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Globalization Has to Take Human Rights into Account

22 January 2002

Linking human rights with ethics and globalization represents a connection whose time has come. And yet the task is daunting. Every day brings further evidence of the unacceptable divide in our world; the harsh statistics of millions living in extreme poverty and enduring conflict. The increasing frustration and disillusionment with market-led globalization is evidenced by the protests at the G8, the World Trade Organization, the European Union and other summits.

We are at the edge of a big idea - the shaping of ethical globalization But how? What are the components, the linkages, and the energies that need to be harnessed? Nearly 10 years have passed since the adoption of two important international declarations, one by the world's governments (the final Declaration and Program of Action from the World Conference on Human Rights, adopted in Vienna in June 1993), the other by the world's religious leaders (the Declaration of the Religions for a Global Ethic adopted in Chicago just five months later).

These documents were, in many ways, ahead of their time in addressing what world leaders at the UN Millennium Summit identified as the central challenge we face today: ensuring that globalization becomes a positive force for all the world's people.

It is a measure of the rapid pace of social change that neither document refers specifically to the term globalization which has today become so central to our attempt at describing our times. However, both offer the vision and proposals for how I believe we should go about responding to the growing "backlash against globalization".

Building an ethical and sustainable form of globalization is not exclusively a human rights matter, but it must include the recognition of shared responsibility for the universal protection of human rights. That responsibility is shared by all of us, individuals, the religions, corporations, states, international financial institutions and the United Nations - all of us.

Over 50 years ago, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stressed the link between respect for human rights and freedom, justice and peace in the world and called for a just international and social order. That Declaration also affirmed that the true meaning of human rights is one that embraces duties and community as well.

What is emerging is the need for globalization as an economic process to be subject to moral and ethical considerations and to respect international legal standards and principles.

The 144 members of the World Trade Organization have all ratified at least one human rights instrument. All but one have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and 112 have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. When negotiating and implementing international rules on trade liberalization, these governments should bear in mind their concurrent obligations to promote and protect human rights mindful of the declaration made in Vienna Declaration 1993, that "human rights are the first responsibility of governments".

While the WTO agreements provide a legal framework for the economic aspects of the liberalization of trade, the norms and standards of human rights balance this by offering a legal framework for trade liberalization's social and ethical dimensions.

What does that mean in practice? It means answering questions such as:

Is trade truly free and fair? The developing countries have heard many promises over the years but have too often found that, in practice, access to markets where developing countries hold competitive advantages has been denied. Do intellectual property rules consider the cultural rights of indigenous and local communities? Are intellectual property rules conducive to ensuring access to drugs under the World Health Organization essential drug list?

On this last question let us consider the issue of AIDS. For all the virus's own neutrality as between nationality, class and gender it is now dominantly infecting and affecting the poorer classes and countries in the developing world, with women increasingly the more vulnerable.

A lack of respect for human rights is linked to virtually every aspect of the AIDS epidemic, from the factors that cause or increase vulnerability to HIV infection, to discrimination based on stigma attached to people living with HIV/AIDS, to the factors that limit the ability of individuals and communities to respond effectively to the epidemic. Our work and that of others has shown that emphasis on the human rights of victims can make a great difference.

Human tragedies of this kind, although not normally on this scale, are often the first disturbers of moral conscience and the first prompters of moral response. Given the global range of the pandemic, only a global response will be effective.

In the search for a global ethic a very practical beginning might be made by analyzing the dimensions of the pandemic with, for example, people living with HIV/AIDS in Zambia, their carers and others responsible.

These dimensions of the pandemic would uncover the deeper roots in cultural practices and in the multiple economic, social and health privations. As these are only in part locally or nationally generated, and particularly in the economic sphere are of international origin in even the most remote Zambian village, one is rapidly entangled in the inequities of world trade and the failure of international aid.

Lack of adequate nutrition, of basic medicines, of clean water, of elementary education, of suitable employment, of equality for women, among a multitude of other privations, increase the vulnerability of these poor people to HIV and AIDS. The poverty deprives them in turn of the means of treatment and care which are available to the wealthy.

And just as poverty makes them more vulnerable to HIV so infection and disease in turn increase their poverty through extra medical costs, loss of income, funeral costs and so on. If one were to trace on the globe the lines of the privations contained in the UN Development Program Human Development annual reports they would coincide almost exactly with the line of infection by HIV.

Starting from HIV/AIDS in our hypothetical Zambian village, with its immediate appeal to the moral conscience, one could begin to discern step by painful step the elements of a global morality, or at least of the requirements of a humane moral response which would have worldwide implications and operate at every level of individual and social human existence from biological and physical through the relational, intellectual and spiritual.

The insights of the poor, deprived and suffering are essential to our enterprise of developing a globalizing ethic with a human rights component. People living with HIV/AIDS and their associates could be one matchless source.

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.

Thus a new challenge is to ensure that such powerful actors in the globalized economy are accountable for the impact of their policies on human rights.

One initiative in which my office is deeply involved concerns the encouragement of an ethical approach by private business enterprises to their activities. The UN Global Compact initiative, which was formally launched by the Secretary-General in July of 2000, is becoming an overall framework through which the UN is pursuing its engagement with the private sector.

It is worth noting that it involves the encouragement of self-regulation or ethics to uphold human rights and environmental standards rather than legally binding regulation. However, we should also note that there is considerable debate over whether such ethical codes can be fully effective. There is a trend towards holding companies accountable through legal rules for the human rights and environmental impact of their policies. The Compact calls on business leaders, trade unions and NGOs to join forces behind a set of core values in the areas of human rights, labor standards and the environment. Let me outline briefly these three areas.

With respect to human rights, corporations should ensure that they uphold and respect human rights as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and are not themselves complicit in human rights abuses.

In the area of labor standards, businesses should uphold freedom of association and collective bargaining and make sure they are not employing under-age children or forced labor, either directly or indirectly, and that, in their hiring and firing policies they do not discriminate on grounds of race, creed, gender or ethnic origin.

And in relation to the environment, companies should support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges, promote greater environmental responsibility and encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies.

Another critical area where the private sector must play a bigger role if globalization is to benefit more people is employment generation. There are an estimated 66 million unemployed young people in the world today making up more than 40 per cent of the world's total unemployed.

What future can they expect without the opportunity of decent work?

Making globalization benefit all also means taking steps to involve those who have been most excluded from shaping their future. Within the UN system, one innovative step in this direction is the new Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues which will have its inaugural meeting in New York in May.

It is a natural step from a particular focus on indigenous peoples to broader protection of the environment. This will be addressed in a world conference on sustainable development in Johannesburg in August. Re-reading the Millennium Declaration, and assessing it in the aftermath of September 11th, I am struck by the fact that we have no need for new pledges and commitments. They are all there in solemn language.

We need something more prosaic: "implementation, implementation, implementation". The rigor of a legal regime can help to underpin the values of ethical globalization The next phase must be less aspirational, less theoretical and abstract, and more about keeping solemn promises made.

Mary Robinson (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), extract from the Second Global Ethic Lecture she gave at the University of Tübingen, Germany on 21 January 2002. Published in The Irish Times © 2002

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