Do you agree that human right are both an element of globalisation and a curb on its excesses?

Both human rights and globalisation have been subject to a huge amount of scrutiny and debate, and as terms they are often misused and their meaning obscured.  This essay will separate human rights into three components; a philosophical concept, an international legal system and a moral discourse.  As a concept, the universal rhetoric, wide dissemination and international recognition of human rights must be noted for their significance to be properly understood. The legal framework of human rights created to codify the Universal Declaration, will be examined as an ‘ex post’ curb on the excesses of globalisation (International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP), 2010, p.15), inferring that rather than acting as a preventative by attacking the causes of violations or ‘excesses’, human rights legislation retroactively addresses symptoms.  As it is assumed we live in a ‘globalised’ society today, it is apt to question whether the existing philosophical and legal framework of human rights serves to limit activities that the process of globalisation has created and whether it is indeed sufficient to protect those rights it articulates.  Hypothesising over whether human rights as a discourse will ever be able to influence globalisation leads to questions focusing on evolving global economic policy, the changing nature of international power relations, and perhaps the need to amend or at least adapt the existing human rights framework to ensure it can fulfil its mandate.

Globalisation has been defined as an ‘economic tidal wave’ (Chernomas and Sepehri, 2004, p.29), ‘the end of geography’ (Bauman, 1998, p.12), ‘an avalanche of social dislocation’ (Polanyi, 1957, p.40), and a ‘process that embodies transformations in the spatial organisation of social relations’ (Held and McGrew, 1999, p.16).  None of these definitions seem to grasp the full complexities of the term, however, the hyperbole they all express demonstrates two things, the expanse of issues and factors globalisation seeks to encompass, and the confusion over what globalisation actually represents.  In order to avoid clumsy use of the term, this essay will evaluate globalisation as a movement and a social, political and economic process.  As a movement, globalisation spans events and activities from the first European explorations of the Americas to now.  In this respect globalisation is credited with the creation of the ‘borderless community’ we now live in (Chernomas and Sepehri, p.30), where information is freely shared and cultures from across the globe are apparently homogenised.  As a social process, the ways in which society has developed in terms of technology and communication must be noted, along with the changing nature of the global social structure.  As a political process, the allegations that globalisation has caused the ‘erosion of monocentric governments’ (Clapham, 2006, p.1), and the transformation of the State-based order (Cerny, 2000, p.21), must be considered to determine the how global politics have been redefined.

These three components can be united under ‘cultural globalisation’, a term encapsulating the paradigm shift that has allowed information and cultures to transcend national borders.  Human rights as a philosophical concept prides itself on its universal rhetoric which transcends cultural variety, implying that in order to qualify for certain freedoms, one must just be human.  This universal outlook can definitely be described as an element of cultural globalisation as, on an abstract level, removing the ‘constraints of geography’ (Waters, 1995, p.1) means that social theories and values can be transported across the world and applied internationally.  The success of the dissemination of human rights rhetoric can be measured by the amount of ratifications of key UN human rights treaties.  Although this doesn’t necessarily correlate to the protection of human rights on the ground, the sheer acceptance of a common language transcending geographical locations and cultures is a decisive feat (Picciotto, 1999, p.43).  Describing globalisation as a social process, scholars have emphasised its ability to ‘speed up’ the idea of access to rights and encourage movements that inspire social change (Howard-Hassmann, 2005, p.11).  In this respect the tenets of modernity, equality and non-discrimination, that human rights as a concept and legal framework are built upon, are elements of cultural globalisation which is transforming the socio-political climate of the world.  An excess of cultural globalisation will be defined as an activity or practice that is facilitated by the way in which the world has been changed through the process defined above, and causes gross violation of human rights.

If we take the beginning of cultural globalisation to be the initial European colonial explorations, evidence of curbing a morally abhorrent ‘excess’ can be seen through the abolition of slavery.  Slavery was a widely practiced system, facilitated by states looking beyond their borders, expanding their global vision.  Although the human rights legal framework cannot be credited for the abolition of slavery, as an ‘ex post’ mechanism, it has codified anti-slavery and given it jus cogens status, as an entrenched norm in international society.  The legal framework of human rights thus plays a crucial role in the institutionalisation of norms (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998, p. 910), which in themselves create international standards to ensure excessive activities caused by globalisation are minimised.

Of course, it is easy to be distracted by legislation, assuming that the rights States consent to uphold through the treaties they ratify are effectuated in reality.  It is worth noting that human rights legislation and the legal framework within which they operate, do not necessarily correlate with the enjoyment of rights on the ground.  Atrocities facilitated by cultural globalisation still happen today in the form of exploitation, human trafficking, the arms trade and many more.  This analysis does not infer that the legal framework of human rights is entirely successful at curbing these excesses of globalisation.  However, the nature of human rights as a legal framework is such that it retroactively addresses the symptoms of a violation by seeking accountability and compensation.  This in itself initiates, or at least encourages, a process by which the violation is condemned, minimising its proliferation.  Therefore as a legal framework, human rights have the potential to curb excesses of cultural globalisation by the creation of legally binding international norms (Chodkiewicz and Wiest, 2004, p.73).

Economic globalisation has been described as ‘survival of the meanest’ (Olka-Onyango and Tamale, 1999), characterised by ‘liberalisation, privatisation, minimising economic regulation’ (Falk, 1999 p.4).  Although this interpretation is widely acknowledged, it ignores some of the nuance of the relationship between human rights and economic globalisation, and thus makes for a simplistic and narrow conclusion as to how the two interact.  Economic globalisation is a force championing deregulation, privatisation and free trade, creating in its wake new power structures, such as corporate entities (Santishree, 2000, p.87).  Economic globalisation has triggered a process of ‘systmeatic convergence’ in which states are economically dependent on the policies and activities of other States (Hamdani, 1997, p.3).  It has opened the world for Foreign Direct Investment and initiated the quest for the cheapest resources and production sites for business to maximise their profit margins (Chernomas and Sepehri, 2004, p.41).  However, this process has been subject to no regulation and has thus occurred extremely unequally.

Through this definition it is difficult to reconcile the force of economic globalisation which focuses on trade-offs and sacrifices in the name of growth and profit, with the framework of human rights, grounded in universal principles emphasising the indivisibility of all rights (ICHRP, 2010, p.9).  The neo-liberal model that economic globalisation adopts emphasises the need for efficiency in market structures, enhancing the private spheres, while human rights rhetoric favours the public domain, emphasising the roles of governments and States (ICHRP, 2010, p.10).  Economic globalisation has occurred, and continues to develop, as an unequal and discriminatory process that is driven by its thirst for excess (Freemam, 2002, p.156).  In this respect human rights cannot be seen as an element of economic globalisation.

The process of political reorganisation that both cultural and economic globalisation has ensued, has drastically altered the location of power within international society, calling for a re-examination of institutions and systems that attempt to regulate global transactions.  Globalisation as a political process has transformed the State-based order of global society (Cerny, 2000, p.21), limiting the roles of States in international trade and political decision making, and altering the context within which they communicate.  Given that respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights is a duty given to states under international human rights law, this poses a problem for the potential of the legal framework of human rights, in its current form, to limit in any way the progress of globalisation.  With the reduction in political importance of the State, the current human rights framework is inadequate to curb the process of globalisation.

With the demise of the State, economic globalisation has significantly altered global power relationships and increased the influence of non-state actors in international trade systems.  The movement has caused a disconnection of power from obligations, a symbol of which is the multinational corporation (Bauman, 1998).  Multinational corporations (MNCs) are entities that exploit the globalised world and capitalise on the unequal nature of wealth distribution.  MNCs owe their existence to economic globalisation and profit from the deregulation of the financial system, championed by neo-liberalism.  They are major players in the globalised economy, and yet are regulated by ‘soft law’, meaning they bear no duties or obligations under international human rights law.  Under corporate law, the MNC is obligated to maximise profit for its shareholders at whatever cost, meaning threats to the enjoyment of human rights now come from these non-state entities rather than directly from State agents (Clapham, 2006, p. 23).

As a movement, globalisation has been distinctly unregulated.  In this world of political instability and questionable nuclei of authority, it is difficult to identify the difference between an element of globalisation and an excess.  There are more malnourished people in the world today than ever before, 1.3 billion people live on less than a dollar a day, the environment is being devastated and populations are being attacked by infectious disease (Robbins, 2004, p. 47).  Are these excesses of a process which aims to raise global standards of living or just symptoms of a movement whose goal is unclear?  Similarly, economic globalisation cannot have ‘excesses’, as the deregulation it champions, in order to increase corporate entrepreneurial freedom, means it gathers a momentum of its own, as can be seen by the creation of corporate entities whose thirst for profit has dislocated them from acknowledgment of their impacts on a human level (Robbins, 2001, p.51).  Human rights either as a concept, a legal framework or as a discourse have no power to limit corporate activity.

The complexities of the relationship between globalisation and human rights have only been touched on in this essay, however, in analysing the two concepts it is clear that one cannot make generalised conclusions about globalisation as an umbrella term.  Indeed as a cultural movement, the dissemination of the concept of human rights and adoption of its legal framework can be seen as part of globalisation, and can even have the capacity to curb elements of it retroactively.  However, as an economic process, human rights and globalisation are not easily reconciled as they have different priorities and goals.  The visible socio-political changes that the process of globalisation has ensued further complicate its relationship with human rights.  As the power of States diminishes and new corporate powers rule the international economy, it is unclear who the duty bearers for the protection of human rights are.  This essay therefore concludes that the incompatibility of the human rights legal framework, in which States are prime duty-bearers, with the fast paced, unregulated and unequal process of economic globalisation, means the former is inadequate to curb any part of the latter.  If human rights are to be enforced and violations incurred by the process of globalisation prevented ‘ex ante’, the framework needs to be reconsidered and amended.

Hannah Matthews

This article is a shortened version of an academic paper by fellow ICWS student, Hannah Matthews, on the relationship between human rights and globalisation. If you would like to contribute academic research relating to human rights issues, please email Submissions are always welcome!







One thought on “Do you agree that human right are both an element of globalisation and a curb on its excesses?

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