ESCWA 28TH MINISTERIAL SESSION
TUNIS, 17 SEPTEMBER 2014
Dear Rima Khalaf, Under- Secretary General, Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia,
Your Excellency, Mr. Sultan Bin Saeed Al-Mansoori, Minister of Economy of the United Arab Emirates, Chair of the Twenty seventh Session of the Commission,
Your Excellency, Mr. Mehdi Jomaa, Prime Minister of Tunisia,
Distinguished Guests and Panelists,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me express my gratitude to the Government of Tunisia for hosting this important event and to ESCWA under the leadership of Rima Khalaf, for inviting me to take part in this 28th Ministerial Session of ESCWA as the United Nations High Representative for Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC). I am confident that through this meeting we will demonstrate complementarities in our actions, as much as the proximity of our visions.
This theme we are addressing today of “social justice” is of great concern not only for Arab States, but for Humanity as a whole. Your deliberations and recommendations will become of universal interest and they are awaited with great interest by the world community, and also as a matter of civilization.
We observe that the notions of “justice” and of “social progress and better standard of life in larger freedom” already appeared in the 1945 opening statement of the United Nations Charter which, in its Chapters IX and X, also referred to the “conditions for social and economic progress” and, for this purpose, to the creation of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
In 1948, the United Nations concluded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was followed in 1976 by International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and also by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These important Treaties already spelled out a number of social justice obligations for Member-States and were followed by 7 other UN Conventions concerning Women, Children, Discrimination, Disabled persons, etc. These Treaties on Human Rights were ratified by most of Arab States and such commitments now constitute the bedrock not only of human civilization, but of all our discussions on social justice.
In view of the above historical background, in our discussions we should avoid considering “social justice” as a new concept or as a concept distinct from its deeper “natural justice” roots which all Humanity share as result of 3000 years of human civilization and progress. For example, there can be no genuine “social justice” when no fair justice system is in place to ensure its implementation and equality of access for all citizens. Social justice should always be understood in its larger context of natural justice and to access to justice, and this is why the United Nations Human Rights Covenants have a justice machinery to protect and implement these Treaties: the Human Rights Council.
One attempt to define “social justice” at the United Nations was made in 2006 stating that “social justice may be broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth”. But social justice is much more than just an economic issue, although a consensus on a single encompassing definition of “social justice” remains to be reached between UN Member-States, and is at the nexus of our agenda. The Copenhagen Declaration concluded that social development and social justice cannot be attained in the absence of peace and security, or in the absence of respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
In practical terms, through the last part of the 20th Century, United Nations’ specialized Agencies have made extensive effort to fine-tune the definition of “social justice” through its various components, such as Human Rights (UNHCHR), Labor Norms (ILO), basic Education (UNESCO), public health (WHO), environment at Johannesburg and Rio and so forth in all major fields of human activities.
More recently, these specialized Agencies have agreed and proposed a roadmap for social justice which, in September 2000 culminated in the unanimous General Assembly Declaration by 190 Heads of States and Governments in what is known as the “Millennium Declaration”. This Declaration has now become a Universal Charter not only for Peace and Development, but also for Justice in its fullest meaning for the 21st Century, and which includes social justice.
For guidance purposes, let me read you this extract of the 2000 Millennium Declaration which states “Global challenges must be managed in a way that distributes the costs and burdens fairly with basic principles of equity and social justice”.
This 2000 “Millennium Declaration” was complemented in 2001 by the United Nations’ Road Map for the Implementation of the 8 “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs) which, in my view, represent a synthesis of the most basic needs defining “social justice” in the world, including for Arab States. These 8 MDGs constitute a Universal Charter for Social Justice, which will now evolve in 2016 with the new 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which are currently being debated and defined at the UN ECOSOC and at its GA High Level Ministerial Task Force Meeting this month.
But already in 2001 when the 8 MDGs were approved by the UN General Assembly criticism was voiced on the absence of a 9th MDG which would
have covered justice both in its social sense and in its human rights components.
This absence of reference to justice in the initial 8 MDGs will now be covered by the new SDG Number 16 which is now under discussion thanks to the Post-2015 UN development Agenda and which states in its Goal number 16 as “Promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all level”
In Arab countries we not only benefit of the great advantage of our prominent contributions to human civilization in arts, in technologies, in medicine, in geographical discoveries and in political science but, in addition, the concept of social and economic justice is inherent in the teachings and practice of the Holy Quran. Zakāt, one of the Five Pillars of Islam is the exercise of charitable giving by Muslims based on accumulated wealth, and is obligatory for all who are able to do so. It is considered to be a personal responsibility for Muslims to ease economic hardship for other Muslims and eliminate inequality for the followers of Islam. However, much of the impetus for the recent upheaval in many Arab countries stems from a demand for social justice that goes beyond individual or religious responsibility for generosity. This call for social justice engages the responsibilities of the state and includes more than simple income equality, but encompasses ideas of dignity, empowerment, freedom of expression, transparency and equality before the law.
Each of the governments and countries of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region are different and face unique challenges in terms of providing social and economic support to their respective populations. Some are faced with the chronic break down of the rule of law and stable governance. Others are involved in civil war with all of the chaos and turmoil that entails. Others are living under occupation with no internationally recognized government. Others still, have enormous wealth and prosperity, from which the population benefits. There is not one formula for social justice that fits all cases.
One economic measure for social justice that has been used rather widely by MENA countries is subsidies for energy and food. The energy and food sectors of the MENA countries are among the most heavily subsidized in the world. International economic institutions complain about such subsidies because it is claimed they “aggravate fiscal imbalances, encourage excessive energy consumption, reduce incentives for investment in renewable energy, and divert public spending away from key social programs.” But whenever governments have tried to reduce such subsidies, the result has been public protest, riots and social upheaval. Without effective alternatives, the removal of such subsidies has the danger of sinking the poor deeper into debt and prevents them for getting the food they need for survival.
When other mechanisms of social support, such as social safety nets and cash transfer programs have been tried in several countries, the results have been disappointing with minimal impact on the poorest segments of society. Many of the countries lack the institutional and organizational structures necessary to manage national social welfare programs. Also, the absence of national records and databases hinders the full identification of low-income groups.
Improvement in social justice will require attention to overall employment and job creation in Arab countries with particular emphasis on the challenges of the youth, something of particular concern to UNOAC. A recent UNDP study shows that 60% of Arab workers are engaged in the agriculture and social and personal services sectors, with agriculture being one of the least productive sectors of the economy. The informal sector still accounts for more than 10% of employment. Unemployment in the Arab world, currently at 13%, disproportionally affects women, youth, and individuals with higher educational qualifications. Youth unemployment is a particular source of concern in poor and conflict-ravaged Arab countries, where nearly 45% of young people are currently unemployed.
One concept I find valuable is the idea of the Social Protection Floor (SPF) promoted by ILO and WHO. Started in 2009, it is a global social policy concept that promotes nationally defined strategies for the provision of a minimum level of access to essential services and income security for all. It covers access to essential services such as water and sanitation, health, education and income security. This, or something similar, that would seek to provide a basic floor of social protection in Arab countries, could serve as an important benchmark or guideline for social justice policy in Arab states.
The lack of stability, security and peace in the region is a clear factor undermining development efforts. It contributes to ineffective governance and misuse of resources, including weak political participation, opaque and unaccountable management systems, and unskilled public administrations. These are serious obstacles that prevent Arab countries from mobilizing and adequately using their natural, financial and human resources. It also discourages foreign investors from taking an interest in the Arab region
Promoting social justice cannot be just the right of government by any means. Working with local, national and regional civil society organizations that represent the will and needs of the local community is especially important. Such groups can critically assist in developing transparent social welfare programs that effectively help vulnerable groups. However, I believe that communities and governments should be vigilant to the type and provenance of the NGO groups that propose to offer help and inputs. We have seen some instances where such groups promoted agendas that were not entirely transparent or in the interests of the peoples concerned. The promotion, development and engagement of indigenous community groups are particularly important to fully reflect local values and needs.
As we enter this discussion on social justice and development at this meeting, we cannot avoid the obligation to look at our balance sheet on the first 15 years of MDGs, especially in Arab States. The 15-year MDG system had a national reporting machinery known as Country Reports (MDGRs) with its series of Goals, Targets and social and economic Indicators. The reports, statistics and parameters which were produced by Arab countries were witnesses of the many social injustices, inequalities and weaknesses. National MDG Reports supported by UNDP show that nearly 140 million Arab citizens are living below the upper poverty line. Upwards of 25 million may be faced with famine and malnutrition. As noted by the ECWA report (E/ESCWA/28/8) the contribution of agriculture to GDP is low in almost all Arab countries with employment in agriculture showing declining trends and no tangible progress in food security since the 1990’s.
But the recent uprisings in many Arab States have unfortunately interrupted this MDG country reporting, which leaves us with only past data and statistics which already indicated serious policy flaws and failures which led to social disruptions. It also confirmed the need for a genuine revision and modernization of many Arab states social policies and justice systems, in order to better respond to the needs of new generations and to implement more efficiently the United Nations sustainable development goals, which will now constitute the basic threshold for social justice.
The Arab Region is in a state of profound change and transformation as countries face economic and natural disasters, civil wars, refugee and migration problems, massive inequality, poverty and lack of clean water, air and health care, among many other problems. Governments at national, regional and local levels are challenged to cope with these demands in the context of rapidly expanding populations. At the UNAOC, we know that “Social Justice” is of paramount concern if our populations are to live in peace within their communities and be reconciled to their governance. People expect to be treated with dignity, to have access to a good job, health care, clean water and a clean environment in which to raise their families. They expect to have a government that is transparent, administers justice fairly and reflects the will of the people. They want to be free to practice their own religion and observe their own cultural traditions. They also want to be able to live in peace and harmony with their neighbors.
These are the conditions that make peaceful co-existence within and between countries possible. Social justice is necessary to meet the objectives of the Alliance of Civilizations, including intercultural dialogue, understanding and cooperation. It has the power to connect governments, lawmakers, local authorities, civil society organizations, the media, and individuals in promoting understanding across diverse cultural communities. Social justice is the basis on which all else is built.
On a final note before we enter in our deliberation is a reminder that social justice requires economic progress, and that business is an essential part of social and economic progress. For this reason, we must not hesitate to address bluntly some major justice issues raised by the UN Global Compact. One issue of concern for Arab States which has become a business deterrent is corruption. Corruption creates mistrust for investors and has become a major disincentive for economic growth. Corruption destroys any hope of social justice and progress in any country and, instead, it fosters even more social injustices and inequalities.
A genuine and fair justice system must be put in place in any country willing to combat corruption and aiming to achieve social justice. The Arab States are invited to support the UN Global Compact Principles and to adopt policies which take positive steps to combat corruption, in order to avoid the overall poor image and standing found in the recent 2013 survey entitled “CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX ».
To become investor-friendly countries and to stimulate economic progress inclusive of all society, corruption should be eradicated from Arab States, in order to open the way for social justice and economic progress and in respect for our great civilization achievement represented by the Zakāt, one of the Five Pillars of Islam and of Arabic States.
We now welcome your important exchange of views on how social justice and development should be enhanced in Arab States, within the scope of the Post-2015 Development Agenda.