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UN Reaffirms Commitment to Social Justice

 InDepth News 16 May 2019

(Originally published: 03/2010) Social righteousness has moved to centre stage for the United Nations, which celebrated the World Day of Social Justice for the second time on February 20 bearing in mind the plight of millions of people affected by the global economic meltdown.  - By Jaya Ramachandran

Social righteousness has moved to centre stage for the United Nations, which celebrated the World Day of Social Justice for the second time on February 20 bearing in mind the plight of millions of people affected by the global economic meltdown.

Marking that historic day observed every year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: "Social justice based on the values of fairness, equality and respect for diversity is more important than ever amid a global financial and economic crisis that has significantly increased unemployment and poverty and is straining social integration."

The world's major economies were beginning to emerge from this global downturn, he said. "We must ensure that the world's people do so too," the UN Secretary-General said, adding that "[...] we recognize the importance of tackling poverty, exclusion and unemployment, in order to promote solidarity, harmony and equality of opportunity within and between societies".

Ban called for a major push this year to put countries back on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which seek to do away with a host of social ills, from extreme poverty and hunger to maternal and infant mortality, to lack of access to education and health care, all by 2015, calling them one of the UN's key means of bringing social justice and development together to benefit the poorest and most vulnerable.

"The MDGs are too big to fail. We are ready to act, ready to deliver, and ready to make 2010 a year of results for people."

Coming amid mixed progress toward the Goals and new crises that threaten the global effort to halve extreme poverty, the MDG summit this year will be "a crucially important opportunity to redouble our efforts to meet the Goals," Ban said, referring to the targets adopted at the UN Millennium Summit of 2000.

The UN General Assembly has agreed that the summit, or high-level plenary meeting, will be held on September 20-22, just prior to the start of the Assembly's annual General Debate, which usually brings dozens of heads of State and government to New York.

In its resolution adopted on December 21, 2019, the Assembly also set out the format of the summit, with statements in the plenary running concurrently with six round tables on a range of issues. Interactive hearings with civil society are to be held in the lead-up to the summit.

"Social justice is based on the values of fairness, equality, respect for diversity, access to social protection, and the application of human rights in all spheres of life, including in the workplace," Ban said.

"Let us take this opportunity on the World Day of Social Justice to renew our commitment to this important cause and to recognize that while progress has been made, much more needs to be done. Lack of social justice anywhere is an affront to us all."


Stressing the importance of World Day of Social Justice, Mary Robinson, head of Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative and former President of Ireland, said the Day was an opportunity to say that a safer, more secure and ultimately more prosperous world was possible, if emphasis was placed on social justice -- decent work, social integration and poverty eradication.

"I believe firmly that we needed this day for world social justice […], that it is an opportunity to reorient our policies," former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Robinson said.

The commemoration the Day was timely, as it reminded the world that it had not upheld the commitments made at the Copenhagen World Social Development Summit (WSSD) in 1995. The world had become more divided between those benefiting from globalization and the many countries and people not benefiting.

The situation was now exacerbated by the deep financial crisis. From the human rights and labour standards perspective, human values had been forgotten, as had those of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Speaking at a press conference to launch the first World Day of Social Justice at the UN headquarters on February 20, 2019, Robinson was flanked on the podium by a high-level panel comprising Thomas Pogge, Lietner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University and author of 'World Poverty and Human Rights'; Eric Falt, Director of the Outreach Division in the UN Department of Public Information (DPI); Desta A. Raines, Manager for Corporate Compliance of the Jones Apparel Group; and Georgina Opoki Amankwah, National Chairperson of the Public Services Workers Union in Ghana.

DPI's Falt recalled that the UN General Assembly had proclaimed February 20 the World Day of Social Justice during its sixty-second session in 2007. As recognized by the Assembly, social development and social justice were indispensable in the achievement of peace, which, in turn, required respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Stressing the importance of the occasion, Falt cautioned against seeing it as "yet another day on the calendar of UN days", about which many had grown somewhat cynical. The Department of Public Information had worked very closely with the International Labour Organization (ILO) "to give the Day its proper dimension". Other partners included the Permanent Mission of Kyrgyzstan, which had supported the adoption of the resolution establishing the Day.


Professor Pogge said millions of people around the world were working to promote social justice, yet astonishingly little progress had been made. For example, the 1996 Rome World Food Summit had declared it intolerable that 800 million people were chronically malnourished around the world.

Some 10 years later, that figure stood at some 963 million, and that had been before the current financial crisis. Progress was lacking because the rules structuring the world economy were "fixed by the elite for the elite", without much regard for their impact on poverty, or equitable distribution of income.

The interests of the poor must be represented at the negotiating tables where the world's most powerful countries decided what structures would govern the global economy.

Jones Apparel Group's Raines and Amankwah of the Public Services Workers Union in Ghana presented practical aspects of social justice work, with the former describing the 'Better Work Programme', which promoted social justice by seeking to improve labour conditions in several countries, including Jordan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam.

The programme created space where various actors, including Governments, enterprises, non-governmental organizations and trade unions could come together.

Amankwah from Ghana said the rights of people working in the informal economy were affected by the lack of social protection, job security and social dialogue. "We should collectively look at how we tackle the decent work agenda, with particular reference to the informal economy."

Responding to questions, former UN Human Rights Commissioner Robinson said the thinking of the 1995 Copenhagen Summit had been sidelined by the ideological certainty that the neoliberal approach would make everybody better off.

It was now time to realize that a safer and more secure world cold be made possible by addressing such social justice issues as decent work, social integration and poverty eradication, focusing on the most vulnerable. That was the human rights approach.

She expressed hope that the World Day of Social Justice would challenge the neoliberal theories that had clearly contributed to growth, but had also created many inequities. In the depth of the current financial crisis, there were new opportunities "to introduce into the world of economists the values of human rights", including the right to food, water, health, sanitation and education.

Organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) "should all be respecting these human rights", as should all corporations.

Social and economic commitments made by the international community should be implemented without discrimination, Robinson continued, adding that it was important to tell governments that they should implement the covenants and conventions to which they had legally bound themselves.


In this context, Professor Pogge of Yale University added that economists focused on the growth of gross national income, which was a wrong measure. If the income of a family earning 100,000 U.S. dollars went up 10 per cent, that meant an increase of 10,000 dollars for the economy, but a 10 per cent rise in the income of a family earning 1,000 dollars meant an increase of only 100 dollars. In human terms, however, 10 per cent growth was more important for the poor family, where it was "a matter of bread and butter, or rice and beans" and not a luxury.

Robinson also referred to February 10, 2019 meeting of the Commission for Social Development, which had focused on the three "pillars" of decent work, social integration and poverty eradication. Together with the panel, that meeting had shown that much could be accomplished if the ideas of Copenhagen, the report on fair globalization and the thinking of ILO on decent work were taken forward.

To a question about efforts to ensure that the outsourcing of services did not contribute to the creation of "sweatshop conditions" in developing countries, Corporate Compliance manager of the Jones Apparel Group Raines replied that many international corporations followed a code of conduct based on ILO conventions and instruments like the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

However, that presented a challenge, because many countries lacked "either the capacity or the willpower" to enforce their own labour laws. Responsible companies tried to engage with local government officials, non-governmental organizations and trade unions to ensure the protection of workers' rights.

At the international level, there were several multi-stakeholder initiatives, involving trade unions, business and non-governmental organizations, including Social Accountability International, Fair Labour Association, the Workers' Rights Consortium and Students against Sweatshops.

Referring to the idea of transferring 0.7 per cent of the various current stimulus packages to social issues, Professor Pogge, who authored 'World Poverty and Human Rights', said that was the very minimum that should be done. The economic crisis made millions of poor people highly vulnerable, although it was "in no way their responsibility".

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