Although philosophers have sought to claim that human rights is an idea that transcends time and place, critics have often noted that the history of the idea, from the Stoics to the present day, suggests processes of change associated with social and political revolution. For a growing body of critics, far from being a natural characteristic of humankind, all definitions of human rights are epochal.
In the present day, the human rights regime reflects individualism, the free market, private property, minimum government, and deregulation: the central characteristics of globalizing capitalism. Civil and political rights provide the foundational values for sustaining these characteristics. While the global human rights regime does include economic, social, and cultural rights, this set of rights are relegated to the status of aspirations, to be fulfilled once a country has achieved a sufficient level of economic development. To treat economic, social, and cultural rights on an equal basis as civil and political rights, challenges the liberal idea of the individual, who must be freed from all barriers to wealth creation. Poverty, hunger, and social disintegration may be a consequence of economic globalization, but those exercising their liberal, free market rights cannot be held responsible.
According to many critics, while the development of international law and institutions for human rights offer protection for the full range of human rights, globalization provides a socioeconomic context in which the protection of these rights is no more secure than in the past. This is because globalization structures the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, exacerbating existing inequalities within and between states, rewarding capital at the expense of labour, and creating far more losers than winners. It is commonly assumed that state leaders are responsible for gross violations of human rights. However, today the actions of transnational corporations, financial institutions, and international organizations, operating within the accepted boundaries of international law, are implicated. The cause of poverty and hunger are found in these structures of globalized capitalism.
Consequently, the economic dimensions of globalization are built upon a new orthodoxy that exalts production, finance, and trade above all else, including the protection of human rights. The spread, depth, and strength of the new ethos masks the cause of human rights violations, which is found primarily in economic restructuring, trade, and financial liberalization. Existing international institutions were created to promote and legitimate the positive advantages of economic globalization, but give little attention to the negative effects these actions bring. For example, the founding instruments of the World Trade Organization (WTO) make only oblique reference to human rights. Noting this, a report by the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights argued that the rules of the WTO are not just unfair, but prejudiced against the poor, who have no voice or bargaining power.
In the age of globalization, the popularity of the idea of human rights has not been matched by a commitment to act
Accordingly, the measures pursued by the WTO, and other organizations central to the global economy, such as the World Bank and the IMF, undermine the efforts of global human rights institutions, international human rights law, and the work of progressive advocates of socioeconomic rights. It is also why the relationship between trade liberalization and human rights is frequently overlooked. On the rare occasions when the linkage is made to civil and political rights, the interests of global markets prevail.
To minimize the danger of the destabilizing revolution fermenting within, what Robert Cox has referred to as ‘superfluous workers’, the institutions of global governance have formulated a twin track policy: poor relief and riot control. The first of these takes the form of humanitarian intervention, providing food, shelter, and health care where mass poverty would disrupt the move towards integration within the global economy. Should this fail to quell the danger of social unrest, the riot control track is activated in the form of police and military action, both national and international. Much of the work of the United Nations and many nongovernmental organizations is devoted to one or both of these tracks.
Poverty, hunger, overpopulation, pandemics, child labour, terrorism, and urban violence are just some of the threats for which the troublesome superfluous are stigmatized. For those who enjoy a comfortable life of full employment, the unfortunate consequences of the modernizing world order must not be allowed to stand in the way of progress. Although toleration is promoted as a central principle of liberalism, it has its limits. Exercising civil and political rights to protest against liberalism itself, goes beyond that limit.
Some might see the argument that poverty, hunger, and the violation of human rights can only be understood within the context of the global economic order as a fringe view. However, a 2008 Amnesty International report accepts that while legal and organizational developments at the international, regional, and local level provide some evidence to support those who claim progress in protecting human rights, inequality, injustice, and impunity remain the hallmarks of today’s world order. While national and international leaders continue with their rhetoric, and rarely hesitate to put their names to declarations and international law on human rights, narrower political and economic interests continue to dominant global agendas. In the age of globalization, Amnesty argues, the popularity of the idea of human rights has not been matched by a commitment to act. In short, the Universal Declaration remains an unfulfilled promise.
Featured image credit: Human Rights Day – chalking of the steps by University of Essex. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.