The Significance of Human Rights for the Debt of Countries in Transition
Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky & Jernej Letnar Černič, eds., Making Sovereign Financing & Human Rights Work (London: Hart, 2013 Forthcoming)
14 Pages Posted: 15 Aug 2012
Date Written: August 14, 2012
High levels of sovereign debt create a thorny moral, political, and legal problem for many of the world’s poorer countries. What should a government do when it is not possible to meet debt service obligations while at the same time providing for a bare minimum of essential services in areas such as health care and education? This dilemma is particularly poignant for new regimes transitioning from conflict or dictatorship to democracy where many of the debts in question were taken out by a predecessor regime that may have used the money for purposes not consistent with the basic will and human rights of the population. Payment of these debts is legally required yet seems morally repugnant, especially considering that it will have further negative human rights impacts going forward as a successor regime’s ability to meet basic needs is reduced.
Despite the strong linkages between debt and human rights evident in this dilemma, at the level of international financial institutions and other lenders, the problems created by high levels of sovereign debt are typically addressed through a prism of debt management and sustainability, rather than one of human rights and social justice, of abstract poverty reduction, rather than individual rights fulfillment. At the same time, the so-called ‘odious’ and ‘illegitimate’ debts of predecessor regimes have only rarely featured in transitional justice processes, which have tended to foreground violations of physical integrity — murder, rape, torture, disappearances, etc — while pushing economic crimes and economic violence to the margins. The result is that questions of debt have not always been considered from a human-rights perspective.
Yet viewing the tough questions created by high levels of sovereign debt through a human rights lens is important, not because it provides the answers to some of the seemingly intractable dilemmas of poverty and debt, but because such a perspective calls upon policymakers to ask some of the right questions. Since it would require participants in the system to think through the linkages between debt and concrete human rights impacts to a greater extent than has historically been the case, such a perspective has important policy implications for lenders and borrowers alike. In the particular context of countries in transition, greater attention to the linkages between debt and human rights could also lead to the mobilization of important practical tools for both grappling with what went wrong in the past and promoting policy and accountability frameworks that could help to prevent recurrence going forward.
Keywords: transitional justice, human rights, economic and social rights, debt, debt forgiveness, odious debt
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