Introduction: Making Human Rights Work in a Globalizing World

Human Rights Dialogue 2.9 (Spring 2003): "Making Human Rights Work in a Globalizing World"

June 19, 2003

I am often asked two separate but related questions: First, have the forces of globalization, on balance, helped or hurt the cause of human rights? And second, how can international human rights commitments and monitoring mechanisms be more effectively put to use to address problems commonly associated with global markets and policymaking?

Contributors to this issue of Human Rights Dialogue reflect on a range of issues that bear on these questions, including the extent to which changing international circumstances have required changed tactics to protect human rights; the kinds of strategies that could potentially be effective for engaging international institutions and multinational corporations in human rights questions; and the prospects for working more with other actors such as environmental organizations, indigenous groups, labor unions, and even national governments to address problems related to globalization.

In many ways, these path-finding essays are encouraging. They illustrate the new and innovative ways in which international human rights commitments are being used, and sometimes even reinterpreted, by civil society in its struggles to reform unjust institutional arrangements. During my time as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, I was often struck by the ways in which civil society is actively using the tools of the legal commitments governments have made under the six core international human rights instruments, deepening public discussion of pressing practical concerns.

Indeed, several of these articles indicate that globalization has advanced forms of transnational cooperation that provide new opportunities for promoting human rights. Kate Geary and Nick Hildyard, for example, describe the ways in which the Ilisu Dam Campaign brought together a diverse group of activists in the United Kingdom and Turkey to stop construction of a dam project that was funded by nine different countries. Abu Brima explains how civil society groups in Sierra Leone formed strong and diverse alliances within their country and with human rights groups in Europe, Canada, and the United States to stop a brutal war funded by the trade of diamonds, while Corene Crossin details how the international diamond certification process has brought civil society groups, national governments, and diamond industry representatives from over seventy countries to the table. Timothy Ryan, in his discussion of how American labor unions are building international solidarity by assisting and supporting unions in the South, shows that transnational networks have also played a crucial role in struggles to improve working conditions.

Yet although one of the key drivers of globalization—expanded global communications—has indeed fostered the transnational networks that have been critical in spreading the human rights message and strengthening its legitimacy worldwide, these articles also suggest that other features of globalization have posed serious threats to the rights of people in many countries. In significant ways, power has shifted from the public to the private, from national governments to multinational corporations and international organizations. This has resulted in a gap in accountability for human rights protection and an absence of transparency and broad public participation in critical policy decisions. Several of the contributors express people’s increasing frustration about their lack of means through which to participate in and structure the decisions that affect their communities and nations. As Justin VanFleet shows in his essay detailing the effects of the intellectual property regime on indigenous knowledge holders, international rules and institutions can pose real threats to the cultures and livelihoods of people who play little or no role in shaping them. In developing countries in particular, activists often perceive their respective national governments as unwilling or unable to stand up to or influence their political and economic conditions, which are shaped by the policies of developed states, powerful nonstate actors, and international rules and institutions. Argentina Santacruz and Juana Sotomayor, for example, illustrate how their organization is attempting to hold the Ecuadorian government accountable for the human rights impacts of its unconditional acceptance of policies that prioritize foreign debt servicing, which have been encouraged by the International Monetary Fund. Marcela Olivera and Jorge Viaña describe their struggle to induce the Bolivian government to overturn its policy of privatizing their water system that was strongly advocated by the World Bank. Finally, Marianne Mollmann points out the ways in which agencies within developed countries can directly affect the work of activists in developing countries through policies such as aid conditionality.

Moreover, as several contributors suggest, the traditional state-based framework of human rights obligations has become less than adequate in a world in which the fulfillment of rights in developing countries often depends on the political and economic institutions of developed states, multinational corporations, and the structure of international institutions. Finding ways to enforce human rights standards in these new environments is often quite difficult, but Burmese activist U Maung Maung and Colombian activist Javier Correa have, with the help of Terry Collingsworth and the International Labor Rights Fund, made creative use of the U.S. legal system to hold multinational companies accountable for rights abuses.

Despite the many changes that globalization has wrought, primary responsibility for protecting human rights must remain with national governments. Indeed, as Flavia Barros points out in her discussion of monitoring the impacts of projects supported by international financial institutions, the most effective way to safeguard human rights is often to strengthen the capabilities of national governments in developing countries to represent the interests of their people at the international level. Moreover, as Carolina Quinteros urges in her essay on the anti-sweatshop movement, the best long-term strategy for securing working citizens’ rights in the Global South is to build the capacities of their national governments, since the priorities and aims of activists cooperating in transnational networks can sometimes conflict, making it difficult to sustain progress on issues of common concern. Furthermore, one of the most effective ways to uphold human rights standards is to enshrine them in national legal systems, as Danwood Chirwa explains in his essay on privatizing essential services in South Africa.

Although the essays featured in this issue of Human Rights Dialogue address a diverse range of issues, each reflects a growing recognition that, if fundamental rights are to be implemented, it is essential to ensure that obligations fall where power is exercised—whether it is in the local village, the corporate board room, or in the international meeting rooms of the WTO, the World Bank, or the IMF. The new project I am currently developing—the Ethical Globalization Initiative —seeks to work with those who are committed to bringing the values of international human rights to the tables where decisions about the global economy are being made. The Ethical Globalization Initiative is driven by the conviction that, in order to build a world where security is underpinned by sustainable development and social justice, and where globalization works to the benefit of all the world’s people, it is vital that multilateralism and respect for international law, and international human rights law in particular, work as well. We hope to be a thought leader and promoter of good practices or model projects, such as those described in these essays, which demonstrate how human rights approaches can produce results. We also plan to be a chorus leader, linking local activists and realities with academics and policy development, which together can influence decision-makers at different levels.

All of the contributions to this issue of Human Rights Dialogue make clear that in addition to the need for new approaches, our understanding of human rights obligations must continue to evolve, adapting to the existing and changing needs of groups that are struggling to achieve social justice. We must not shrink from the notion that we can shape a more values-led globalization, one that ensures the basic rights to food, safe water, education, shelter, health care, and political participation are met in a sustainable way. In so doing, we must first see to it that our governments, operating independently and through the framework of international organizations, ensure that their own policies, practices, and programming do not exacerbate rights deprivation elsewhere; the same pressure must also be applied to multinational companies and other private actors—those who have benefited most from global changes. Only then can human rights be made to work in a globalizing world.