Respect for human rights requires debt cancellation

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Angelica Hannan submitted two articles, including "The Debt of Nations: The need for the First World's Mea Culpa", to take shared second place in the 2006 Margaret Dooley Young Writers Award.

"Only when the last tree has died, and the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish has been caught, will we realise that we cannot eat money."
—19th Century Cree Indian proverb

There exists an element operating within the Western structure of culture and politics which is perhaps the single, most powerful force motivating international relations, second only to security. And this element, whose importance is imposed in a cultural imperialist style by Western ideology onto the rest of the world, is responsible for the insurmountable and threatening dilemma of the debt of nations: money. As epitomised in this Cree Indian quote above, the West is a strict adherent to the principles of financial gain, even if it means that money takes precedence over human worth, human rights and human dignity. Third World debt truly is a moral problem of enormous proportions for which the causes and solutions are equally problematic.

Perhaps a primary cause of Third World debt may be attributed to a Westernisedbut increasingly globalisedcapitalist mentality that seeks to transform us all into "consumers, customers, and competitors". This philosophy creates the potential for an impersonal environment with the capacity for ruthlessness and a lack of ethics and compassion. The suggestion that we are all "competitors" merely euphemises Darwin’s theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest and appropriates it to the global economic arena. Christian de Brie once wrote that;

There is an attempt to submit the whole of human activity to the market order and the rule of profit. No sphere can escape this process, neither the protection of privacy, nor the right to breathe unpolluted air … Everything can become a commodity, including spirituality, and enter the circuits of capital totalitarian control over human and biological life and development ... Not a single country, not a single market, remains untouched.

The capitalist system currently dominating the global system is problematic for its presupposition that "the entire sphere of economic behaviour is regulated by an impersonal mechanism which is beyond the authority of morals". Furthermore, capitalism now seems to overpower the dominant religious tradition of Christianity, which condemns self-interest and materialism as moral vices.

Respect for human rights requires debt cancellationIt is this very approach that has generated a global crisis that seems to be without resolution. Arguably, the debt of the poorest nations is a condition which some claim to have been engineered by their First World creditors.

When First World nations perpetuate the argument that Third World nations are accountable to them for financial capital, it is almost unconscionable that these First World nations do not acknowledge that they are accountable to the Third World for moral and ecological capital. Biochemical and agricultural multinational corporations (MNCs) such as Sandoz, Shell and Ciba-Geigy claim patent rights over seed varieties found in developing nations. Through exploitation of the Third World’s biological diversity, the US and other capitalist countries have reaped mega-profits without returning a single cent to the countries of origin, their governments or local communities.

The painful reality is that if everyone adopted a Western lifestyle, we would need five earths to support us. In 2000, the World Disasters Report proved this to be true with the fact that First World nations have accrued a debt of $13, 000 billion which is more than five times the amount owing by Third World countries. What this realisation embodies is the searing accuracy that First World nations are responsible for the damage they are attributing to these Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs).

The problem points to a second origin: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These institutions, established after World War II to provide short-term credit to countries experiencing temporary hardship, offer a system which not only serviced the economic desires of countries who were most able to pay for them, but also ensured the best possible outcomes for these countries. In order to borrow, countries had to pay an initial membership 'quota' which held a direct correlation to their economic force. Voting rights were assigned according to the contributions made by each member state. Despite the inequality this gives rise to, some cite the importance of the preponderant nation-creditors as holding the majority of "shares" in recognition of their greater contribution to the Fund.

Respect for human rights requires debt cancellationAs another ethically reprehensible act, the IMF enshrined in its tenets a permanent and critical featureconditionality. It may be argued that it is morally unconscionable to lend money to Third World nations with the expectation that they will repay it. This unconscionability is intensified with the imposition of rapacious clauses which make the debtor nation almost irrevocably dependent on aid. When this occurs, an inversion of priorities also takes place. Organisations such as the IMF and World Bank, purporting to have no political affiliation yet who service the needs of the most generous nations, place a higher emphasis on the contractual obligations of a debtor nation than on the consequences that this may generate. In this way, the Global South sustains the Global North because the IMF, according to Dr Henry Kissinger, has produced "a cure that is worse than the disease". In essence:

The IMF’s view of the scale of negative transfers which the debtors will be prepared to make also seems extraordinary, since it implies that they will be prepared to forgo ad infinitum the growth of living standards for which their populations are pressing.

Finally, debt is an excellent bargaining tool: the IMF and World Bank may intervene regularly in the policy preparation of debtor nations; unequal trade and unjust trade agreements may be imposed and it has often happened that debtor nations must borrow more money in order to pay the growing interest. In this flagrant manner, the Global North subordinates the Global South.

In many Third World countries, the incidence of debt is often accompanied by or responsible for a gross deterioration of these countries’ resources and their populations. Third World citizens are not only victims of poverty but also poor sanitation and health, poor education rates and poor governance and ethical leadership. To which aspect, then, should First World countries turn their attention? What these multi-layered problems create is an uncertainty of what to aid first and by how much. Even if the Third World’s civil and political rights are secured, how are they to exercise these when they have been deprived of their economic, social and cultural rights? In simpler terms, the enjoyment of basic liberties – such as the right to a name and nationality and the right to free speech – is rendered useless when there are insufficient food reserves and little or no access to safe drinking water. If "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights", as the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prescribes, the First World has failed to acknowledge this.

In the face of unconquerable debt, it is difficult to visualise the possibility of a debt-free future for HIPCs, However, the global society possesses the resources to eradicate poverty. Statistics provided by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) point to the disappointing and tragically ignorant positions of First World Countries. The UNDP claims that the cost of eradicating poverty is 1 per cent of global income. Furthermore, "effective debt relief to the 20 poorest countries would cost $5.5 billionequivalent to the cost of building EuroDisney."

Pope John Paul II once announced:

Christians will have to raise their voice on behalf of the poor of the world, proposing the jubilee as an appropriate time to give thought … to reducing substantially, if not cancelling outright, the international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations.

Respect for human rights requires debt cancellationOf the many suggested solutions to resolving Third World debt, perhaps the most well-known is that of Jubilee, which aimed to abolish all debts to HIPCs by December 2000. This movement, whose name originated from the Old Testament book of Leviticus, was founded on the Israelites’ custom of releasing all debts and returning land back to its original owners every 50 years. It has been suggested, however, that the Jubilee movement itself is more morally reprehensible than the debt it proposes to abolish:

Poor countries need to develop reputations as responsible borrowers who do not deploy the borrowed funds productively but who also repay their debts as contracted. How will debt cancellation help poor countries achieve either of these goals?

Furthermore, most HIPCs have been governed poorly, often by a dictatorial leader. Debt cancellation would only inflame the situation and encourage recidivism and corruption.

On a more domestic level, however, ethicist Peter Singer laments the disheartening reality of the majority of citizens in affluent countries who do not contributesufficiently or at allto aid. Within Australian parameters, Singer suggests that the "federal government ought to increase its overseas aid allocations, since that would spread the burden more equitably across all taxpayers". Indeed, the Australian Government’s contribution in 2000 was 0.25 per cent of Gross National Product (GNP). This is grossly inadequate, in comparison to Denmark’s 0.97 per cent, and does not even meet the UN’s recommended target of 0.7 per cent. Australia and its fellow First World nations must meet their obligations to their Third World neighbours.

However, perhaps the most practical and most self-evident solution to debt is this: that governments, and First World citizens, need to "place the satisfaction of human needs at the heart of government policy". Here, the primacy of the individual and human dignity is at the centre of this tenet. Poor governance, greed and cultural imperialism are at the core of the Global North’s exploitation of the South. The very fact that the world’s poorest nations, relying on their subsistence society, are being deprived of their human rights and human dignity is poor governance in itself.

Thus, despite inexhaustible arguments defending the case against debt cancellation, the luxuries enjoyed by the First World stand as testament to the fact that poverty is avoidable. Something is fundamentally wrong when Third World citizens who put food on First World tables cannot afford to put food on their own. In an ostensibly equal global system, it is unnecessary and unacceptable that the same standards of living, the same opportunities and benefits and the same human rights cannot be and are not enjoyed by all.

In its most brutal sense, the debt of the world’s poorest nations is a First World weapon used to subordinate the Global South to the whims of the Global North. However, in simpler terms, the debt of the world’s poorest nations is a debt, which, if repaid, would wantonly claim the lives of Third World citizens by channelling GNP towards already affluent countries in lieu of reinvesting it in Third World education, health and food. And therefore, it is ethically unconscionable that the First World declares the primacy of human rights in international law when it does not ensure that the world’s population in its entirety is equal before this LAW.



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Unbelieveably captivating with a shocking outlook on the realities of the world we live in. ix

Robert Vicencio | 06 February 2007  

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