Human Rights Implications of MAI Questioned
The campaign of the coalition of non-governmental organisations against multilateral investment rules at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and other fora has received a boost from the UN Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.
The UN Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has expressed concern about the human rights implications of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, saying MAI might undermine the sovereign rights of countries to autonomous development and peoples' economic, political, social and cultural rights.
At its summer session in Geneva in August 1998, the Subcommission adopted by consensus a resolution entitled 'Human Rights as the primary objective of Trade, Investment and Financial Policy', emphasising that the realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms described in international human rights instruments is the 'first and most fundamental responsibility and objective of States in all areas of governance and development'.
In this context, the Subcommission expressed concern about the human rights implications of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (under negotiation at the OECD), and 'particularly about the extent to which the Agreement might limit the capacity of States to take pro-active steps to ensure enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by all people, and create benefits for a small privileged minority at the expense of an increasingly disenfranchised majority'.
With these concerns in mind, the Subcommission urged member States of the OECD to 'review the draft text of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment to ensure that all its provisions are fully consistent with their human rights obligations, and to keep these obligations in mind during any future negotiations on the Agreement'.
The negotiations at the OECD had been facing opposition from the NGOs, as also differences among its members on various aspects, and the negotiations have been put off 'for reflection'. They are due to be resumed this month. Side by side, talks on multilateral investment rules are being pursued at the World Trade Organisation, in its working group on relationship between trade and investment, at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and at the International Monetary Fund via moves to amend its charter to bring about capital account convertibility.
A coalition of public interest NGOs of the North and the South have joined hands to campaign, in every forum where it is being promoted, against multilateral rules on investment that would expand the rights of foreign investors, mostly transnational corporations, to the detriment of the sovereign rights of countries and their right to autonomous development to achieve economic, political, social and cultural rights.
The resolutions and recommendations of the Subcommission go before the UN Human Rights Commission.
In other recommendations, the Subcommission sought the authorisation of the Human Rights Commission to create a 'Social Forum', to meet during the annual sessions of the Subcommission and exchange information on disparities in income distribution and global poverty; analyse violations of economic, social and cultural rights; and to discuss and propose legal standards and guidelines on these subjects.
The Subcommission also decided to establish, for a three-year period, a sessional working group, composed of five of its members, to examine the working methods and activities of transnational corporations on enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development, as well as civil and political rights.
This body is also to analyse the compatibility of various international human rights instruments with the various investment agreements, regional as well as international, including, in particular, the MAI.
During its meetings, the Subcommission heard an oral statement by Mr Miloon Kothari, of the Habitat International Coalition, on behalf of the coalition of NGOs, 'The International NGO Committee on Human Rights in Trade and Investment'.
While drawing particular attention to the OECD process, the NGOs also drew attention to similar moves at the WTO and the UN system, and asked the Subcommission to address these.
In its resolution on the MAI, the Subcommission noted with concern the conclusions of the 1997 UNCTAD Trade and Development Report indicating that since the early 1980s, the world economy has been characterised by rising inequality, both between and within countries, that income gaps between North and South continue to widen, and that the income share of the richest 20% of the population has risen everywhere, while the income shares of the poorest 20% and of the middle classes have fallen.
It also noted the conclusions of the 1997 UNDP Human Development Report that a quarter of the world's people remain in severe poverty, and that 'unbridled globalisation', while helping to reduce poverty in some of the largest and strongest developing countries, had produced a 'widening gap between winners and losers'.
The Subcommission acknowledged the widespread concerns of civil society about the negative impacts of current international trade, investment and financial policies, agreements and practices upon the human rights of peoples and communities.
In the light of these, the Subcommission decided to prepare a working paper 'on ways and means by which the primacy of human rights norms and standards could be better reflected in, and could better inform, international and regional trade, investment and financial policies, agreements and practices', and how the UN human rights bodies and mechanisms could play a central role in this regard.
The working paper is also to include an analysis of the text of the MAI from a human rights perspective, and to consider ways to ensure that future negotiations on the MAI or analogous agreements or measures take place within a human rights framework.
Representatives of the Habitat International and the Lutheran World Federation, part of the International NGO Committee which had promoted this initiative at the Subcommission, welcomed its response to these critical issues.
They have expressed the hope that it would contribute to the harmonisation of international trade, investment and financial regimes with existing international human rights obligations and would ultimately lead to the establishment of an integrated international agenda in which international trade, investment and financial policies, agreements and practices would no longer undermine international obligations and standards relating to human rights, environmental protection and sustainable development.
Chakravarthi Raghavan is Chief Editor of SUNS (South-North Development Monitor), a daily bulletin, and Third World Network's representative in Geneva.
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