“Governments are back” says Social Watch coordinator

Mr. Roberto Bissio, Coordinator of Social Watch, spoke at the Conference "Making Equal Rights Real" organized on 1 May 2010 by The Institute for Health and Social Policy. The meeting was an opportunity for an international group of leading practice, policy and academic experts to present and discuss how people have found creative and effective strategies for ensuring that their national and international legal rights are met. Bissio said the economic crisis has brought governments back to a leading role and the key question now is what do governments do with the economy and how much people-centered are their policies.

Read a transcript of the speech below:

I know that there is people in this room who know much more about the issue than myself. I have to recognize that in a way it is the first time that I address an equal rights issue, and that initially I was a bit puzzled about the formulation, because I’m used to talk about human rights, or rights in general, usually economic and cultural rights and, what is it that you have in here, but… equal rights?

So I said OK, what does it mean, really? And what do we do? We go to Google, we go to Wikipedia. Wikipedia says equal rights can refer to human rights… fine; civil rights… yes; women’s rights… of course, like in equal rights amendment in the US’ 1972 constitutional change. Fine, OK, I like it, but there you go a bit further down and you read that equal rights is the motto of the state of Wyoming, in the US, and I said OK, I like the idea, I mean, I come from South America, from prairie land and Gauchos.  There we can relate with the notion of cowboys and that kind of basic quality ––and a society which I think probably Canada also relates to –; open spaces, prairie and non-stratified or non-highly stratified societies. So the basic quality factor in equal rights is there. 

No rights without conflict

Equal Rights is also a feminist journal of the 1920s. Then I said yeah, great. I mean, if we cannot even start, and we haven’t, with equal rights for women, what else can we say about the rest of the world? So that’s definitely part of it. And finally, Equal Rights is a 1977 album by Peter Tosh. I said oh my, yeah! That’s it! I was hoping to come here to the music of equal rights –you can find it in YouTube, and it’s really amazing, you know. Peter Tosh is from Jamaica, he was at a moment part of The Wailers, the band of Bob Marley, and then he became a soloist and so on. And then you hear that song, which is extremely powerful. It starts saying “I don’t want no peace, I need equal rights and justice”. And I said, oh my!. Now, that is very powerful; that is very powerful: 

I don't want no peace

I need equal rights and justice

 “I don’t want no peace”. This is extremely politically incorrect, of course. I mean, how can you? And actually, if you follow the discussion in YouTube, there’s many people saying, hey!, you know, what do you mean? How can…? How can he say no peace? So there is a shock, and there is quite a debate about that. 

But I think Peter Tosh is right, and the concept that he’s conveying in the song is the same concept that I’ve heard many times from the Dutch Development Minister and former head of the Labor Party in the Netherlands, Jan Pronk, who used to say “there is no development without conflict”. 

We tend to believe we live in an ideal world where the three components of the UN vision of peace, human rights and development, or dignity for all, and so on, are coming together in a beautiful way without any conflict. But if you look at the history of rights it turns up all rights were conquered with struggle, and through conflict. And basically exercising rights is a struggle. It is of course a struggle for justice, and it is a struggle to be able to exercise them and to demand them in non violent ways. But non violent doesn’t mean non conflictive, as Martin Luther King or even Gandhi would always remind us. 

Equal rights? 

Now, in the UN and even in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the three concepts are tied together, peace, human rights and development. Freedom from fear and freedom from want. They come together, they act together and there was no way, by the end of the Second World War, that you couldn’t link the two. The Cold War had split that; then you had one side for civil and political rights, the other side for social and economic rights, and they were apparently opposite and you could not reconcile them – we all know that story. 

But the cold war ended, and in the 1990s we had a reformulation of the international agenda. Then we had a conference on the rights of children, we had the Earth Summit in Rio, we had the Cairo Conference on reproductive rights – or what it was a conference on population that ended up being a conference on reproductive rights. We had Vienna recreating the notion that all rights are a single package indivisible, or however you say it, and then we had, in ’95, Beijing and Copenhagen committing all the governments of the world, one, to eradicate poverty and two, to achieve gender equality. 

This is not a minor fate. And naturally Social Watch was created at that moment, and the whole idea –I was told by the organizers I should make this commercial, so bear with me, it’s going to be brief- the whole idea is: the governments promise so much that let us pretend we believe them, and let us hold them accountable for that. 

It is powerful enough to say poverty will be eradicated and gender equality will be achieved; it is powerful enough to make them accountable – the governments and international organizations. That’s all what Social Watch is about. And since then what we have been doing is issuing reports. The notion is easy to understand and there are people in seventy countries that are participating in our net, and what we all are doing is precisely that –end of the commercial. But the thing is: while that agenda was being formulated basically to say how we are going to put the Peace Divided Rights to work, and how are we going to reshape the world after the Cold War, another agenda was in practice, also being negotiated and pushed, and this was also a rights agenda. 

People don’t usually remember, but the right to travel anywhere in the world you want, the right to establish yourself in any country that you want, the right to move out of the country if you want with all your belongings, those rights do exist… for corporations. Those rights were created for corporations as part of the Uruguay Round. They are at the basis of the world trade organizations, and they have very strong sanction systems, not officially called sanctions but, anyhow, retaliation systems etc. if countries do not apply them. Those rights exist. 

Well, you know this year’s US Supreme Court ruling giving corporations equal rights to speech as individuals have, to put money in the elections and so on. In fact, corporations have more rights than people have. They have many of the rights that people have, but they have their own court system to enforce them. You all know how difficult the human right system is when you try to bring at case; yes, progress have been made, I’m sure that I’m stepping into Agnes’ part of the discussion. There is some progress, we have now international criminal courts and so on, but in fact it is extremely difficult, still. When corporations feel that their rights are affected, they have their own private justice in Washington. They don’t sue governments under their national justice systems. I think you know that in Canada. That’s part of chapter eleven of NAFTA, which has been generalized all around the world.

In these days, Philip Morris is suing my government, the Government of Uruguay, because it decided that there should be health warnings in cigarettes packages, and it decided that it is to mislead the public to say that you have a Marlboro red and a Marlboro blue, as people identify the blue as being less dangerous than the red. So they were forbidden to do that, which is a violation of the right of free speech of Marlboro. And therefore our government is being sued, but is being sued in Washington, so our people will have to litigate in English, and the cost of hiring the lawyers will probably be bigger than what the whole demand was up to. But, of course, corporations are exercising that right. Now, the result of that after twenty years of unequal rights is that, whatever balance you had between capital and labor became completely unbalanced over these years, and the result is inequality increasing all around the world, inequality between countries, inequalities within countries. And this is happening everywhere. This is happening in Europe, this is happening in many of the most egalitarian societies –there are a lot of statistics and so on for that- and this is happening in developing countries also. 

Rights from the bottom

So in the year 2000 and, if you allow me to come back to the Equal Rights song –you actually can build a conference on its lyrics and its subjects-, its second strophe says:

Everyone heading for the top
But tell me how far is it from the bottom 

Now, the notion of the bottom billion, the people left behind in this process, the most vulnerable, the poorest, all around the world, in a sense gave rise to a whole strategy which has been known or labeled as the Millenium Development Goals Strategy; the goals themselves somehow come out of the Millennium Declaration of the year 2000, but the Millennium Declaration talks about many things, and the goals are just extracted around it in a strategy that some people would want to see as OK, as comprising the most urgent part of the 90s agenda; yes, everything we decided in the 90s was important, but this is here the emergency, the urgency, the bottom billion that we have to go and take care for. 

Other people saw it as reductionist, in the sense that we abandon the notion and the concept of development and instead we substitute that for some care for those that are left behind, or the bottom billion. Now, either case, or however you want to see that, there is a lot of debate around it, in September this year there is going to be a Summit to assess that strategy, and the only conclusion you can come out with, in any honest appraisal, is that it has failed completely. 

In the year 2008 there was a big ministerial meeting in Accra, in Ghana, to assess aid effectiveness; and the first paragraph of the declaration was saying oh well, the world still has 700.000.000 poor people, and therefore all that comes after that first paragraph needs to be done because of that. Now, I happened to be there, I raised my hand, by some chance I was given the floor and I said “sorry, sirs, but, you know, the World Bank has come out with the new estimates saying that actually the number is 1.400.000.000 people in extreme poverty, so you have a slight difference; the problem there is double than the problem you are quoting. You really need to do something about it”. They did something about it; they changed the paragraph. If you read the final declaration it quotes the World Bank figure, but of course the World Bank was one of the organizers, and it says now there’s still one point four billion people living in poverty, and nothing of the rest of the declaration changed, not even a comma. Now, can we believe this people are serious? When you can say, hey, you know, you are addressing double the problem, of what you thought the problem was, and nothing changes. So, the only possible conclusion is that this is not really about poverty. 

There is some hope, however, if you look at the report to the conference by Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the UN, kind of assessing the MDGs and paving the way to the conference. He says the MDGs are “the world’s quantified time-bound targets for addressing poverty, hunger and disease, and for promoting gender equality, education and environmental sustainability”, and then he adds “they are also an expression of basic human rights, the rights of everyone to good health, education and shelter”. Now this is quite important, because it’s the first time that UN documents recognizes good health, education and shelter as basic human rights in such a way. The problem is that no conclusions are drawn from that, and that there are indications for the way the strategies have to change if they are addressing basic human rights – and it is therefore responsibility of the governments to protect and put in place. There is hope in that the crisis has stirred up the debate, and as the commonplace says, created some opportunities. 

The Rethinking poverty report of the UN that came out in January this year. It says, and allow me for a long quote that there is “a commitment to eradicating poverty and to enhancing equity and social integration”. Now, those are keywords that have been left out of the agenda for a decade: equity and social integration. To bring them back into the debate “requires persistent action directed towards sustainable economic growth, productive employment creation and social development, entangling an integrated  approach to economic and social policies for the benefit of all citizens, more over it calls for more developmentally oriented and progressive state activism and universalism as opposed to selectivity in the approach to social policies”. 

Now, that is a major shift in the world‘s thinking. The MDGs strategy was targeted focused: go to the poorest of the poor, target them and have focalized policies etc. It has failed, and what has been said is re-approach that: it’s about rights and is about universal social policies, and that’s what works, that’s what has worked in all the countries where it has worked, and integration, equity, social justice are the key words for the future, hopefully. 

Governments are back

I think I’m a little run out of my time. But just one more thing if you allow me, which relates to that. It has to do with the opportunity of the crisis. I mean, neoliberal economic policies are basically dead, and if you remember president Barack Obama’s opening speech, that’s the funeral of the neoliberal economical policies. Governments are back. Nobody denies that. But what do governments do with the economy, now that it’s recognized that they do have a role. How do they regulate, and whom do they subsidize and support to reactivate the economy? That is the key question, and that’s what the struggle is about. The last Social Watch report, which is called People first, puts people from around the world to study what has been the government’s reaction to the crisis, and once and again, what you come out with is: the notion that where governments supported people, through social investments, through social services, through investing in the social infrastructure, or even through direct cash transfers, the economy went much better than when those subsidies and support was just given to the banks and the big corporations, or through individuals, through tax cuts for the millionaires, or for the already rich. 

And even the IMF is coming out with some papers now that are coming to the same conclusion. And why that happens is really very simple. Because if you are rich enough, and there is a crisis, whatever extra money you have you will safe, because you don’t trust the situation, there are too many uncertainties. And this goes to families, and this goes to individuals, this goes also for corporations. The banks use their money to buy other banks, not to lend it, because, to start with, they don’t trust each other, so they know what they have done with their accounts, and they suspect that the others had done the same, so it’s wise not to lend to them, and so the whole chain starts, whereas poor people, when they get any money, or services, or whatever they get, they use it, not because they have any better understanding of their role to rescue the global economy; just because they do not have another choice. And so what is ethically right to do is also making economical sense. But that will not come about without conflict. Thank you. 



See more on the Conference "Making Equal Rights Real" organized by The Institute for Health and Social Policy