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Sep 19, 2019
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At the intersection of economic policy and human rights
Posted Thursday, November 3, 2011 11:00 AM
Diane Elson, sociology professor and chair at the University of Essex (UK), delivered this year’s Knight Distinguished Visiting Lecturer address. The lecture, entitled “Human Rights and the NAFTA,” took place at the Fort Garry Hotel on October 10. Elson’s current research interest is fiscal and monetary policy and the realization of human rights, with a particular focus on economic development gender inequality. The Robert and Elizabeth Knight Distinguished Visiting Lecture program is intended to enhance and enrich Winnipeg’s and the University of Manitoba’s academic life and discourse on a variety of topics.


At the Knight Lecture on October 10, economic sociologist Diane Elson called Canada “a beacon of hope” in its commitment to social justice. The imminent Canadian Museum for Human Rights, she suggested, can “treat human rights as a living area of contestation that can advance social justice — and gives a further framework for holding governments to account on human rights.”

With the “Occupy Winnipeg” campers mere blocks away, the potential irony of Elson’s optimistic view of Canada was not lost on the crowd that attended the lecture event held at the Fort Garry Hotel’s Club Room. Though Elson’s lecture was not about Canada per se, her methodology could be equally applicable. Elson tracks the real-world effects and consequences of economic policy in terms of human rights.

Elson’s talk was based on the research gathered in her upcoming book, co-written with Radhika Balakrishnan, and entitled Economic Policy and Human Rights: Holding Governments to Account. The subject of the book is the effects of NAFTA in both the U.S. and in Mexico.

Framing economic policy in terms of its economic, social, political and other consequences, Elson demonstrated through her case study the dangers of a reductive approach to economics.

A broader public understanding, of governmental obligations beyond reductive financial considerations, is necessary, suggested Elson in her talk. She outlined several key principles as obligatory, including: the progressive realization of human rights using maximum resources; avoidance of human rights retrogression; a minimum core obligation for satisfaction of minimum essential levels; substantive rather than just formal upholding of non-discrimination practices and equality; and processes that are participatory, transparent and offer accountability.

The human rights framework Elson used to collect her research on the effects of NAFTA on U.S and Mexican citizens included the right to employment under just and favourable conditions, the right to healthy, reasonably affordable and culturally-specific food, and essential civil and political rights.

Through her case study, Elson provided many concrete examples of negative economic, social and other effects of NAFTA.

One vivid example cited was the impact on workers in both countries. In the U.S., remuneration of unskilled work suffered a slight decrease while financial compensation for skilled work increased. In Mexico, expectations of greater employment were disappointed, while subsidies withdrawn from small farmers caused substantive losses never compensated.

A common thread in NAFTA consequences, Elson noted, was the lack of equal treatment of the rights of different groups: “business rights” consistently trumped “labour rights” and “corporate rights” overpowered “individual rights.” Under NAFTA, for instance, businesses can take cases (and countries) to the NAFTA free trade commission, but individuals cannot.

According to Elson’s research, NAFTA dispute settlement processes also fell short in terms of obligation of conduct with regard to transparency, participation and accountability.

Since NAFTA has been put into place, every NAFTA country has been sued by companies 16 or more times. A U.S. waste management company, for instance, challenged Mexican policy on ecological preserves for the ability to dump hazardous waste, claiming they were “owed compensation” for profit loss. The company was awarded $16-million, payable by the Mexican government. NAFTA proceedings are not open to the public in any way.

Further research in the area of employment rights showed that in America, minority groups were most negatively affected (though loss of employment), with a majority of those affected being male with a high school education or less.

Elson concluded her lecture by asking, “Is it the same in Canada, and what can we do to mobilize?” She called the human rights framework for testing the effects of economic policy a “mobilizing framework,” for how it utilizes evidence and encourages awareness and vigilence over human rights issues.

“It’s only as good as what we do with it,” she cautioned, however. “Human rights begin at home.”

As for the “Occupy Winnipeg” camp, Elson had already stopped by to talk with the protesters. “We can offer support and education,” she reflected, when asked by an audience member about the relationship of academics to the larger community, and the protests.

“Any possibility of change will need lots of different people and ideas in different places,” she said. “Not only protest, but concrete ideas are needed, to put alternatives more strongly on the agenda.”
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