Shifting Responsibility: State and Nonstate Actors

Human Rights Dialogue 1.7 (Winter 1996): "New Issues in East Asian Human Rights"

This article is part of a report of the Carnegie Council's workshop, "New Issues in East Asian Human Rights," held at Seoul National University in Korea from October 2-5, 1996.

When the factors of social disintegration deny the realization of particular rights to an individual or collective, who in a given society is expected to fill the void? Is it the individual, the family, the local community, the school, the religious institution, or the state? If dire poverty causes families to sell their children into prostitution, who will assume responsibility for the children's well-being?

Workshop discussions articulated new and greater responsibilities for the state to advance and protect rights. A state role to educate society to new cultural interpretations is cited in the paper on prostitution in Thailand. With regard to environmental protection, policy makers should responsibly represent the rights of future generations when developing laws and regulations. Unfortunately, the reality of East Asia, according to one participant, is that officials "tend to emphasize the responsibilities of their citizens, but seldom their own responsibilities." Therefore, creating new international laws is not enough; the responsibility of governments in all cases of rights violations must be precisely articulated with specific targets and goals.

Beyond a lack of will and resources, governments cannot be relied upon as the solution precisely because they are part of the problem. Budiman describes the problem of corruption in relation to the Chinese Indonesian minority's inability to take action against government discrimination:

    The Chinese need protection and seek it from the state. The cost they pay is loyalty to the state and "helping" high state officials financially whenever they need it. Thus, the Chinese never dare to join political parties other than the government party.

The rise of nonstate actors, such as transnational corporations or simply "the market," has further diminished the ability of states to create and enforce the regulatory structures needed to protect rights. When powerful nonstate actors are responsible for violations and economic incentives and disincentives are beyond states direct control, statist command and control solutions and traditional international law are problematic. Participants agreed that the focus of the discourse should be widened to take into account nonstate rights violators, such as multinational corporations, international criminals, traffickers, and cartels.

Broadening the human rights discourse must also involve recognition and support of the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Increasingly, NGOs are assuming responsibility to promote and implement human rights across state borders and to help create a globalized civic culture respectful of rights. They know that to be effective they must work toward regional, if not global, cooperation, especially on transnational issues like migrant workers and trafficking in women.

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