The headlines after the recent G20 summit in London were quite optimistic about the prospects for the global economy. Those who have been feeling the brunt of the economic crisis are now hoping that the $1.1 trillion “programme of support to restore credit, growth and jobs in the world”, as the leaders noted in their communiqué, could be the panacea for the financial chaos that global financial institutions have wreaked on the world.
The lack of financial supervision and regulation has been identified as the reason for the cavalier manner in which global bankers took so many to the cleaners. “Major failures in the financial sector and financial regulation and supervision were fundamental causes of the crisis,” said the communiqué. “Confidence will not be restored until we rebuild trust in our financial system. We will take action to build a stronger, more globally consistent, supervisory and regulatory framework for the future financial sector, which will support sustainable growth and serve the needs of business and citizens,” said the leaders.
This is all well and good. But for many Africans, these words do not really mean much to them. The language of the communiqué was mainly related to global financial markets and their esoteric nature. What Africans wanted to hear about was how Western governments would deal with the banks in which ill-gotten gains from Africa reside.
In the run-up to the G20 meeting, there was much talk about tax havens. Now this is an issue that has been irking Western governments because their citizens have been storing their money in tax havens, thus depriving their governments of much needed revenue for development.
During his press conference, the G20 host, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, noted: “We have agreed that there will be an end to tax havens that do not transfer information on request. The banking secrecy of the past must end.” Critics of tax havens have noted that they do not only host private accounts of rich, corrupt or criminal individuals wanting to escape taxes and regulations, they have also been used to create a banking system for hedge funds and other speculative investors.
While Western governments are busy chasing banks in these tax havens to stop their citizens from salting money away, we have not heard about how they could help African countries recover the billions of dollars of stolen funds that are in these banks.
It is imperative that a solution is found to stop money looted from African countries being given a safe haven in foreign banks. It is important because, to my mind, it is a major human rights issue. I’m talking about the fact that millions of Africans have been deprived of their basic human rights because of funds that should have been used to improve their standards of living being diverted to foreign banks.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which celebrated 60 years of existence last year, provides some guidance here. It spells out the civil and political rights of individuals as well as their social and economic rights. Well, I want to talk about economic and social rights, which are governed by the International Covenant on Social and Cultural Rights (ICSCR). This was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and came into force in 1976.
It holds countries that have committed themselves to the covenant to grant economic and labour rights, rights to health, education and an adequate standard of living to individuals. But what we have in many African countries today is that these rights are barely existent. Why? Because the money that should go towards meeting these basic rights is nestling in illegal accounts in foreign banks.
Thus, if Africans are denied their right to an adequate standard of living; denied their right to social security; denied their right to food; denied their right to adequate housing; denied their right to health; denied their right to education, then those responsible are committing a crime against humanity. It is clear that the guilty parties are those who steal state money in Africa and the bankers who knowingly provide safe havens for these looted funds.
How can foreign bankers sleep at night when in Angola, a very rich country in terms of its natural resources, some 260 children out of 1,000 die before they reach the age of five? And most of these deaths are caused by diseases that are preventable. If a properly funded health service were in place in Angola these children wouldn’t have died from preventable diseases.
It is the same scenario in most African countries in the health, education and social services sectors. Money is just not available to make life a little better for citizens because the funds have been looted by civil servants and politicians and sent to banks abroad. Why aren’t Western governments taking more robust action to stop the illegal flight of much needed funds from Africa?
So, while the G20 leaders were talking about saving the global economy they missed the point about human rights, which are central to the way we live today. Do they realise that because of the skewed nature of globalisation, 54 countries are poorer than they were 10 years ago?
Let’s face it. We are not just talking about the financial sector, which has been the cause of the global economic crisis. We are also talking about companies that are taking advantage of weak governance in developing countries such as those in Africa to deprive citizens of their human rights.
Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, who is now campaigning for human rights among international businesses, hit the nail on the head when she spoke at a Responsible Leadership Summit in Lausanne, Switzerland in February. “In a world so deeply divided between rich and poor, North and South, religious and secular, us and them, we need more than ever common values – a ‘common standard of achievement’ as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it,” she said.
“All of us need tools to hold governments accountable for their performance. The Universal Declaration, which has been affirmed and reaffirmed by governments for more than half a century, is central to that cause.”
How right she is. But the leaders who were at the G20 summit failed woefully to address the issue of human rights. They were too busy trying to outdo each other – going by the posturing of French President Nicolas Sakorzy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel before the summit.
African countries do not need leaders posturing on the world stage. They want world leaders – more so those in whose jurisdictions where there are tax havens – to act against the bankers who are denying Africans their human rights.
Where are the African civil society organisations that preach human rights? Might they not think it wise to start some human rights action against foreign banks that harbour stolen funds from Africa in the wake of the G20 summit?
I think there is a case to answer here. I don’t think the activists have to wait for the rather tedious World Bank Stolen Assets Recovery initiative to make their move against rogue bankers.
Desmond Davies is former Editor of West Africa magazine in London.