Fun fact! Basically every developed country in the world is legally obligated to provide 0.7% of GNP in official government aid to poor countries to help them escape poverty. Who knew!?!

Let me explain. Aside from the United States and Botswana, every reasonable country (i.e. every country that is not a dictatorship, has more than five citizens, or isn't an otherwise failed state) has signed the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Article 2(1) of the ICESCR commits states to "take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical" to help fulfill the economic rights of poor people around the world. Now the ICESCR is a binding international agreement, but unsurprisingly, there's a lot of disagreement about what it specifically requires and what states are actually obliged to do. That being said, a very very authoritative international legal scholar holds that "there is broad agreement that the Covenant imposes at least some extraterritorial obligations...." 

The most authoritative legal interpretations of these extraterritorial obligations hold that developed countries are required to give 0.7% of their GNP in "official development assistance." Where did they get that magic number? Starting in 1970, a half-dozen UN Resolutions have been passed that set and continually reaffirm this number as the minimum level that states need to reach. Most recently, in 2008, the UN enshrined this target again and the EU committed to bring itself in line with the standard by 2015. In 2013, the UK increase it's assistance to the 0.7% minimum to comply with its international obligations. 

Why does this matter? At the very least, it might be something good to keep in mind in our advocacy. We can shame our countries for failing to comply with the most authoritative statements of international law, and their explicit promises to reach the 0.7% target. But maybe we can do more.  Maybe someone can bring a case and force them to reach their commitment to 0.7%. I'm not sure what that would look like, or if it is possible to even bring such a case, but it definitely seems worth looking into, maybe even for the PR value alone. That's because a quick glance tells me that the EU would have to essentially double its aid spending. Germany and France, for example, are only around the .40% mark (at least as of 2013). 

There may be other interesting opportunities lurking in here. The extraterritorial obligations also prohibit countries from trade policies that hurt the foreign poor (subsidies, immigration etc.). I'm going to keep digging around here.


(Edit- I have retracted the following text because it is just wrong and misleading:

"The European Court of Human Rights and several national courts of EU countries, are known for vigorously enforcing international obligations (at least by global standards). EU countries regularly comply with court orders to fulfill their obligations under the ICESCR. These court orders frequently require governments to change their budgets to meet the economic and social rights of their residents."

I was actually thinking of a non-binding European decision-making body that is very influential but whose decisions are not mandatory. Additionally this body does not appear to rule on extraterritorial obligations since the European human rights system does not seem to include such obligations in their body of law. I have explained more in the comments below.)



ODI as percentage of GNI:


Super authoritative commentary to super authoritative legal opinion regarding developed states' extraterritorial obligations: (p. 1151)


2008 UN Resolution where they reaffirmed this obligation and EU said they'd give .7% of total GNP by 2015    (p. 12)

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This seems a bit confused and idealistic. You are a law student so presumably you understand the differences between international law and domestic law, the difference between the EU and ECHR and the limited meaning of 'legally obligated' in relation to international covenants. The concept of progressive realisation in relation to the ICESR etc etc. However, the way you have written this makes no attempt to explain these things and I worry it comes across as misleading or confusing.

The paragraph that is most interesting to me is:"EU countries regularly comply with court orders to fulfil their obligations under the ICESCR." Can you clarify which EU countries and give some example cases? Certainly, the ICESR is not legally justiciable in the UK. I don't really know anything about German/French law or other Civil law systems but I would be surprised if it was, and even more surprised if there was a plausible way for someone to have legal capacity to bring claims about extraterritorial effect!

My suspicion here is that you are barking up a noble but misconceived tree. My prior based on my experiences is that 'But its the (international) law' is not a very helpful political argument likely to get more aid to effective causes and that your idea for justiciable options is likely to be a mirage when you look into it more. Would be interested to be wrong on either point though!

I'm going to reply with a long response soon. But unsurprisingly, I was very wrong about the potential for enforcement in the EU. That being said, still think the idea is useful. I'll explain. Thanks for your criticism. I was indeed confused.

Even if it is not legally enforceable, doesn't the 0.7% of GNP figure act as a sort of schelling point here? If so, it could be used in the same way we currently use the "give 10% of your income" meme, as just an anchoring number to show the ballpark we're interested in and not have it sound like we just made up a number from whole cloth.

Great comment. I'd like to follow up in even more detail later. But my main reaction is (1) I was wrong about some important things and will explain below; and (2) that yes, everyone should be skeptical about international law and doubly so about obligations under the ICESCR (and triply so when I say something about it ☹). As a matter of course, international law is regularly violated and not enforced. I should have been more clear about this, although my question "why does this matter?" and my modest response ("at least we can shame them") implicitly recognized that we can't just go to court and double foreign aid spending.

So on the details of enforcement, I did some more research and found that I was really wrong about at least two important things. First, the European human rights system did not directly incorporate the ICESCR and second, their primary economic rights document, the European Social Charter (ESC), is enforced by European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR), which issues non-binding judgments, unlike the European Court of Human Rights. While their decisions are non-binding, my impression from my classes is that their decisions are taken very seriously and states often adjust their national policy to conform to the rulings of the Committee. The biggest problem for my idea is not that their decisions are non-binding but that there doesn’t appear to be any similar obligation to provide foreign assistance in the ESC. I’ll have to look elsewhere.

So ultimately I’m not sure if there is a venue where this could be litigated with even a small potential of success. I’m less optimistic than I was before but I’ll keep looking to see whether any other regional or national human rights systems have incorporated this extraterritorial obligation into their laws. One potentially viable option is the International Court of Justice, although this would require finding a developing country to sponsor the litigation and effectively sue a wealthy country. That would be pretty cool but I’m not sure if it’s possible.

But as I stated earlier, I think knowledge of international legal obligations is useful regardless of whether they can be enforced through a court. If countries bring themselves into compliance through their legislatures to meet the demands of non-binding UN bodies, then there may still be utility in raising the issue of their noncompliance/violations in our advocacy. Again the UK just two years ago cited to their international obligation as the reason for raising their aid spending to the magic .7% mark. This to me shows that such international obligations are not completely useless. Personally, I think the EA community has much more learn about whether/how effective it is to advocate for the global poor through human rights mechanisms. It’s certainly not an unreasonable prior to be very skeptical, but there is a vibrant academic debate on the subject that seems very empirically grounded. I think we could profit a lot by looking into this further.

One potentially viable option is the International Court of Justice, although this would require finding a developing country to sponsor the litigation and effectively sue a wealthy country. That would be pretty cool but I’m not sure if it’s possible An even bigger problem is that jurisdiction of the ICJ is based on the consent of the parties to a particular deispute so you would have to find a rich country willing to be 'effectively sued' as well.

I didn't realize that both parties had to consent. What about the WTO?

The WTO will not have jurisdiction over ICESCR claims - see this paper which explains this