The Common Ground

Human Rights Dialogue 1.11 (Summer 1998) "Toward a "Social Foreign Policy" with Asia"

The 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could not have arrived at a more critical juncture in global history. The current geopolitical climate is dramatically different from the one that produced the UN Declaration five decades ago: the cold war has ended, former colonies have asserted themselves as major regional and economic powers, and new national borders have been created, while some states have ceased to exist. Yet in the midst of such major changes, certain trends seem inevitable. The race toward global economic restructuring is not the only certainty. Common social and economic problems—homelessness, environmental degradation, transnational flows of migrant labor, marginalization, and displacement of families—are evident everywhere, in both the wealthy “north” and the poor “south.”

The Carnegie Council’s Human Rights Initiative aimed to capture this historic moment by convening a conference that would address the relevance of social and economic issues common to American and Asian societies within the framework of economic globalization. Our purpose was to show that it is not just trade and security issues that bind the United States to other nations; rather, there is sufficient evidence of social and economic problems in East Asia that have parallels here, a fact often overlooked by our foreign-policy makers. The issues selected for discussion at the conference—housing, the environment, foreign workers—are by no means the only common issues in our societies. But they are three important areas of potential society-to-society linkage that the foreign policy community needs to consider for a shared problems approach. Three major questions framed our thinking: What “social foreign policies” can we develop that will contribute to the resolution of problems confronting populations on both sides of the Pacific? To what extent can a shared problems approach enhance a social or human rights foreign policy? What can the U.S. government and private foundations do to facilitate much- needed nongovernmental organization (NGO) and academic interaction and reciprocal learning toward the development of such policies?

In our initial contact with relevant actors in the United States regarding our intellectual framework, the policy and NGO communities betrayed some skepticism. It seemed they were unaccustomed to thinking that a rich and powerful nation like the United States could indeed share social problems with developing countries in Asia. A second line of resistance came from those who misconstrued our emphasis on social and economic issues as advocating one set of rights over another. Yet, what we were attempting to convey was that a focus on socioeconomic issues is of critical importance in the context of globalization. Rather than insist on a rights framework, we preferred to pose the question as to whether rights was even a suitable framework for the discussion of these common issues, while assuming the interdependency of economic, social, and cultural with civil and political rights.

Our ideas were immediately affirmed by some of the Asian NGOs we had contacted. Their descriptions of problems relating to housing, the environment, and foreign workers—problems that had been exacerbated by processes of global economic integration and more recently by the financial crisis—bore many similarities to the ways in which such issues manifest themselves in this country. Although some of the Asian NGO actors believed that American social problems were less severe, and therefore of a different order from theirs, all expressed interest in seeing these issues discussed within a global context rather than becoming bogged down in questions of regime types, political conditions, and levels of socio-economic development.

In responding to our queries as to whether there were particular sets of rights that played a role in advocacy, the representatives of Asian groups were quick to point out the futility of dichotomizing human rights into civil and political versus economic, social, and cultural, as many Americans are apt to do. They repeatedly referred to the extent to which the social and economic issues they worked on were wrapped up in questions of civil society and democratic participation. As participant Emmy Hafild, executive director of WALHI, a leading environmental advocacy group in Indonesia, wrote to us before the conference: “Basic human rights is a prerequisite to environmental management. . . . Our concerns are with all aspects of human rights,” including “social and economic rights” as well as the collective rights “of indigenous peoples.”

The different reactions from the American and Asian NGO communities served to clarify the subject matter further and to reinforce our belief that this was an opportune time to bring together these groups to discuss how social and economic issues are framed within their communities, to exchange experiences, and to share the strategies they have developed for overcoming barriers to their goals. In addition, we realized the importance of including members of the U.S. foreign policy community in these discussions so that they could assess the potential of social and economic issues as a new frontier for diplomacy.

The conference clearly demonstrated the parallels between social and economic problems across American and Asian societies. Participants from the three issue areas—housing, the environment, and foreign workers—pointed to the lack of affordable housing and access to credit, the conflict between environment and development policies in their societies, and the vulnerability of migrant workers, who are regarded by their employers as little more than cheap labor and lack legal recourse. During discussions, the participants proposed several local-level and social foreign policy solutions in Asia and in the United States. These included providing low-interest housing loans to poor communities; legitimizing the transnational migration of labor by formalizing and making more open the foreign-labor contracting process; making governments accountable for development policies; and lobbying the U.S. government to support NGOs abroad.

Underlying these proposals was an awareness that in both Asian countries and the United States, the most vulnerable members of society—the urban and rural poor, women and children, foreign workers, indigenous peoples—are at the highest risk in their communities as a result of economic globalization. These groups are becoming increasingly marginalized as national governments and domestic corporations race toward becoming globally competitive by implementing policies that wreak huge social, economic, and environmental changes whose adverse effects are disproportionately felt by them.

The second area of understanding among the Asian and Western participants was that these social and economic problems can and should be framed in terms of overall human rights issues, and that this framework, which Abdullahi A. An-Na’im refers to as a “human rights culture,” can serve as the common denominator to engage governments, corporations, and civil society groups. Participants asserted the importance of not falling into the trap of thinking that one set of rights (economic, social, and cultural or civil and political) has greater relevance than the other. Instead, American as well as Asian participants readily accepted that the procedural and social democratic dimensions of rights are interdependent, and that a universal human rights framework must be the starting point from which common social and economic issues and solutions to these problems can be addressed in Asia and in the United States. However, as Josh DeWind cautions in his article, there are challenges involved in establishing universal rights, especially if provisions contained in international law or covenants allow states to discriminate between categories of individuals.

Third, participants emphasized the need for greater U.S. government support for NGOs in Asia, groups that are actively involved in promoting human rights issues in their countries. Some of this work is already under way in Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. For instance, the New York Times (May 20, 1998) recently reported that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has spent $26 million to support 30 NGO groups in Indonesia, including the Indonesia Legal Aid Society and WALHI, in their prodemocracy and human rights movement. The funds have helped groups that support social and political democracy to survive in spite of pressure from the Indonesian government; and as one senior USAID official was quoted as saying, it also helped to send a message “that the United States was concerned about something other than the banks and the economic issues. . . .”

Finally, the participants called for greater NGO and community involvement in government decision making instead of the traditional elite-centered approaches. They asserted that necessary social change can occur only if those directly affected by globalization are organized and politically active at the grassroots level and continue to build coalitions within and outside their countries. The growing role of NGOs has particular urgency in the United States and in several Asian countries where the state has cut back its social provisions or effectively lacks the institutional capacity to respond to pressing social and economic concerns. In some instances, NGOs have stepped in to replace the role of the government in the delivery of services.

In essence, building a vibrant civil society that takes into account the active voice of local communities is a first step in empowering people to pressure governments to incorporate a domestic and foreign policy agenda that includes greater emphasis on social and economic issues. As a subsequent step, local communities, NGOs, and governments need to work together to uphold a common human rights standard that can help to mitigate the harmful consequences of globalization that affect citizens everywhere.

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