It’s been more than 20 years since I first came to the UN Headquarters here to report on a human rights issue. Then, it was about the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa. A few years later, South Africans would win their freedom.

Now, I am back in the maze of conference rooms, hoping to be covered. My topic these days is the financial crisis as a human rights issue and I was invited by an international NGO to bring it to the sessions alongside the Human Rights Council composed of 47 member states.

As a journalist, I am uncomfortable being an advocate in such a ritualistic politicised process that every year witnesses scores of oppressed peoples seeking relief or visibility for causes that seldom get any attention outside of the UN basement.

That’s where these issues often end up being heard before being filed away in archives that few media outlets ever consult. It’s even unclear if this body of governments has the clout or the inclination to take on a vast corporatocracy with more power than the political establishment.

Social movements

I am here because Occupy Wall Street has put the issue of economic inequality on the agenda, although I am certainly not representing OWS, even if I did write a book about its activities.

In fact, OWS activists caution against bringing demands before bodies that really don’t have the power to satisfy them. The recent edition of Occupy’s theoretical journal, Tidal (as in “tidal wave”), carries an essay warning that by floating specific demands, you lose control over how the public perceives issues that are interconnected. This can also, they fear, validate institutions that lack legitimacy.

As a long-time human rights advocate, I have a slightly different approach. I think it’s important we recognise that there are economic and social rights as well as political ones, and that if the UN has the duty to “protect” ordinary people against military abuses, it also has the obligation to protect citizens who are being abused by the decisions of the 1 per cent - bankers, economic policymakers and big business honchos.

On the strength of the research I have done for two films and three books, I believe that the global financial crisis has been a human rights disaster for millions who have lost jobs, homes and hope through no fault of their own.

An organisation like the UN, whose charter begins with the words “We The People”, has to try to defend the interest of economic victims as well as political ones, because national governments have been bought or silenced by the very vested economic interests that are ravaging so many of our communities.

In my talk, I quoted the Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff who speaks up and speaks out, against the people responsible. She argues that “crimes against humanity” have been committed by Wall Street’s financial manipulators.

“By refusing to consider the consequences of their actions, those who created the financial crisis exemplify the banality of evil,” she wrote.

Global protests

This angry denunciation resonates with the global protests that surfaced two years later under the banner of Occupy Wall Street.

Zuboff amplified her insights in the pages of Business Week:

Each day’s economic news leaves me haunted by Hannah Arendt’s ruminations on Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann as she reported on his trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker 45 years ago. Arendt pondered ‘the strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil’ and sought to capture it with her famous formulation ‘the banality of evil’. Arendt found Eichmann neither ‘perverted nor sadistic’, but ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’.

As we learn more about the behaviour within our financial institutions, we see that just about everyone accepted a reckless system that rewards transactions but rejects responsibility for the consequences of those transactions.

Bankers, brokers and financial specialists were all willing participants in a self-centred business model that celebrates what’s good for business insiders while dehumanising and distancing everyone else - the outsiders.

It is precisely this framework, steeped in moral as well as economic lessons, that we need to adopt to judge the vast human rights implications of the decisions and practices that led to the massive unemployment, homelessness, foreclosures, downward mobility and poverty that grips our world.

In most of the media, this crisis has been treated with a perverse logic: that no one was responsible since everyone was financially irresponsible and thus everyone is to blame - while at the same time no one is blamed.

It took the editor of Vanity Fair, a popular magazine, more into celebrities than derivatives, to dispose of this perverse lack of logic.

Writes Graydon Carter:

It can fairly be said that the chain of catastrophic bets made over the past decade by a few hundred bankers may well turn out to be the greatest non- violent crime against humanity in history. They’ve brought the world’s economy to its knees, lost tens of millions of people their jobs and their homes, and trashed the retirement plans of a generation, and they could drive an estimated 200 million people worldwide into dire poverty. In other words, never before have so few, done so much, to so many. (Emphasis mine.)

And yet, the investigations of the very concrete financial crimes behind this crisis have been stunted and the prosecutions few and far between.

Crimes of relatively minor transgressions are routinely adjudicated; crimes that led to the loss of trillions of dollars are ignored.

Placing the blame

I came to Geneva not just to argue about facts but to discuss the deeper narrative that drives media coverage. When economic catastrophes are covered in the business pages, it’s usually only about business - not the social costs harming families thrown in the streets when property rights trump human rights.

The UN knows how to investigate crimes against humanity. Why not this one? Can it be that so many of the member states are “captured”, to use an economic term, by financial interests who resist being held accountable?

Sitting in the luxury of an Intercontinental Hotel where every third TV ad is for a pricey watch or a Mercedes, I realise that so many in the diplomatic elite, tooling around in their chauffeured cars, identify more with the 1 per cent that has benefited from a crisis that seems to be deepening.

Class rules!

Is it unlikely that this elite can even hear, much less identify or act on behalf of those unemployed or in foreclosure because of Wall Street crimes and austerity measures they have led to?

My talk was politely received but I doubt there will be much of a response. However, I couldn’t not go when invited.

The UN may pay lip service to the problem, but lacks the guts to say - or more importantly, do - anything about it.

And yet, as the scholars Radhika Balakrishnan and James Heintz write: All governments are obliged to advance their people’s human rights. One of the specific obligations under international law is to protect the rights of their residents. When an individual business or institution threatens to interfere with someone’s basic rights, the government must step in to protect economic and social rights...

Here, here!             –Al Jazeera