Economic choices made by States, whether acting alone or as members of international financial institutions, must comply with their international human rights obligations, including during times of economic crisis. States are obliged to manage their fiscal affairs and to adopt economic policies to ensure that they respect, protect and fulfil all human rights. They must devote the maximum of their available resource to the progressive realisation of economic, social and cultural rights. Yet, debt can have an impact on State’s fiscal space, and its available resources.
The Guiding Principles on foreign debt and human rights, presented to the Human Rights Council in 2012, represent an attempt to contribute to the search for an equitable and lasting solution to the debt crisis in line with the political commitments of the international community, consistent with the human rights obligations of all States.
Furthermore, some economic policies, such as fiscal consolidation, structural adjustment/reforms, privatisation, deregulation of financial and labour markets and lowering environmental protection standards, can have adverse consequences on the enjoyment of human rights.
You can read more about the obligations that States must respect in the context of economic reforms, in the Guiding Principles on human rights impact assessments of economic reforms, presented to the Human Rights Council in 2019.
The issue of foreign (or external) debt has been on the agenda of various United Nations human rights bodies for more than two decades. Since the 1990s, the
Commission on Human Rights and, subsequently, the Human Rights Council, have warned of the challenges that excessive foreign debt burdens and economic reform policies pose for the realisation of human rights, especially in developing countries.
Since 1997, those bodies have also attempted to address such issues through the establishment of thematic mandates, which have undergone several changes over the years.
The concluding observations of the various treaty bodies on the country reports submitted to them also indicate that high external debt burdens and dependency on foreign assistance can constitute obstacles to efforts by States parties to comply with their human rights treaty obligations, particularly those relating to economic, social and cultural rights.
Related international standards
The imperative to address the effects of foreign debt on human rights arises from the principle of international assistance and cooperation, which is provided for in the Charter of the United Nations and numerous other binding international instruments.
Some of these, and how they relate directly to this mandate, are outlined below:
The Charter of the United Nations identifies the overall purposes of international economic and social cooperation. Article 1 (3) of the Charter states that the purposes of the United Nations include the achievement of “international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. In article 56 of the Charter, Members States have pledged themselves “to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the Organization” to achieve these purposes.
Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “[e]veryone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized”. An international order characterized by extreme indebtedness of low- and middle-income countries and an attendant inability to fulfil their human rights obligations to their citizenry is inconsistent with this entitlement.
Under article 2 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, each State party “undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures”.
In terms of article 22, of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Economic and Social Council “may bring to the attention of other organs of the United Nations, their subsidiary organs and specialized agencies concerned with furnishing technical assistance any matters arising out of the reports [submitted by the States Parties to the Covenant] which may assist such bodies in deciding, each within its field of competence, on the advisability of international measures likely to contribute to the effective progressive implementation of the present Covenant”.