Economic crisis reveals deeper human rights problems

More than six decades of human rights failures by governments have been exacerbated by the world economic crisis, which brought the problems of poverty and inequality to the fore, according to Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

“It’s not just the economy, it’s a human rights crisis: the world is sitting on a social, political and economic time bomb,” said Irene Kahn as she launched Amnesty International’s annual report on the state of the world’s human rights.

Billions of people are suffering from insecurity, injustice and indignity around the world. In many cases, the economic crisis made matters worse, with millions more sliding into poverty.

Increased poverty and deprivation have led to denial of economic and social rights – including food shortages and the use of food as a political weapon; forced evictions; abuse of rights of indigenous peoples. Yet human rights problems have been relegated to the backseat as political and business leaders grapple with the economic crisis.

2008 saw massive rises in the price of the most basic of necessities – food – which had the effect of making the poorest people in the world even poorer. People took to the streets across the world and, in many countries, were faced with violent repression.

In Zimbabwe, more than five million people were in need of food aid by the end of 2008, according to the UN. The government has used food as a weapon against its political opponents. Across the country, political opponents, human rights activists and trade union representatives were attacked, abducted, arrested and killed with impunity.

Hundreds of activists protesting against economic decline and social conditions were arrested and detained without charge.

Across Africa, people demonstrated against desperate social and economic situations and sharp rises in living costs. In a taste of what could lie ahead, some demonstrations turned violent; the authorities often repressed protests with excessive force.

Social tensions and economic disparities led to thousands of protests throughout China. In the Americas, social protest at economic conditions increased in Peru; in Chile there were demonstrations throughout 2008 on Indigenous People’s rights and rising living costs.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the economic and social insecurity was highlighted by strikes and protests in several countries, including Egypt. In Tunisia, strikes and protests were put down with force, causing two deaths, many injuries and more than 2,000 prosecutions of alleged organizers, some culminating in long prison sentences.

“The events we’ve seen in 2008, with the world economic crisis at the top, demand a new kind of leadership from world leaders,” said Irene Khan. “They must take real action, centred on human rights, to tackle growing poverty around the world, and they must invest in human rights as purposefully as they invest in economic growth.”