Amnesty International is calling on G20 leaders meeting this week to take unprecedented steps towards tackling the global inequalities which are fueling the COVID-19 and climate crises – two of the greatest threats to human rights of our time.
G20 Finance Ministers convening on 18-19 July should commit to cancelling the debt of the world’s poorest countries, scaling up investments in health and social protections, and phasing out fossil fuels, to ensure a just and sustainable recovery from the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has exposed the glaring inequalities that exist in our world. If we are to build resilience to future crises, we need to make long-term structural changes that will require courage and leadership from G20 countries,” said Julie Verhaar, Amnesty International’s Acting Secretary General.
“The flawed priorities of the rich and powerful have led us to a state of global emergency. G20 countries must break with the past by investing in people and human rights, leading the way to a just, sustainable and inclusive recovery.”
Amnesty International is calling on the G20 to cancel the debt owed by the world’s poorest countries for at least the next two years, freeing up resources for countries to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The poorest 77 countries will spend nearly $85 billion in debt repayments in 2020 and 2021. About 40% of this is owed to rich countries, and the remainder to international institutions and private lenders. According to Jubilee Debt Campaign, 64 countries spend more on debt repayments than on public healthcare.
In April, the G20 committed to suspending up to $12 billion of debt payments for 77 countries in 2020 – but states seeking this offer will still be obliged to pay this money back, with interest, in future years.
“It should be unthinkable that any country would spend more money on debt repayments than healthcare in the face of a pandemic. The current G20 plan not only falls short of what is needed to respond right now, it also piles up problems that will prevent countries recovering in the future,” said Julie Verhaar.
“Debt repayments should never take precedence over efforts to ensure people’s human rights. The G20 must ensure that the world’s poorest countries are not locked into a vicious cycle of debt, ill-health and economic paralysis.”
Under international human rights law, wealthier states including the G20 countries have an obligation to assist countries that are struggling to mobilize adequate funding to respond to the pandemic.
Amnesty International is also calling for debt cancellation to be accompanied by robust transparency and accountability mechanisms in all donor and recipient countries, to ensure that money freed up is not lost to corruption or wasteful expenditure. Debt cancellation must be additional to other forms of financial assistance, and not merely diverted from other existing areas of aid.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated last month that a large-scale, coordinated and comprehensive multilateral response, amounting to at least 10 percent of global GDP, is needed to address the impact of COVID-19.
Inclusive recovery and climate justice
At their last meeting in April, G20 Finance Ministers committed "to support[ing] an environmentally sustainable and inclusive recovery”, consistent with the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.
Such a recovery must include investment in health, a new deal for social protection, and investment in sectors that deliver green and decent jobs.
However, in the last few months several countries, such as the US, UK and Russia have allowed fossil fuel companies, the aviation industry and other carbon-polluting companies to benefit from economic stimulus measures, such as tax rebates and loans. These have largely been granted with no conditions attached, meaning that these industries can continue to function and even expand without having to commit to reducing emissions or using the government support to just support workers.
Given the size of their economies and their contribution to the climate crisis, G20 states must lead in adopting stimulus packages and recovery measures that facilitate the transition to a zero-carbon economy, foster a resilient society and put people and their human rights – especially those most affected by the transition – at the centre.
This means refraining from any unconditional bailouts to fossil fuel and aviation companies, and investing instead in renewable energy produced in a manner consistent with human rights. G20 states must ensure all workers and communities dependent on sectors affected by the transition to a zero-carbon economy are supported in obtaining green and decent jobs and protecting an adequate standard of living.
“Unless there is rapid action to tackle the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the looming threats facing humanity,” said Julie Verhaar.
COVID-19 has dictated that the G20 meeting on 18-19 July is held virtually. The vast majority of states, including 17 G20 members, are party to human rights treaties that include the obligation to respond to requests for international cooperation and assistance, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR).
General Comment 14 of the CESCR states that, given that some diseases are easily transmissible beyond the frontiers of a state, the international community has a collective responsibility to intervene to address this problem. Economically developed states have a special responsibility and interest to assist poorer states in this regard.
The UN Guiding Principles on foreign debt and human rights state that external debt repayments should not interfere with recipient governments’ efforts to realise their core rights obligations, including with respect to economic and social rights such as health, social protection and livelihoods, and should be renegotiated with creditors accordingly.