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Farmer, economist, human-rights advocate, UN executive secretary

 
He resigned as development minister in November after taking responsibility for over-spending by a state-funded NGO. But he has bounced back and was recently appointed the executive secretary of the United Nation's Economic Council for Europe (UNECE). Christian Friis Bach discusses his new role and his passion for the human-rights approach to development that, he argues, enables people to better their lives as proud citizens instead of treating them as weak and vulnerable victims in need of handouts

In November 2012, Denmark was one of several EU countries that suspended aid to Uganda after it was discovered that the Ugandan prime minister’s office had siphoned approximately 90 million kroner – intended to rebuild the country’s war-torn northern region – into private bank accounts. The suspension of aid was a blow to Uganda, and quite an ironic one: the fraud was discovered by Uganda’s own independent state auditor, an office that had been established with assistance from Denmark.

Former development minister Christian Friis Bach beams while recalling the story. To him, it’s a perfect example of how development should work to ensure human rights. In his view, stable, independent and nonpartisan institutions are among the best tools that citizens have to keep their leaders accountable and prevent corruption. In Uganda’s case, the auditor discovered that needy citizens, suffering from the fallout of a war waged by resistance leader Joseph Kony and his child soldiers, were being denied the support to which they were entitled.

Committed to human rights
“In terms of development, the biggest change has been a shift away from seeing it as merely providing hand-outs to people who cannot change their own lives, to a human-rights approach that enables people to fight for their rights – towards seeing these people as proud citizens who can change their own communities. It’s a move away from thinking of people in developing countries as vulnerable and weak,” Bach says.

Bach has had an international outlook since childhood – he spent his teen years cycling around his neighbourhood to sell fair-trade coffee. After earning a degree in agronomy and a PhD in economics, he started an academic programme in development economics at the University of Copenhagen in 1996. His CV boasts a range of positions within the public and private sectors, including stints as the chairman of Action Aid Denmark and as the international director of DanChurchAid, as well as the founder of two companies and a volunteer in a number of civil organisations, including Amnesty International. Together with his family, he now also runs a small farm.

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International career
As a member of the Radikale party, he was elected to parliament in 2011 and was immediately appointed development minister. But in 2013 he chose to resign after an error in the Foreign Ministry led him to pass on incorrect information to Parliament and public about whether the Danish government had approved the suspect travel rules of GGGI, a Danish-funded NGO.

The setback was only short-lived, however: this August, he was appointed executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) – one of five UN regional commissions, with 56 members spanning the northern hemisphere – making Bach the highest-ranking Dane in the UN.

“Some of the world’s brightest development economists have worked on these economic commissions, so I’m proud to be part of that legacy,” Bach says in his office in parliament, which he is in the process of packing down ahead of his move to Geneva.

“Most people haven’t heard of the UNECE, but it’s probably the UN organisation with the greatest daily impact on the lives of Europeans. Whenever you get in your car, all of the safety standards – from the airbags to the seatbelts – originated from the UNECE. It helps set standards for everything from food to pollution. So it has an impressive impact. Nobody else fills the vacuum of developing norms, standards and regulations that can facilitate trade transport and economic co-operation across European borders.”

In his new role, Bach says he will reinforce the UNECE’s work through his commitment to ensuring human rights. As an example of this approach in action, he points to the commission’s Aarhus Convention, which was signed in Denmark’s second city in 1998 and increases public involvement in governmental decision-making regarding the environment.

His belief in the human-rights approach to development is outlined in his book Det er min stol (‘It is My Chair’), in which he discusses how equality, participation, transparency and responsibility can be used to empower citizens in developing nations.

As an example of transparency, he describes how he visited health clinics in Kenya which clearly displayed the prices for different procedures and publicly posted their financial transactions. A health committee also had to approve all of the clinic’s payments. In this way, local citizens could see exactly how the clinics were run, which helped curb corruption.

“But I learned that you need to be humble about how much change you can accomplish from the outside. I’ve witnessed many projects where we tried to change people’s lives from the outside, but they ran into difficulty after we left because citizens weren’t involved in the process of change. But I’ve also seen situations where people brought about astonishing change by standing up for their rights – engaged citizens who managed to transform their communities,” he says.

“I’m incredibly enthusiastic about what people can do to change their own lives. Sometimes, they just need a hand – a framework to work in, and an environment that will unleash the force of individuals and communities. Every citizen has a set of rights that are individual but interlinked and universal. This is the strongest idea that we’ve ever created, and it encompasses my entire understanding of development.”

Rights aren’t western
While Bach insists that a framework like the UN Convention on Human Rights is universal, it is not globally accepted. China, in particular, has criticised the West’s apparent hegemony in interpreting what constitutes human rights. And even in the West, human rights are considered problematic. The UK has threatened to pull out of the European Court of Human Rights over criticism regarding legal overreaches which prevented the government from extraditing foreign criminals.

Despite these challenges, Bach argues that it is fallacious to see any one definition of ‘human rights’ as complete.

“Of course human rights can be troublesome. It’s what can happen when citizens are empowered to keep their governments accountable and claim their rights. But human rights aren’t perfect, and they’re adjusted and refined every day in Geneva,” Bach says, adding that even Denmark has been criticised for failing to implement human-rights legislation.

“But that’s what makes it such an incredible tool – human rights require dignity and freedom for all individuals. We can safely say that these aren’t only Western values. Countries around the world have developed them over the past 200 years so we can use them to address issues in those countries. They also enable us to stand up and ask countries to live up to what they’ve signed. Regardless of whether it’s gay rights in Uganda or minority rights in Burma or refugee and child rights in Denmark, we all have a common framework we can use. That’s its power.”

Weekend farmer
While human rights set the conditions for development, Bach argues that trade secures the conditions for peace. The UNECE has historically played a very important role in maintaining peace via trade across Europe, and Bach believes its role is just as important now as it was at its inception following the Second World War. But securing trade requires setting technical standards, which are perhaps less exciting than ensuring the right to education or liberty. 

“I hope the UNECE can work harder to fulfil its historic mission to strengthen ties and co-operation between European countries, and to create peace and progress in the process. When countries stop fighting they become dependent on each other. Settling the tensions we are now seeing in the Ukraine is beyond the UNECE’s mandate. But when it is settled I hope the UNECE can come in with its historic vision and trust and help secure the peace,” Bach says, adding that current developments in Ukraine and the EU, where the recent parliamentary elections reflected a resurgence of anti-integrationist parties, suggest that many Europeans are becoming more insular.

“People want their countries to be independent. They don’t want to be dependent on Russian gas, for example. But if we want peace and progress, then we need to strengthen ties between countries. History has shown us that breaking ties increases the chance of conflict. But because the UNECE has the trust of both sides, both inside and outside the EU, I hope that it can play a meaningful role and contribute to a Europe without the kind of conflicts that we’re seeing in Ukraine today,” Bach says.

Bach’s wife and three children aren’t joining him in Geneva, so he will be commuting back to Denmark – and the family’s 45-acre farm – on the weekends.

“Yes, I’ll be a weekend farmer. I’m looking forward to it – it’s good to do some practical work. To use your hands instead of just your head.” M

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By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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