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The most pressing worldwide threat to human rights is the neglect of equality which together with freedom constitutes the fundamental pillars of human rights. Systematic removal of constraints and regulations in the world of finance and economics has resulted in the global crisis of inequality which has brought the world to the verge of climate catastrophe. The United Nations is calling on International Human Rights Day 2021 for “ A new social contract which more fairly shares power, resources and opportunities…and which supports better, fairer and more sustainable societies for present and future generations. A human right-based economy should be the foundation for a new social contract.”
The November COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow was the most recent manifestation of popular rejection of economic systems which work for the benefit of privileged minorities, excluding greater and greater sectors of humanity. Together with spontaneous people-driven movements in recent years including massive migration from the global South to the global North and actions such as Me Too! and Black Lives Matter! represent a popular rebellion against the consequences of the extreme competitiveness of market-driven policies .
The call for a human rights-based approach to economics must start with an overhaul of the clauses of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Art.17 of which states “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others”. The global authors of the UDHR never envisaged a situation of wealth inequality that would grant those with incalculable wealth a right to own as much property as they had money to buy.
The proposal of the United Nations for a new social contract, without denying the right of private property ownership, must also impose the limitation of ensuring that such ownership does not prevent or infringe on the rights of others to also own property. Rather than ‘ownership’, the emphasis on property rights in a world of seven billion people must surely shift to ‘use’ and ‘access’, with those enjoying the luxury of massive property ownership compensating those who have access to none.
An example of the enormity of such a challenge to the powers that be was manifest at the recent COP26 Climate Summit where fossil fuel sector lobbyists (over 300 in number) successfully resisted attempts by the combined governments of the planet to effectively subject the workings of that sector to the demands of nature. Piecemeal amendment to the dominant order will not succeed without greater appreciation of the need to replace the competitive, exclusionary dynamic operating at the level of societies with a more caring, community-oriented vision of the future. Apart from the ethical outrage generated by extreme competitive economics, this approach fosters dysfunctional societies. While enjoying unprecedented levels of luxury, such societies complain of widespread stress, loneliness, mental illness, high levels of crime and social disorder.
Guyana, like the rest of the world, over the past thirty or so years, has been subjected to rigorous application of the market economy, a process in which individuals are encouraged to constantly measure their own worth in terms of material progress, focused on doing better than their neighbour. We acquire material possessions not because those we possess have outlived their usefulness, but to keep pace with or, preferably, be better than our neighbours. Rather than satisfaction and security, Guyanese lives have become stressful and exhausting. Mainstream Guyanese politics has abandoned any attempt to provide a shared vision capable of inspiring us to create a better society.
‘Prosperity’ has replaced equality as the measure of success in Guyana, judging by official statements. A taste of what prosperity as the national ambition entails is captured in the recent consultation document entitled Guyana’s Low Carbon Development Strategy 2030. Rather than a proposal of how Guyana will create a caring, safe, inclusive and healthy society by 2030, the climate crisis is seen as an opportunity for Guyana to make money by commodifying every natural resource – land, forests, water, ocean. It is an invitation to the global business community that Guyana is up for grabs.
This is a looting approach to development – looting from the future, from other species and from other Guyanese has consumed Guyanese politics, which seemingly has no place for intergenerational justice, i.e. how to ensure the next generation and other species inherits all the opportunities and resources this generation enjoys While constantly talking of the need to reduce domestic violence, suicide, alcohol-related road carnage, respiratory diseases, the warning signs of material success and social failure in many rich countries are resolutely ignored.
The current generation of Guyanese inherited a combination of vast natural resources and a small population which together with the discovery of oil have created the illusion that Guyana is somehow exempt from the global social and climatic crises the rest of the world must adjust to. A first step in restoring a balance between society and nature would be for each educational institution, business, faith community, sports clubs, professional and trade unions to draw up a climate justice programme for itself and its manner of operating, rather than look for leadership to the political sector.
Guyana Human Rights Association
International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2021