Published in Perceptions and Perspepctives for Global Governance, a publication of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Singapore, 2011, pp. 163-169


Yaşar Yakış
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs
of Turkey

1. Introduction

I will discuss in this paper the relevance to the G20 process of democracy, human rights, civic liberties and social justice. When I refer to human rights, civic liberties and social justice, all three of them at once, I will use, for the purpose of this paper, a blanket terminology that covers three of them at the same time, namely the fundamental rights and freedoms.

Fundamental rights and freedoms and democracy are social paradigms while G20 is mainly an economic forum. Therefore one may wonder whether it is appropriate to discuss the relevance of political and social paradigms such as democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms to a forum that deals mainly with economic issues. Yes it is appropriate because G20 is a special case. It is a forum that brings together the highest political authorities of the major countries of the world. They constitute % 85 of the global GDP and two thirds of the world population. Such a gathering cannot easily put aside its responsibility to constitute an example or a role model for the other countries of the world on matters so closely related to the good governance.

G20 includes also countries where democracy is far from being perfect. However this imperfection should not be used as a pretext to give up the responsibility to stand as a good example for the remaining countries. The countries that have discrepancies in the field of democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms have to be encouraged to align themselves with countries that are doing better in these fields. While doing so, it will be appropriate neither to antagonise nor to alienate the countries where democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms need to be further improved.

2. Definitions and Scope

Democracy, human rights, civic liberties and social justice are not concepts that need to be re-refined. However for the purpose of this paper I will restrict the scope of their regular definition to fit them to the subject of this paper. Human rights, civic liberties and social justice are subjects that overlap to a very large extent. The definition of each of these titles is important for this purpose.

a. Democracy

The definition of democracy was made ages ago. It is the government of the people, by the people and for the people. However many countries that label their regime as democracy remained in practice far from complying with the basic requirements for democracy. Democracy cannot be reduced to holding elections. It is of paramount importance to see whether the general political environment in the country allows the citizens to form political parties without unnecessary restrictions; whether they are allowed to stand as a candidate; whether they are allowed to run election campaigns without undue obstruction; whether all political parties enjoy equal opportunities when they run election campaigns. The way the elections are held and the way the votes are counted are equally important. If the recourse procedures do not exist to settle the disputes for electoral malpractices or if they do not function properly, it will only be a limping democracy. Therefore democracy whose relevance to G20 we will discuss in this paper is a political regime that fulfils all criteria mentioned above and not a democracy that fulfils only part of its requirements.

b. Human rights

“Human rights” is a title that covers an extremely wide area. Furthermore the scope of human rights is in constant expansion. Slavery was not part of the human rights a few centuries ago. Now it is. The concept of the right to internet access was not known until recent years, therefore the question whether it had to be perceived as part of the human rights did not arise until recently, but now this question is a subject of lively debates.

The most comprehensive documents that formalize the human rights are:

– The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, and

– The European Convention of Human Rights (or, with its official title, Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms) drafted in 1950 and entered into force on 3 September 1953.

The rights contained in these two major documents are similar to a very large extent. They cover such rights as the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery, right to liberty and security, right to fair trial, right to full compensation for the damage or loss suffered by individuals, right to privacy, freedom of conscience or religion, freedom of expression, freedom of association, right to marriage, right of protection from all sorts of discrimination etc.

The list is long, but it does not cover other rights that started to be considered as part of human rights by new conventions or other international instruments such as the rights of gays and lesbians, right to the conscientious objection, in other words, the right to refuse to serve in the army or the right to the internet access that has become a lively issue only in the recent years.

To the extent that it is relevant to G20 process, it may be more appropriate to adopt a relatively conservative approach and not to force the participating countries of G20 too much to espouse the human rights in its most extensive scope.

The scope of the UDHR was criticized in the past by three different circles: One of them is the criticism raised by certain Islamic countries, namely by Sudan, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. They point out that the UDHR does not take full account of the cultural and religious differences of the countries that are ruled by Sharia. The Iranian Representative to the United Nation is on the record to point out in 1982 that “the UDHR is a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition and that its strict application is not possible without violation the Sharia rules”. On 30 June 2000 the member States of the Organization of the Islamic Conference adopted a document under the title of Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam which provides that people have “freedom and right to a dignified life in accordance with the Islamic Sharia”. Turkey adhered to this resolution with the routine reservation which points out that it “will implement this resolution to the extent that its provisions are in compliance with Turkey’s secular Constitution”.

There is no need to dwell on the criticisms voiced by the other two groups as they do not affect the purpose of this article.

Apart from these two major international documents there are several other documents that deal with more specific subjects within the framework of the human rights, such as:

But for the purpose of this paper it is neither necessary nor useful to go into the detail of the content of these additional international documents on human rights.

c. Civic liberties

There is a thin line between “civil” liberties and the “civic” liberties. I will use the words “civic liberties” in this paper for the liberties that stem for an individual from his/her status of being a member of an urban community. For an individual, these rights differ from the “civil liberties” that stem from his/her status of being a human being. Civic liberties are valid in the context of the urban community where the individual lives. These liberties include the rights of individual to take part in the political and social activities of the community, to participate in the municipal elections, to stand as a candidate for municipal posts, to be informed of the municipal activities etc. Undoubtedly there is a huge overlapping between the human rights that I discussed under the previous title and the civic liberties that is being discussed under the present title. However this overlapping does not affect much the discussion of the relevance of neither of them to the G20 process.

I will not discuss, in this chapter, the subject of the relevance of these liberties to the G20 process, because at this stage I am trying to identify and define the concept of civic liberties. The question of its relevance to the G20 process will be discussed later in this paper under the chapter 6 below.

d. Social justice

The words “social justice” is used in this paper to explain the equal opportunity for individuals to benefit in an equitable manner from the wealth of the nation. Therefore it is not equality in drawing benefits from the wealth created by the work of the society as a whole. In this sense, social justice is some sort of extension of the human rights. If a difference emerges in benefiting, on an equitable basis, from the wealth of the nation this discrepancy has to be eliminated by the State by any means that it deems appropriate. This could be done through progressive taxation or by direct assistance provided to less advantaged classes of the society either through the income redistribution or through the property redistribution. The redistribution becomes necessary as a result of incidental inequalities that may arise even if there is nothing that could be characterized as unjust in the conduct of economy.

Measuring social justice in a country is not an easy task. One of the criteria to measure it is the size of the income gap between the higher and lower income groups of the same society. In a country where income gap is big social tension and unrests are more frequent. This gap is growing unfortunately in the developing countries as well as in the industrialized countries.

The concept of social justice is perceived at present mainly at the national level. In other words, a mechanism comparable to the income redistribution or property redistribution that is practiced at the national level is not yet envisaged at the international level. This is done at the international level only in the form of donations or grants that are attached sometimes to several conditions.

3. G 20

a. Evolution of G 20
Now I turn to G20. The G20 process could be better understood by having a look at the reasons that led to its establishment and at its quick evolution since its inception around 12 years ago. What triggered the founding of this Group was the crisis in emerging economies that had begun in Thailand in mid 1997. It intensified in the course of the subsequent two years, affecting other Asian economies and extended to Russia and Latin America. The major industrial countries were able to address most global economic problems among themselves—by means of the G-5 or subsequently the G-7—during the 1970s and even to a large extent during the 1980s. However, this had become increasingly difficult by the late 1990s, as the weight of the G-7 countries in the global economy declined as a result of the rapid growth of emerging economies, especially those in Asia.
The first concrete step was taken in September 1999 with a proposal of the Finance Ministers of the G-7 countries “to broaden the dialogue on key economic and financial policy issues among systemically significant economies and promote co-operation to achieve stable and sustainable world economic growth that benefits all.”
They then invited their “counterparts from a number of countries from various regions around the world” to a meeting in Berlin in December 1999 with a view to working together to establish an informal mechanism for dialogue within the framework of the Bretton Woods institutional system.”
Thus emerged the Group of Twenty countries (the G-20), but major changes that took place in the global economy over the previous 20 years played also an important role in the evolution that led to its establishment.
Moreover, as the countries and regions were growing more interdependent, the global economy was also becoming more integrated. The trade liberalization under the auspices of the GATT and, subsequently, the WTO, caused marked increases in cross-border trade. World trade as a proportion of global GDP rose from roughly 40 per cent to 62 per cent in the years 1991-2006. The emerging markets played a key role in this improvement. The transition of largely closed centrally-planned economies to open-market economies provided an unprecedented further impetus.

b. Present situation

I now turn to the present situation in the G20 process.

All the factors mentioned above contributed to the establishment of the G20. At present it consists of 19 countries—Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mexico, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States—and the European Union. The group brings together systemically important advanced and emerging economies that represent roughly 85 per cent of global GDP and two-thirds of the world’s population

I have pointed out that the establishment of the G-20 represented a direct response to the global repercussions of the economic and financial crisis in Asia. Moreover, it was, in fact, an acknowledgment of the striking changes in the international economic arena. Emerging countries have been turning into important economic powers. Besides, as a result of growing integration of economies and markets through globalization, domestic developments in these countries acquired special importance. This is a point of particular relevance to our main topic to which we will return later. The effective functioning of the international financial and economic system required the active participation of emerging countries as well as the more advanced ones in the governance of the global economy.

The founders invited to the Group the countries with whom they did not agree on several issues such as China with whom they had divergent view on the global imbalances and India with whom they had divergent view on trade matter. The reason for this attitude was that they aspired to build a forum to focus on bottlenecks of politico-economic nature on global issues. The aim was to form a representative body, combining the world’s largest economies (such as the US, China and Japan), with the appropriate regional powers. Therefore the subsequent composition failed to include some of the top 20 economies— like Spain and Netherlands” – whose region was already well represented – while some others such as South Africa and Saudi Arabia were included even though their economies were of smaller scale.

4. Decisions adopted during various G 20 meetings

Many important decisions were adopted in five G20 summits that were convened so far. They include a framework for sustainable and balanced growth, the reform of the international financial institutions, reform of the financial sector, global financial security networks, trade, development, energy, climate change, fight against corruption etc.

It has been decided in the Toronto Summit of June 2010 to take up the issue of development as a separate item. Seoul Summit of November 2010 was the first G20 Summit where issues pertaining to development were examined in detail and reflected in the final communiqué. Within this framework it was agreed that the Seoul Consensus of G20 would complement the commitment undertaken by the G20 countries to achieve the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs).

The reason why I discuss this subject in further detail is that many of the goals contained in the MDGs are closely connected to the subject of this paper namely to the fundamental rights and freedoms. In other words a connection is already established between the work of the G20 process and the fundamental rights and freedoms by a decision adopted in the Toronto Summit and reconfirmed in the Seoul Summit of G20.

5. Millenium Development Goals (MDGs)

MDGs were adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2000. There are 8 goals and 21 Targets and a series of measurable indicators to reach each Target. Seven out of these eight Goals have a strong fundamental rights and freedom dimension. Therefore a closer look at these Goals will be useful.

Goal -1 Eradication of extreme poverty and hunger
Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education
Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women
Goal 4: Reduce child mortality rates
Goal 5: Improve maternal health
Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability.
Many of the above mentioned MDGs are, one way or another, related to the fundamental rights and freedoms. Four of these MDGs, namely Eradication of hunger (MDG-1), access to primary education (MDG-2), gender equality (MDG-3), and maternal health (MDG-5) are already in the two major international documents on human rights. The remaining 3 MDGs, namely reducing child mortality (MDG-4), Combat HIV (AIDS) (MDG-6) and environment (MDG-7) are not mentioned in the said documents but there is a growing tendency to consider them as part of human rights as well.
A distinction could be made between following two sets of human rights: One of the sets is composed of rights such as right to live, freedom from hunger, and access to health care etc. I do not think that there will be any lack of will in the countries to protect and promote such liberties. The second set is composed of more sensitive rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of conscience or religion, conscientious rejection etc. These rights have a certain degree of political connotation as well. Certain countries may be less forthcoming in protecting these rights efficiently, because they regard for instance the criticisms directed to the government as a misuse of the freedom of expression.
6. Relevance of democracy and fundamental rights within G 20

When we discuss whether democracy and fundamental rights are relevant to the G-20 process, a blanket answer will not cover all the subtleties of the question, because the relevance of democracy to the G-20 process may not necessarily be at the same level as the relevance of the fundamental rights and freedoms. Furthermore, in view of the fact that human rights or fundamental rights and freedoms cover a vast area, it may be appropriate to clearly define the specific human right whose relevance to the G20 process is being discussed. Various human rights may be relevant to the G20 process at varying degrees. In other terms it may be appropriate to prioritize these concepts and discuss each of them separately. For instance:

Fundamental rights and freedoms is also a very wide area that covers human rights, civic rights and social justice. If the rights that fall within the scope of this concept have to be prioritized, right to live is undoubtedly the most important one. If you are deprived from this right all the other rights become irrelevant. Then come the other priority rights such as freedom from hunger, access to medical care, right of education, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of association, social justice etc. This priority is also valid for the relevance of these rights to the G-20 process.

As to Democracy, this is a concept with a wider spectrum than the previous rights and freedoms. In a country where democracy is more or less satisfactory, there is a greater chance for the citizens to enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms, because those who govern the country are accountable for the violations of fundamental rights and freedoms that are committed in the country. Therefore better democracy means better guarantee for the protection of human rights.

a. Democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms as a criteria for development

Development cannot and should not be measured with the level of per capita income only. Democracy and fundamental rights are equally important for a country to be regarded as a developed country. Absence of democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms hampers social justice and equitable distribution of the wealth generated in a country and allows the rulers to escape accountability. Recourse procedures against the violation of democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms may either be totally absent or may not function properly. The advice given by the countries that do not fulfil all criteria of good governance will be taken less seriously than the advice of the countries that fulfil them entirely.

The G-20 countries have to set a role model for countries that are not included in the process for various reasons. Therefore democracy and fundamental rights are relevant to the G-20 process.

b. Absence of fundamental rights as a deviation from the MDGs

There are several references to the MDGs in the communiqué issued in 2010 at the end of the Seoul Summit of G20. The Seoul Consensus that was adopted in the Summit was regarded as a document that would contribute to the fulfilment of the commitments of the G20 countries to achieve the MDGs. Therefore if fundamental rights and freedoms contained in 7 out of the 8 MDGs are not achieved, the G20 countries would be failing their commitments. In other words the G20 has already espoused by this decision the fundamental rights and freedoms and made their fulfilment its own target. Therefore their relevance to the G20 process goes without saying.

c. Absence of fundamental rights as a deviation from free competition

Child labour, violation of the social rights of the workers, denial of the right to strike and to collective bargaining for the workers, denial of decent working periods and fair wages are on the one hand the violation of fundamental rights and freedoms, but they are also a violation of the rules of free competition. The industries of the countries that observe these rights cannot compete easily with the industries of the countries where salaries are kept unnecessarily low, where working hours are long and minimum measures for the safety of workers are not taken in the workshops.

We cannot ignore the conditions in many developing countries (or emerging economies). For instance it is not of course realistic to expect the authorities to become too generous in the countries with high unemployment rates and with millions of workers ready to work even under dire conditions. Nonetheless, it is the duty of the State not to use these pretexts for exposing its own citizens or foreign labour working in its territory to unacceptable working conditions.

7. Conclusion

The main concepts that are discussed in this paper are closely related to each other. Democratically governed countries are less likely to initiate armed conflicts. As democracy becomes more widespread the likelihood of armed conflicts will be reduced and stability will prevail in the world with all positive outcomes that it entails. The most important outcome will be the boost that it will give to the global economic growth. Since global economic stability and growth are among the most important targets of the G20, the promotion of democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms have to be a major target that the G20 should be aiming at.

There is also a close link between peace and economic welfare, because conflict is not conducive to progress. Search for security is an innate instinct in human beings. They need peace and stability in order to improve their living standards and welfare. In other words many of the concepts that constitute the subject of our discussion, namely democracy, human rights, peace, stability, economic development and welfare are all related to each other one way or the other. Therefore the G20 process should not turn a blind eye to the promotion of democracy, human rights, civic rights and social justice.

Having said this, one cannot loose sight of the real politik in international relations. If certain participating countries perceive the G20 process as a forum where their internal discrepancies are questioned every now and then, they may lose interest in the work of the forum. The elimination of such internal discrepancies should be achieved without alienating these participating countries. The promotion of the universal values should be carried out without being over-bearing.


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