Human rights defenders have to deal with constant attacks and threats as a result of their opposition to certain projects. In Peru, environmental defender Máxima Acuña de Chaupe has been subjected to such abuse. She has been fighting against the Newmont Mining Corporation for years. Recently, she has been opposed to a project called the Conga Mine to enlarge the Yanacocha mine. The mining company would essentially have to destroy her property in order to complete the project. Water protestors have joined Máxima in her fight against the project. De Chaupe was recently sent to the hospital as a result of a beating she suffered, according to the NGO Mining Watch. De Chaupe’s family accuses Minera Yanacocha, a subsidiary of Newmont Mining, of sending the men who attacked her to her property. This is not the first time that Newmont Mining has been called out against its harassing of De Chaupe. A letter signed by multiple human rights organizations such as Amazon Watch and Global Witness was sent out to Newmont Mining asking them to stop threatening and attacking De Chaupe and her family.
Photo: Roberto Stuckert Filho

Unlike international migration, which has received considerable media coverage since the Syrian refugee crisis, the issues underlying internal migration remain neglected by international organizations, NGOs and governments. However, the vast majority of migrations of population, usually caused by war or natural disasters, are internal, meaning they occur within the borders of fragile countries. Out of the 65.3 million people forced to migrate, 40.8 million are internal migrations, according to a 2016 publication by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). These populations face considerable obstacles and can be easily confronted with numerous social injustices linked to their personal development.

In particular, problems of integration can be observed within the host communities and create tensions between populations. The vast majority of internally displaced persons live in developing countries, which means that their integration into their new host environment takes place within a population who themselves are living in poverty, according to a report by the European Commission in June 2016. As reflected in the document, local communities and international organizations contribute to the survival of internal migrants. The arrival of internal migrants can thus put additional pressure on the resources available in the host communities, leaving room for further conflict and displacement, as reported by a publication prepared by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC).

To continue, it is noted by the IDMC that the incorporation of internal migrants in an urban context brings an additional difficulty for their integration into their host environment. Most of those displaced in urban settings find themselves in informal settlements and thus do not have access to basic services that would allow them to facilitate a transition from a rural lifestyle to an urban one. In addition, informal settlements have made it particularly difficult to provide them with assistance, through projects to support the displaced. This complicates the financing of initiatives to help facilitate integration.

The IDMC report also shows that this high level of urban vulnerability increases the vulnerability of IDPs in their ability to cope with other disasters. This can include the risk of contracting diseases, the risk of sexual exploitation, abuse, and a limitation in their ability to become self-sufficient and independent. The European Commission agrees with this assessment. It reports that internally displaced people in urban areas are prone to poverty and lack of resources in terms of psychological and social assistance. In the aftermath of emergencies, there is a strong growth in violence, which underlines the importance of immediate assistance. This situation is even more problematic for women, given the fact that they already face discrimination on the basis of their gender in their environment.

Despite the knowledge of the difficulties faced by IDPs, and the fact that they represent more than six out of ten forced displacements, very little effort is being made to resolve the issue. In September 2016, the United Nations prepared and adopted the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, but it was found that internally displaced persons were excluded from the declaration, thereby putting aside the problems faced by the vast majority of forced displaced people. States with large populations of internally displaced persons consider the problem to be a matter of national sovereignty, which greatly limits the ability of funding initiatives that could help them, according to the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), an organization attached to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Knowing that more than 12.4 million new IDPs have been registered in 2015, it seems clear that additional resources must be allocated to protect the rights of this population. Otherwise, as the IDMC states, internally displaced persons (IDPs) may remain in their host communities for years, or even decades, leaving them in a constant state of precariousness.

Photo: World Bank Photo Collection

During the 2015 G20 summit, members of the United Nations pledged to close the gender gap by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They made commitments for change at the national level in order to end gender discrimination. With the creation of the Women-20, the G20 is “fully committed to achieve a gender inclusive global economic growth in the G20 countries through the economic empowerment of women.”

The year 2016 was a continuation of the engagement made towards gender equality. A report published in 2016 measuring gender gap in terms of four key areas showed that it would in take 83 years to eliminate it. Those four areas are health, education, economy and politics. In 2015, it was found that it would take approximately 118 years to close the economic gap; although progress was made, the economic aspect remains the least advanced one.

The W20 emphasizes the need for women in leadership positions, the widespread unequal access to education and healthcare, and the need to eliminate violence and harmful practices against women and girls. An example of a harmful practice used is female genital mutilation (FGM). There are approximately 200 million women and girls that have underwent the practice, according to a report published by the United Nations in 2016. It was also found that most of the girls were under the age of five.

Groups who actively promote the pursuit of gender equity, like the Gender and Development Network (GDN) have expressed concerns about the representation of women’s rights in development finance and the absence of a specific commitment to gender equality. The SDGs need to be strengthened in other aspects as well, the GDN argues. They do not require that the share of Official Development Assistance set aside for achieving gender equality and women’s rights grow with or be proportionate to overall ODA growth. Nor do they hold national governments or private sector investors accountable for meeting human rights and gender equality obligations. GDN also recommends that the SDGs identify the need for adequate and targeted resources as well as equal access to existing financial capital for women. These would increase the likelihood of women being represented and supported in internationally financed development.

The practice of tax evasions directly links to violations of human rights because money that could have been used to create or ameliorate public services is instead hidden in offshore accounts. The continent of Africa is assessed to lose $14 billion a year in tax revenues due to tax evasions, according to a January 2016 document published by Oxfam. Nearly $500 billion are hidden in tax havens by the richest of Africans. Furthermore, developing countries are assessed to lose approximately $100 billion a year. Fields like healthcare and education could be significantly enhanced if this amount of revenue would not be lost. Oxfam calls for the end of this practice because it is the most vulnerable segments of populations that suffer the most, for instance low-income individuals.

Many powerful individuals use the practice of tax evasion. The recent leak of the Panama papers showcases that the use of tax havens is rampant. For instance, the papers provide a list of important individuals involved in the practice, ranging from heads of states such as the president of Argentina and the king of Saudi Arabia, to people linked to leading figures such as the father of former UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

The use of tax havens leads to inequality because it obstructs domestic companies from making the most amount of profit that they could. When powerful firms use tax havens, it falls upon less wealthy workers to contribute to society. For instance, in the United States, large companies who hide money in offshore accounts pay a tax rate of approximately 26.5%, whereas the typical worker pays 31.5%. As such, companies and individuals that do not use tax havens end up having to pay more taxes, hence furthering the gap between the rich and poor.

The United States is one of many countries where tax evasion is rampant. The nation’s lost revenue is nearly $111 billion a year. This can be problematic when government benefits are slashed. For example, congress cut $8.7 billion from its food stamps’ budget in 2014. This could have greatly benefited people living with low incomes. As an example, Delaware is a state where tax havens are set up.

Experts working for the United Nations support the creation of a UN body whose responsibility would be to end tax havens. One key aspect of this body is that the consultants would not be employees from the UN. They also would not receive any monetary benefits for their work. Individuals are able to conceal between $7 and $25 trillion of funds, according to the same article. These staggering figures could be put to better use. Areas in public services such as education and law enforcement could benefit from the elimination of tax havens.

Certain leaders around the world have been vocal advocates for the elimination of tax havens. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is a prominent one. He continues to be a fierce supporter for the end of the practice, according to an article published by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). In Ecuador, nearly $4 billion American dollars was hidden in tax haven. Correa links tax evasions to human rights. For example, the recent earthquake of April 2016 left the country partly destroyed. More money could have been available to reconstruct the country if the capital had not been lost in tax revenues. He recently introduced a referendum proposal on whether to bar public servants and elected officials with money hidden abroad from holding their positions. The public is set to vote on this policy in 2017. If it passes, those servants and elected officials would have one year to return the money to avoid losing their job.
As such, the elimination of tax havens is a viable solution to end inequality. What is greatly needed is powerful leading figures taking the necessary steps to fight it.

Photo: Julien Harneis

Environmental degradation and human rights violations are often considered as separate issues by policymakers, but the argument can also be made that environmental protection is essential to allow the enjoyment of human rights. Environmental protection and respect of human rights are both strengthened through accessible information, participation in decision-making and the availability of judicial recourse.

The Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has emphasized that though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not explicitly outline the right to a healthy environment, there is an urgent need to address environmental degradation issues as they conflict with the ability to exercise human rights. There are several examples of development projects criticized for their impacts on both the environment and local communities, such as large-scale agriculture plantations, dams and coal-fired electric generators. In the disappearing rainforests in Indonesia for example, indigenous people are losing their source of food, medicine and building materials.

Adapting to climate change, however, comes at a high price, and climate change investment needs, especially in developing countries, are considerable. Direct government funding is scarce and the billions of dollars committed by industrialized countries remain inadequate to the magnitude of the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (climate change mitigation) and building the resilience of vulnerable countries (climate change adaptation). Meanwhile, as the effects of climate change are increasingly being felt in various parts of the globe, few aspects of social and cultural life are likely to remain unaffected especially for populations in high-risk regions of the world.

The signing of the Paris agreement on November 4, 2016 is seen as a crucial step in the fight against climate change. Despite some progress, particularly with regards to greater global involvement in efforts to combat climate change, the Paris Agreement remains weak in many respects and again shows the inequalities between developed and developing countries. National objectives for greenhouse gas emission reductions are based on the will of the States themselves. As noted in the report by the Reflection Group on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the majority of developing countries have made an engagement in making sure to exceed or fully satisfy their fair share of the effort required to maintain the increase in temperature below 1.5 ° C. On the contrary, many developed countries have set reduction targets well beyond their fair share of effort. As examples, we observe that (1) Russia’s emission reduction targets represent no contribution from their fair share of efforts; (2) those of Japan account for only one-tenth of their share; (3) those of the United States, only one fifth, just like those of the European Union. Thus, UNESCO states in its World Social Science Report of 2016, that this situation “exacerbates inequality between the nations of the developed North and those of the global South.” The current crisis is largely caused by past and current emissions from developed countries, which impacts the countries of the South the most. However, they show a greater effort in the struggle than the countries of the North, once again demonstrating a flagrant injustice to the developing countries, which must adjust to the excesses of the North who have greater means.

As the public funding commitment has not entirely materialized, efforts to include private finance to supplement developed countries’ climate finance have gained momentum. Though recognizing the important role of the private sector in the global response to climate change, Oxfam International has warned about the pitfalls of focusing exclusively on this type of funding and the limits of private investment to meet the needs of the most affected populations. The strengthening of community resilience against climate shocks, disasters and stress on livelihoods will require increasing basic services and public goods (such as water, healthcare, social protection, basic infrastructure, disaster risk reduction and early warning systems). These strategies rely on public finance, since they do not generate profits and are hence unlikely to attract private investment. However, there is a tension at this level. A document made by OHCHR states that “[c]limate changes and its impacts may cause governments to divert resources from social welfare systems to dealing with the immediate impacts of climate change, including disaster response; thereby negatively impacting the ability of States to allocate sufficient resources to the fulfillment of human rights obligations.” Therefore, mechanisms must be developed to ensure that funds devoted to adjusting and adapting to climate change do not involve direct cuts to social services that ensure certain fundamental rights, such as the right to health care and housing.

The recently elected president of the United States, Donald Trump, has caused controversy among climate change experts. His decision to revive the Keystone pipeline project in the Dakotas has been criticized by “environmentalists sa[ying] it would encourage a form of oil extraction that produces more gases that warm the planet than normal petroleum.” Furthermore, his decision to appoint as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “a climate change denier” demonstrates that this issue is not a priority for him.

Photo: Kate Thomas/IRIN

Considering that public development aid increasingly comes through private actors and that these tend to have a growing influence in the global economy, corporate social responsibility (CSR) remains one of the most relevant issues for years to come. Although several initiatives have emerged in recent years, including the United Nations Global Compact (2000) and the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011), it appears that more efforts must be made in order to achieve respect for human rights within private companies.

Supply chains of most companies involve many intermediaries, according to a Human Rights Watch study, published in 2016. This diversity of actors means that it is easy to conceal certain shortcomings in the face of human rights, or simply to ignore them. These failings are valid for three sectors central to development projects: agriculture, construction, and mining. The study finds that the most marginalized individuals, female workers, migrants, working children, as well as rural or poor urban areas residents, remain the most neglected in supply chains, even when firms claim to subscribe to international standards. These standards remain non-legally binding and no consequence is systematically imposed on non-compliant companies. It therefore seems necessary to develop reliable legal mechanisms to ensure that companies make human rights a priority.

This above findings are all the more relevant to the Canadian mining industry because they continue to have a significant impact on human rights in local communities, as reported by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its 2017 annual report. Canada is the world’s largest place for the mining industry, and research by HRW shows significant human rights abuses, including cases of collective rape in Papua New Guinea, as well as forced labor in Eritrea. Furthermore, as reflected in the report, “[m]any human rights problems to Canadian mining go underreported and unremedied because the government makes no effort to monitor, let alone regulate the human rights conduct of Canadian companies abroad.” An active involvement from the Canadian government would be significant in limiting the negative impacts of Canadian companies in the regions where they operate and a rigorous follow-up of the practices of the companies must be carried out.

In addition, a publication by the European Union dating from 2016 reaffirms the inherent tension in the use of the private sector in public financing for development. Indeed, while this sector appears to be a key factor in achieving poverty reduction, within the current liberal conception of development, it is found that economic growth through the private sector does not necessarily imply a reduction in social inequalities. On the contrary, ” multinational companies have built […] value chains to bring production where they find the cheapest labour or raw materials. Locations and workers can easily be moved and replaced to environments with lower taxes and cheaper labour.” In such a case, greater involvement of private companies in developing countries, through projects funded by northern governments, bring a certain amount of uncertainty with respect to human rights. At the very least, governments must ensure that companies demonstrate a certain social responsibility to carry out their development projects.

Photo: Spot Us

The weakness of mechanisms for accountability and transparency in institutions and organizations – international agencies, private enterprises, governments – limits opportunities for fair and equitable development. The levers that can be used by the most deprived populations remain limited and do not allow for accountability. Among other things, Human Rights Watch noted that several states – Turkey, Kenya, Sudan, and Israel – have adopted new laws in the last year directly targeting non-governmental organizations, as well as individuals/ groups claiming accountability from governments. By attacking civil society, such legal restrictions locally reduce the possibilities of denouncing the unethical practices of organizations and institutions involved in the development of the countries of the South. A political environment that provides ample scope for social movements can put pressure on institutions, governments and organizations to effectively allocate resources from development programs. However, such laws run counter to the demands of social movements, thus limiting the levers of accountability to institutions and governments.

In addition, Transparency International’s 2015 report on one of the most ambitious poverty reduction projects in Latin America, “Conditional Cash Transfers”, shows that vulnerabilities persist with respect to accountability towards beneficiaries of the programs. This report notes that poverty reduction projects sometimes provide windows of opportunity for cronyism, diverting resources from those who could benefit most. It seems, therefore, necessary to create more opportunities for dialogue for the people targeted by the projects, so that they can denounce situations of injustice.
This lack of transparency is also reflected in the investments made by multinationals in emerging countries. Increasing their influence in the global economy raises new questions about human rights and social justice, and the impact they have on local populations. Thus, despite the adoption of anti-corruption measures by many companies in the South, they remain ineffective, and payments made to local politicians remain common. As José Ugaz, President of Transparency International noted,

(p)athetic levels of transparency in the emerging market companies raises the question of just how much the private sector cares about stopping corruption, stopping poverty where they do business and reducing inequality. Time and again we see huge corruption scandals involving multinationals, such as Odebrecht Group or China Communications Construction Company, doing immense damage to local economies.

Among other things, Chinese companies continue to be classified as the least transparent. Knowing that the Chinese government plans to invest $ 60 billion in Africa over the next few years, through their own companies, the imposition of measures restricting cronyism appears particularly urgent to allow equitable development benefiting all.

Finally, the recent announcement of the withdrawal of involvement in the International Criminal Court (ICC) of several African states – Burundi, the Gambia and South Africa – unambiguously demonstrates the limitations of certain governments in their accountability to their citizens. With the objective of conducting “investigations and, where appropriate, prosecuting persons accused of the most serious crimes against humanity affecting the entire international community” (International Criminal Court, 2016), the withdrawal of these different countries have come at a time when their respective governments have faced pressures from the ICC. Although the most extreme abuse of human rights (genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity) is more specifically targeted, the shrinking of these three states reveals that government transparency remains a particularly important issue for years to come. Equitable and fair development requires a certain level of transparency in the main institutions in order to ensure an integral allocation of resources from development projects. However, the withdrawal of these three countries represents a decline of a healthy political environment restricting favoritism.

Photo: DFID

Helping over 2.1 billion people to access to proper sanitation, reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty from 1.9 billion to 836 million, as well as reducing the child mortality rate for children under five years of age by half: these facts are some of the few accomplishments achieved through the 2015 UN Millennium Development Goals.
As the UN’s 2015 MDGs came to an end, focus has shifted to a new global commitment: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs, also called ‘global goals’, are the continuation of the 2015 MDGs created at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. There are 17 of them which all embody a ‘leave no one behind’ policy. Along with the 2015 Paris Agreement, the SDGs have included climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice.
On the other hand, the International Institution for Sustainable Development (IISD), an independent, non-profit organization that provides solutions to the challenge of incorporating environmental and social priorities alongside economic development, foresees certain problems:
1. Protection of human rights is not one of 17 goals proposed in the SDGs. They are only mentioned in the Preamble of the UN General Assembly Article ‘Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, and in the sub points of the goals.
2. Not all disadvantaged groups are equally represented in the agenda.

As a human rights advocacy organization, the Danish Institute for Human Rights, suggests several ways in which we can aid in the process of the worldwide implementation of the SDGs over the next 30 years:
1. Educating relevant positions of power (companies, governments) on the human rights dimensions of the SDGs.
2. Advising governments on an implementation of the SDGs that place focus on human rights.
3. ‘Keeping watch’ and ensuring that all governments are held accountable for the progress (or digression) of their commitments.
4. Considering potential structural or organizational problems to determine issues of inequality or discrimination.
5. Ensuring and providing resources to access to justice for groups/individuals whose rights have/are being violated due to development related activity.

Photo: Transparency International Sri Lanka


Project Team 2017: Zineb Lakzit, Sonia Mezaour, Olivier Tancrède, Kelly C. Wong


Project Team 2016: Tatyana Abou-Chaker, Juliette Bronchtein, Joshua Iverson, Clarissa Samson