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Todd Howland: Seeding Change for a Human Rights Economy

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TODD HOWLAND: The Road Travelled to the Current RWI-UN Human Rights Partnership: “Seeding Change for a Human Rights Economy”

Back in 1999, I found myself leading the Human Rights Component of the UN Peacekeeping Operation in Angola. The peace mission was in serious political problems with the Angolan government at that time, as it blamed the mission for allowing UNITA to rearm during the most recent attempt at peace.

I met with the coordinators of all our various departmental presences scattered throughout Angola. We realized that human rights seemed to most Angolans as aspirations detached from a reality of war, displacement and poverty. We scrapped the human rights education model that had been used for a number of years, where human rights staffers were passing from place to place, proselytizing about human rights, leaving little behind but the sacred documents (usually copies of the Universal Declaration) and some confused people.

We decided to transform the “educational” programme to one of long-term accompaniment of a few communities. We decided on those communities that were either in or near conflict zones and in a few IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps. The idea was that education was not possible without application. We would spend time explain what rights were, but also who was responsible and offer our support to the community to work on one or two issues with them.

The team felt that we would soon be getting requests to help with community members that were arbitrarily detained, disappeared, or suffered an extrajudicial execution. While these cases were common in Angola at that time, we did not receive many requests for assistance on these cases. What we did get was a number of requests to accompany the community to improve access to education, drinking water and sanitation as well as access to health care. Education was by far the most frequent request.

At first, we thought this related to fear and lack of trust.  However, eventually as the community saw we were in for the long run and began to trust us, the requests remained constant.

It pushed the UN human rights staff into understanding, who was responsible for these rights? What was the role of the national, departmental and local governments?  What budget existed and how the money was being spent? What should be the budget in this area? How are the resources being used? With whom do we advocate? Did the various levels of government even consider the rights to education and health when making decisions, including in budget allocation? Would these previously and voluntarily entered into human rights obligations be of any use in advocacy? How do we deal with the corruption and questionable transactions we encounter? Would the community members run a risk – even with our accompaniment – to advocate actively with the responsible authorities?

As questions related to how to make Economic, Social and Cultural Rights real in the context of a conflict ridden and often semi-functional State kept rolling into my office, I thought back to a conversation I had with an economics professor, who would later become my thesis adviser.  He said it was a good idea for me to get a graduate degree in law, as this would help me get a job, but that economics would provide me a different and additional perspective that will be of great value at some point in my career. He then joked and in the meantime, you will always be an interesting person to speak to at parties.  The Professor was spot-on; my graduate work in economics would become extremely helpful to see my work in human rights from a different and extremely important angle.

Before my work in Angola, I did not realize just how important macroeconomic policies were to the realization and respect for human rights. Of course, I could articulate what we learned that all human rights are interrelated and interdependent, but I had not lived it. Not until the members of these poor, marginalized and war-affected communities in Angola taught me an important lesson about the importance of ESCR and challenged me and my colleagues and I to figure out how we could facilitate a measurable improvement in the level of respect for these rights, did I finally understand the preamble to the UDHR.

I took this lesson with me to my next jobs. At the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights based in Washington DC, we partnered for the first time with activists working for a fair wage and for respect of rights throughout the supply chain.  We actively lobbied major investors (like the Norwegian Pension Fund) and even bought stocks so Kennedy family members could speak at shareholder meetings on the importance of respecting the rights of all workers throughout the supply chain. I returned to the UN to run the human rights operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and later Colombia.  While we continued to develop methodologies for ESCR related work, it still was marginal within the UN Human Rights Office’s work.  Often, we had to desperately search for professors that could help us try to figure out public financing and former government workers to pinpoint the cluster of entities and individuals that had some relation to the issue.

When the current UN High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet – the former President of Chile – indicated that she would prioritize making ESCR real and achieving the SDG’s as an integral part of the work of UN Human Rights and not some marginal part of it, an opening was created for change.  Shortly after the High Commissioner articulated her priorities, I became the Chief of the Branch responsible for this work in the Office.

In about 2 years, we have moved from just a handful of the UN Human Rights presences in different countries actively working on ESCR and SDG related issues to over half.  We have supported all our presences to make this change.

However, cultures change slowly and the same questions we were asking in Angola more than 20 years ago are now being asked by our colleagues throughout the globe.  To a large degree, many in our Office still do not see the equal importance of ESCR and/or feel ill equipped to deal with this area of work.  While some tools easily transfer, like community empowerment, many have not studied economics and have limited interest or understanding of inequality, intersection marginalisation as economic and social justice, the concept of Maximum Available Resources and Minimum Core Obligations, the new Social Contract, elements of Social Protection and essential levels of the right to health, and elements of the human rights economy.

The recent protests spread across the globe related to inequality and the impact of Covid-19 have brought an urgency to the shift.

We need to usher in the next generation of UN human rights professionals that can help us work on these issues.  This means in the short-term encouraging academic training that includes ESCR and SDG related concepts and practical tools as well as the need to create a global network to integrate into our work those who have been working on this area.

We have brought on a few economists with a human rights background and this is helping us fill gaps, but it is also demonstrating that we have much more space and opportunity for this area of work than thought.

For that reason we have entered into a creative partnership with Raoul Wallenberg Institute to help us get the word out about what we are doing and help us identify experts and institutions that can be integrated into our work and help us take this work to a higher level of impact.  Finally, and critically, help us create the type of training needed for the future UN human rights workers that will be just as comfortable investigating extrajudicial executions as accompanying a marginalized community to realize a measurable increase in the level of respect for their Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Read about the cooperation

Todd Howland is the Chief of the Development, Economic, and Social Rights Branch of the UN Human Rights Office


Photo credits: randy-tarampi, Unsplash 

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