The Real Problem with the Economy: G-20 Policies Violate UN Declaration of Human Rights

By the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance for the People's Voices Tribunal on the G-20, Pittsburgh, PA September 22-25, 2009.

The G-20 closed their official summit on Friday, September 25, 2009 with a declaration of victory, saying their coordinated and forceful response has worked to avert future economic catastrophe and have put people back to work.

Officials of the city of Pittsburgh closed the summit with their own declaration of victory, saying the event was a PR stunt worth $100 million.

Meanwhile local businesses lost tens of thousands of dollars, nearly 200 people were arrested including at least two journalists, the African-American unemployment rate in Pittsburgh stagnates between 26% and 28%, more than 1000 people remain homeless, and close to 50% of all African-Americans and Latinos in the state of Pennsylvania remain uninsured with little to no access to quality health care.

While the G-20 and big business leaders of the world claim the economic crisis has stabilized, indicators of growth based on human rights show otherwise.

On Thursday, September 24, several hundred people gathered in the Northside of Pittsburgh to assess the G-20’s record in upholding principles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.  The event, called the People’s Voices Tribunal, was organized by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), Pittsburgh UNITED/Northside United, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, G6 billion, American Friends Service Committee- PA, National Jobs With Justice, Hemispheric Social Alliance and several other organizations involved in the growing movement for global justice.

Organizers staged a mock trial complete with puppets representing the 20 heads of state at the summit, and an international panel of judges from the U.S., Colombia, and Zimbabwe.  The people’s charge: that the G-20 is complicit in maintaining an economic system that violates the human rights of poor and working people all over the world, from Pittsburgh, the Border to Burma.

Testifiers drew a compelling picture of the world created by the G-20 and international finance institutions like the World Bank, IMF and WTO:  a world of corporate land grabs that lead to forced migration into cities where jobs are scarce, forced migration out of cities into distant suburbs where commutes are long and services are few, and forced migration from the Global South to the North, where economic refugees are often persecuted, declared illegal, and thrown in jail without due process; a world where employment standards are eroding and slavery in the forms of sex trafficking and prison labor is alive and well, a world where finance-driven development has made a few richer and left millions displaced, a world where governments are penalized for providing social services to their citizens and where military aid exceeds humanitarian aid, where farmers in the global south are forced to grow tobacco and fuel products instead of food they can eat, where dissent is criminalized, where the poor and powerless are policed and warehoused, and where the military is rising up as a most attractive employer to our youth.  A world where the planet, our only home, is being destroyed by an economy based on fossil-fuel, over-production and the wrongheaded notion that the environment can be healed through market trade.  

Testifier after testifier, although coming from different experiences and from diverse communities shared that our world under the current neoliberal economic system – continues to perpetuate a system that legislates corporate domination of local, national and international economies.  

Will Thompkins of The Pittsburgh Project and Northside United gave a rousing testimony that highlighted the impacts of the current economy on the Northside area of Pittsburgh.  He explained that 20% of the neighborhood’s housing units are empty; unemployment is nearly 5 times the city average, and nearly 80% of the neighborhood’s households live below 200% of Federal Poverty guidelines.  The Northside shows that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is a widening epidemic, with neoliberal economics as the root cause.  He summarized the failure of neoliberalism as follows:

“Racism, lack of decent safe and sanitary housing, gentrification, massive land clearance, unemployment, changing names (Northside to North Shore), speculation, privatization, no grocery stores, rise in property values, astronomical profits.”

Within this system the poor and working class in the United States have much in common with the poor and working class from the Global South.  Ai-Jen Poo from Domestic Workers United testified on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of domestic workers in the United States, a sector whose plight increasingly represents conditions for workers around the world:

“Every morning in New York, more than 200,000 mostly immigrant women get out of bed about three hours before us, to arrive so their employers can go to work.  They do the work that makes all other work possible.  Marina is one these women.  Neoliberal policies restructured the economy in her home country to the point that there was no way to make a living -- Marina migrated here because of this. She works 18 hrs per day 6 days per week cooking and cleaning for family of 6.  She makes less than $3 per hour and sleeps in a basement with an overflowing sewage system.  She was fired with no notice, no severance, and no access to unemployment.   She had no leverage or bargaining power.  Conditions for domestic workers like Marina increasingly define working conditions for the US workforce. It’s the Wild West for the entire working class - thanks to neoliberalism anything goes.”

Mimi Yahn, a local activist and feminist, showed that Domestic Workers are just one sector of the billions of women worldwide who are disproportionately impacted by neoliberalism:

“Women already earn on average 2/3 less than men across the globe, so every financial setback impacts them more severely. In addition, across the globe women are usually the primary caretakers of children and elderly relatives, which means that they are financially responsible for more people on less money.  Of the 1.3 billion people living in absolute poverty around the globe, 70% are women and girls.
Under neoliberalism, poverty is a growing epidemic.  The World Bank itself estimates that almost 90 million people will be living in dire poverty by the end of 2010.  With little job creation in site, what will happen to those of us with few opportunities to survive?  Along with rising rates of homelessness and hunger, incarceration rates have also continued to rise.  Worldwide, the private prison industry is booming.  Kali Akuno of the US Human Rights Network and Salma Mirza of United Students Against Sweatshops highlighted the impacts of the prison industry on African-Americans and youth of color in the US:

“There are more than 1 million people in US prisons that look like me.  Add to that those under house arrest and the number comes to 4 million out of a population of roughly 45 million – that’s more people incarcerated in this one country than in 50 other countries combined.  Think about that.”

“We have learned from a very early age that what corporations do in this society is the only measure of growth and that our worth is only in what we produce.  We are not allowed to be our whole selves.  Everything we are taught is to stay on track to maintain the current systems.  My high school was across the street from a juvenile detention center, as if to remind us what would happen if we got off track.”

Our current economic system could not survive without this systematic criminalization of poverty along race, age and gender lines.  The system thrives on the myth that if people are struggling to survive, it must be because of some fault of their own - and that this fault might involve illegal and dangerous activity. This myth justifies the criminalization of poverty and disguises the reality that the current system exists to enrich a few at the expense of the many - a fact that is only now beginning to hit the middle class in the Global North.

As more and more people rise up to voice dissent against this system, dissent itself is becoming increasingly criminalized.  Scilla Wahrhaftig of the American Friends Service Committee-PA talked about the militarization brought to Pittsburgh by the G20 summit.  There were 6000-armed enforcers hired to police the G20 protests -- this amounted to almost 1.5 enforcers per protestor. There were 4000 police from all over Pennsylvania and beyond, and 2000 members of the National Guard dominating the streets of downtown Pittsburgh.  They were armed to the teeth with batons, rubber pellet rifles, riot padding, barred helmets, tear gas canisters, sound blast speakers.  They patrolled on bikes and motorcycles, in public buses commandeered as paddy wagons, in helicopters and humvees.  They wore more protective gear than our soldiers in Iraq.  This disproportionate over-reaction was a show of force clearly designed to send an oppressive message to those who dared to dissent.  

And when people’s dissent is actually heard, and results in the shifting of government policies away from neoliberalism and toward providing for the poor - what happens then?  The military coup in Honduras provides a chilling example.  Just as President Zelaya was trying to transform his country’s economy to serve the 60% of Hondurans living in poverty, the Honduran oligarchy -- which benefits from neoliberal privatization, exploitation of the poor and working class, and extraction of the country’s natural resources -- staged a bloody coup made possible in large part by US-based training and military aid.  

Citing the example of Honduras, Alberto Arroyo, an economist with the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade (RMALC) proclaimed:

“They want to take away our right to elect government that walks with the people.  We salute the Honduran people who have spent 91 days of sustained struggle in the streets.  When all of the international diplomatic efforts have not been able to dislocate this coup it will be the struggle in the streets that is not going to let this bloody tactic of empire reign today.”

The unfortunate backdrop to the militarization, criminalization, poverty and exploitation fueled by neoliberal policies is the devastation of our global ecosystem.  Jihan Gearon of the Indigenous Environmental Network explained how the free trade agenda, the entrenchment of massive energy industries, and the misguided cap and trade system are all problems designed to generate more “green” for corporations, not solutions designed to truly “green” our planet.  

“The free trade agenda replaces our gods with one god, and imposes this new god called market competition.  The creation of this new god permits the corporate sucking of our natural resources, and allows corporations to sue our governments for anything they think has caused a loss in profits.”

“The G20 has found a way to change this crisis into a money maker – “Green” is the new green.  But guess what, clean coal technology is not green.  And guess what, nuclear power is not green.  Large-scale hydropower dams are not green.  And when they tell you, you can buy your way out of this problem – they are lying to you.  We need to get rid of the 2 trillion dollar carbon market and its wrong solutions. We want more than green jobs in the same old free market, we want real and true sustainable livelihoods.”

These testimonials and others from Helena Wong of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities and Priva Ha’angandu of Jubilee Zambia provided the evidence for the judges’ deliberations.  The panel of judges used the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as a guide in determining whether the G-20 was guilty of maintaining an economic system that violates the human rights of poor and working people across the world.  In the end, the verdict was delivered by the entire congregation of people - “guilty as charged, guilty as charged, guilty as charged.”

On 30 counts, the G-20’s policies were found to have violated the articles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, including violating

The right of all people to be free and equal in dignity and rights
The right to life, liberty and security of person
The prohibition of slavery and the slave trade shall in all their forms
The protection of all from arbitrary arrest, detention or exile
And the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association

The tribunal ended with a call to action to continue to build the movement for real alternatives to neoliberalism.  Organizers highlighted the US Social Forum in Detroit, June 22-26, 2010 as a key venue for continuing dialogue on shared strategies to build the alternatives and keep building our global movement.

“The real economic crisis is the crisis of capitalism,” said Cindy Wiesner of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance.  “The charge is on us to develop a new economic model that upholds human rights and dignity for all.”

“We have born witness to the cruelty of neoliberal policies, and the G-20’s complete disregard for the humanity of the working class,” said Ai-Jen Poo of Domestic Workers United.  “We want guaranteed income, universal healthcare, green jobs, training for these jobs, public works programs, shortened work days, and the human right to organize.  Now is the time -- the working class can’t wait.”

The tribunal’s panel of judges included Briggs Bomba of Africa Action, Steffi Domike of the United Steelworkers, Enrique Daza of the Hemispheric Social Alliance, Sarita Gupta, National Director of Jobs with Justice, and Michael Leon Guerrero of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance.  

The People’s Voices Tribunal was coordinated by the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), Pittsburgh United/Northside United, American Friends Service Committee- PA, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ), G6 Billion, Hemispheric Social Alliance, and National Jobs With Justice, as well as countless volunteers, local organizers, activists and endorsing organizations.