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Human Rights And Globalization

By Dr Samir Naim-Ahmed

21 April, 2007

I- Introduction

Would globalization enhance the implementation of human rights as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ( 1948 ) and the subsequent United Nations agreements , particularly the covenant on civil and political rights ( 1966 ) ,the covenant on economic, social and cultural rights (1966 ) and the declaration on the right to development (1986 ).?

Attempting an answer to this question is not an easy task, mainly because of the different and contradictory connotations of the term globalization .

If globalization is conceived as turning the whole world into one global village in which all peoples are increasingly interconnected and all the fences or barriers are removed, so that the world witnesses a new state of fast and free flow of people , capital , goods and ideas then the world would be witnessing unprecedented enjoyment of human rights every where because globalization is bringing prosperity to all the corners of the globe together with the spread of the highly cherished values of democracy , freedom and justice ( 1 ) .

On the other hand if globalization is conceived as turning the world into a global market for goods and services dominated and steered by the powerful gigantic transnational corporations and governed by the rule of profit then all the human rights of the people in the world , particularly in the south would be seriously threatened ( 2 ) .

Literature on globalization ,in general, by both the so called advocates and opponents of globalization is abundant . However the critics of globalization lay much more emphasis on its impact on human rights , particularly of the poor people and of the developing countries . Their analysis and conclusions are usually supported by facts and figures drawn from international reports and statistics to prove that human rights have been adversely affected by globalization . They usually relate one or the other aspect of human rights to one or the other aspect of globalization , such as relating poverty in developing countries to debt or relating unemployment to privatization , or relating health deterioration to the monopoly of medicine patents . Or they enumerate the aspects of deteriorations in human rights , such as impoverishment and lowering standards of living , increasing inequality discrimination , deprivation of satisfaction of basic needs such as food clean water and housing , illiteracy ..etc and explain these facts by globalization in general through making comparisons between the state before globalization ( usually before the 1990s ) and after it , such as stating that “ progress in reducing infant mortality was considerably slower during the period of globalization (1990-1998) than over the previous two decades.

The advocates of globalization do not deny the fact that in some regions basic human rights are not respected during the past decade but they explain this by the resistance of some countries and peoples to globalization and they claim that globalization must have winners and losers . The losers resistance to globalization is attributed to their state of stagnation and rigidity or to their traditional culture or even to the nature of their religions which is anti democratic and anti modernization ( 3 ) .

So both advocates and critics of globalization agree on the fact that human rights are in some way or the other adversely affected by globalization particularly in the south , but they differ in their explanation of this fact and hence in their prescription for the remedies . While the advocates prescribe more absorption of peoples and countries in the global system , the critics of globalization prescribe opposition and resistance of the hegemony of the transnational corporations and the injustice inherent in the globalization process . Who is right ? to answer this question we need, as I think, to examine the underlying basic assumptions of both the human rights agreements and the globalization agreements , particularly the economic, which I believe are contradictory as far as human rights are concerned .

II- Contradictory basic assumptions of human rights and globalization

The underlying basic assumption upon which all UN human rights agreements were based was governments’ responsibility while globalization basic underlying assumption has been from the very beginning government relief from any responsibility regarding human rights .

All human rights agreements were discussed , negotiated and signed by governments and all the declarations were addressed to governments who were held responsible for either their implementation or violations .Governments were asked to take whatever political , economic, social , cultural and legislative measures to enhance the implementation of human rights in their countries . All human rights annual reports on the state of human rights in countries of the world published by UN , human rights societies or some countries such as USA held government responsible for violations of human rights . governments were assumed to be policy and decision makers for all economic, political and social domains in their countries .

Since the Universal declaration of Human rights in 1948 many countries of the world ,whether in the north or the south succeed in enhancing the implementation of human rights , particularly in the economic, social and cultural domains simply through policies of subsidizing food, housing and services such as health care , transportation ,sanitation, culture and education . Many countries , particularly in the south made considerable achievements in the field of the right to work simply by taking decisions to protect local industries from competition and thus creating job opportunities for their population .

On the contrary globalization agreements require governments to abide by the global market mechanisms and to follow the advices ( instructions ) of the international agencies such as WTO, IMF, and the World Bank .

So governments have to be decision takers rather than decision makers particularly in the economic domain and they have to make all necessary adjustments and restructuralisations in their societal systems. They have to issue new laws in every sphere to facilitate the operations of the free market mechanism and to cancel any existing laws which hamper this operation . They may even have to change articles in their constitutions , such as those related to public and private sectors .Many of those changed laws are related to human rights particularly the economic, social and cultural rights . The most important of these changes are related to taxation, worker-employer relations, owner-renter relations , government subsidization of basic needs goods such as food , water and housing and services such as education , health , transportation , and even mass communication and cultural services ( such as telephones, newspapers, theatres , books and television ) . Every thing has to be dealt with as a market commodity judged by its economic value rather than its social value .

The adoption of the wide open door policy by governments requires issuing laws which impedes another fundamental human right declared by UN , that is the right to development . Laws allowing the free flow of capital and goods with almost no restrictions on imports through tariffs adversely affect local developmental projects .

So governments find themselves in a very paradoxical situation . If they try to abide by UN human rights agreements which they signed they would be violating the globalizations agreements , which they also signed ! and they would be criticized or even penalized for this violation ( by cutting the aids offered to them by international institutions ) , and if they try to abide by globalization agreements they would be necessarily violating the human rights agreements and would be criticized for that in the human right reports and the UN statistics on human development would show them lagging behind in indices of human development!!

III- How do governments face the contradiction?

Governments, particularly of the developing countries , have been persuaded and pressured to sacrifice human rights for the sake of globalization .

Violations of human rights agreements , particularly those of economic, social and cultural rights are not met by practical punishments or deterrence measures . the reactions of both international organizations and local human rights groups do not exceed criticism , condemnation or demonstrations at most . On the contrary violations of economic rules of globalization and agreements are met with very severe practical measures such as economic boycotting and cutting of aids .

Many authors provide evidence on the adverse effects of governments adoption of globalization economic agreements on basic human rights due to the reduced overall government spending on services and satisfaction of basic human needs and the increasing tendencies towards privatization of these services.

Vandana Shiva states that “ during 1979-81 and 1992-1993 , calorie intake declined by three percent in Mexico, 4.1 percent in Argentina ,10.9 percent in Kenya , 10.0 percent in Tanzania , 9.9 percent in Ethiopia . In India , the per capita cereal consumption declined by 12.2 for rural areas and 5.4 percent in urban areas . “ she explains these figures by saying that countries cannot ensure that the hungry are fed because this involves laws, policies and financial commitments which are” protectionist “. ( 4 )

She also offers evidence on the impact of globalization agreements on the right to health : “ Under the trade Related Intellectual Property agreement of the world Trade Organization , countries have to implement patent laws granting exclusive , monopolistic rights to the pharmaceutical and biotech industry. This prevents countries from producing low cost generic drugs . Patented HIV/AIDS medicine costs $15,000 , while generic drugs made by India and Brazil cost $250-300 for one years treatment . Patents are , therefore robbing AIDS victims of their rights” .

Diana Smith shows how the policies associated with globalization affected primary health care services . She states that : “ introducing the market mechanism into the provision of health care obviously makes services less available to the poor . the privatization of health and hospital services also makes the poor suffer as services become more oriented towards those who can pay . In addition , essential drug policies , which aim to make necessary pharmaceuticals available to all at an affordable price , are threatened by increasingly liberal policies towards pharmaceutical companies . Finally , increasing unemployment and poverty add to the nations health problems by creating extra demands on reduced government services.”( 5 )

The authors of Global Issues state that “ the lives of 1.7 million children will be needlessly lost this year (2002 ) because world governments have failed to reduce poverty levels “ and “Progress in life expectancy was also reduced for 4 out of5 groups of countries , with the exception of the highest group ( life expectancy 69-76 years ) , also “ progress in reducing infant mortality was also considerably slower during the last two decades than over the previous decades “. ( 6 )

T . Rajamoorthy states that “ globalization resulted in the violation of the fundamental right to work. In their drive for profits , companies, in particular TNCs, have been restructuring their operations on a global scale. The result has been massive unemployment . In 1995 , the ILO announced that one third of the world ‘s willing to work population was either unemployed or underemployed ….the goal of full employment , which was one of the pillars of the social consensus that prevailed after the Second World War , has been jettisoned by nearly all governments …. Globalization has also engendered or accentuated the process of the casualization and informalization of labor” . He mentions that only 8% of the labor force in India is in the formal economy while 90% work in the informal economy with no legal protection or security and are subject to ruthless exploitation . Many companies ,including TNCs got rid of their unionized labor force and moved their operations to law wage and depressed areas to avail themselves of the large supply of unorganized and unprotected , mainly female labor.( 7 )

Mathews George Chunakara describes the state of workers in developing countries after globalization as a race to the bottom , and the bottom means slave like conditions . He explains this by the search of transnational companies for cheap labor in order to maximize their profits , so the governments of developing countries compete for the investors by providing cheaper labor ( 8 ) .

The right to education has been also adversely affected by the privatization policies and the turning of education into a profit generating enterprises in the developing countries . Due to the reduced governmental expenditure on education the quality of public free education has suffered a lot . Investors established educational institutes covering all the range from kinder gardens to universities offering better but much more expensive quality of education for the elites and motivated mainly by profit . However most developing countries still suffer a high rate of illiteracy and graduates of the governmental low quality educational institutions are not well prepared for the labor market so they suffer unemployment .

Danilo Turk showed that the globalization agreements and policies had its adverse effects on the right to work ,the right to food , the right to health, the right to education and the right to development ( 9)

There is almost a consensus over the fact that the human rights are much more adversely affected by globalization in the south or the so called developing countries .One of those adversely affected fundamental rights is the right to development . “When countries loose their right to regulate the entry ,behavior and operations of foreign investment in the interests of their own people , it is not difficult to appreciate why it is bound to result in an impairment of the right to development . (10)

IV -Consequences of violations of human rights

No doubt that the widespread violations of human rights is related to the widening gap between the rich and the poor , both on the global and on the local levels . International Statistics prove this fact ( 11 ). It shows that:
- half the world –nearly three billion people – live on less than two dollars a day
- The wealthiest nation on earth has the widest gap between rich and poor of any industrialized nation
- The top fifth of the world’s people in the richest countries enjoy 82% of the expanding export trade and 68% of foreign direct investment –while the bottom fifth , barely more than 1%
- In 1960, the 20 % of the worlds people in the richest countries had 30 times the income of the poorest 20%--in 1997 , 74 times as much
- A few hundred millionaires now own as much wealth as the world’s poorest 2.5 billon people.
- The combined wealth of the world’s 200 richest people hit $ 1 trillion in 1999; the combined incomes of the 582 million people living in the 43 l3east developed countries is $ 146 billion
This leads to an increasing feelings of deprivation and injustice among the populations of the different countries of the world which is enhanced by the rapid and unprecedented advance in communication and information technologies , which really turned the world in this respect into a global village . the deprived are exposed daily , if not every minute to images and evidences of the huge gap in standards of living between the rich and the poor .

Some consequences of this deprivations of human rights are social and political unrest and even violence and counter violence . It also leads to an increasing resort to suppression and to chaos . Paradoxically the expenditure on suppressing protest and violence may be equal to or even exceeds the ought to be expenditure on implementing economic, social and cultural human rights for all the peoples of the world . What matters more is the loss of human lives and the loss of constructive contributions which all the deprived could have offered to the economic, social , scientific and cultural advancement of humanity if they were granted their basic human rights . Racism , prejudices, and discrimination are negatively associated with justice and implementation of human rights .

There is enough evidence that the world wealth is ,in general, rapidly increasing due to the advance in science and technology and that it is more than enough to satisfy the needs of all the dwellers of the globe . What is needed is the globalization of human rights and prosperity , but how ?

V-Globalization and the human rights approach

Mary Robinson (12 ) stressed the fact that “ A key characteristic of economic globalization is that the actors involved are not only states , but private power in the form of multinational or transnational corporations. It is now the case that more than half of the top economies in the world are corporations not states , and international investment is increasingly private .” She states that there is a trend towards holding companies accountable through legal rules for the human rights and environmental impact of their policies. she says that corporations should ensure that they uphold and respect human rights as reflected in the Universal Declarations of Human Rights and are not themselves complicit in human rights abuses .

But if we acknowledge that transnational corporations are much powerful than the states , particularly those of the dependant developing countries then who would issue those badly needed legal rules and who would implement them ? Transnational corporations which are steering the economic globalization are not at all directed by ethical or humanitarian principles . The maximization of profit is the major if not the only driving force for all their activities .

To be logical I tend to think like this : if economic corporations became transnational and that much powerful what is needed is a powerful transnational government based on real democracy for all the countries and citizens of the world . A government which is capable of issuing and implementing global rules aimed at realization of the maximum use of all humankind achievements for the sake of all the dwellers of our globe . A government which is capable of making economy in the service of man instead of making man a victim and a slave for the market economy.


1-Such as:
Thomas L. Friedman : The lexus and the Olive Tree,: Understanding Globalization, Cairo : international Publishers,1999.
Anthony Giddens :” Globalization” ,BBC Reith Lectures (!.htm)
Leslie Sklair, Globalization-Capitalism and its Alternatives , Oxford University press ,2002.
Gray C. Hufbaur, Globalization Facts and consequences ,Institute for International Economics,2001.

2- Such as:
Paul L. S.J., Education for Globalization , America Press 2002
Vandana Shiva, Violence of Globalization ,the Hindu ( New Delhi, India ) March25,2001
Theodore Levitt, The globalization of markets “ Harvard Business review 61 (3 ) ( May-June): 92-102 .
3-Such as :Thomas Friedman & Gary Hufbaur
4-Vandana Shiva , opt.
5-Diana Smith , What Does Globalization Mean for Health ? third world network,1999
6-Global Issues, Causes of Poverty :
7-T. Rajamoorthy, Development and Human Rights
8- Mathews George Chunakara globalization and its Impact on Human . Rights.
9- Danilo Turk , How World Bank-IMF policies adversely affect
human rights” , Third World Resurgence ,may 1993.
10- Global Issues , Poverty Facts and Stats,
11- Cited in : Poverty facts and Stats, Global Issues .
12- Mary Robinson, Globalization Has to Take rights into Account , The Irish times , January 22,2002.

This paper was presented at the XV Congress of the International Sociological Association,
Brisbane,8-11 July,2002 .Dr. Samir Naim-Ahmed is Professor of Sociology at Ain shams University , Cairo


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