Brave New World? Human Rights in the Era of Globalization

Chapter 10
Brave New World? Human Rights in the Era of Globalization

Paul O’Connell*

1. Introduction

Globalization is the meta-narrative of our age.1 Few, if any, contemporary social phenomena, whether migration, global warming, or the present global economic crisis, are deemed intelligible outside the easy, intuitively appealing explanatory shorthand of globalization. As one of the other pervasive discourses of the post-war years, the subject of human rights has not escaped the gravitational pull of ‘globalization speak’, although it is fair to say that human rights scholars, like lawyers in general, have come somewhat late to the debate.2 Indeed, writing earlier on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the UDHR,3 Philip Alston noted that globalization ‘poses a variety of challenges which demand our attention but have not been receiving it’.4 Thankfully, the literature on globalization and human rights has since burgeoned, generating a variety of perspectives, both optimistic and pessimistic, about the relationship between globalization and human rights.5 It is the aim of this chapter to contribute to the development of this discourse, by offering a snapshot of the impact which globalization has had to date on human rights, and to assess what future obstacles and opportunities globalization presents for the realization of the UDHR promise.

This chapter begins by setting out the ‘promise of globalization’; that is to say, the purported benefits for human rights from the process of globalization, as a starting point for the broader discussion which will follow. We then take one step back, as it were, to get a clearer analytical understanding of what exactly ‘globalization’ is, by examining alternative approaches to defining globalization. Then, with the benefit of greater definitional clarity, the remainder of the chapter is devoted to a consideration of the actual impact which globalization has had on human rights to date, before drawing some conclusions as to the potential long-term implications of globalization for human rights, and the obstacles and opportunities which globalization presents for the realization of human rights.

Before proceeding, I wish, at this juncture, to say a word about the analytical approach adopted in this chapter. According to Tony Evans, there are, broadly speaking, three different approaches to the analysis of human rights: (1) the philosophical (2) the legal and (3) the political; and, historically, the first two approaches have tended to marginalize the political discourse of human rights.6 In contrast, this chapter explicitly privileges the politics of human rights. This is so because, given the nature of globalization, an over-reliance on a purely abstract philosophical or positivist legal discourse may tend to obscure ‘the dynamics of human rights violations’.7 In contrast, a more contextualized account of human rights, which accords prominence to the socio-political contexts in which the discourse of human rights is conducted, is more likely to ‘reveal … inequalities based on race or ethnicity, gender, religious creed, and – above all – social class [as] the motor force behind most human rights violations’.8 This is to say that explicitly approaching the politics of globalization and human rights allows us to identify more clearly the power relations which underpin globalization, and how they interact with human rights. As David Held and Anthony McGrew note, ‘[power] relations are deeply inscribed in the dynamics of globalization’;9 therefore, it is essential to adopt an analytical framework which brings these relations to the fore.

2. The Promise of Globalization

With respect to human rights, proponents of globalization make two important, interrelated claims: firstly, globalization will, through the spread of ‘free market’ capitalism, generate economic growth, which in turn will lead to the eventual amelioration of poverty throughout the world; and, secondly, this reduction in poverty will ultimately lead to the development of civil society constituencies that will, in time, advance claims for democracy and human rights. In this way, globalization is presented as being a positive agent for the promotion of human rights and the general improvement of human well-being on a global scale. These two propositions, taken together, constitute the ‘promise of globalization’. Matthew Gibney notes that the promise of globalization is ‘an article of faith’ for most government and corporate leaders in the West.10 In this section, we will briefly relate the terms of these propositions, as articulated by the advocates of globalization, and leave to a later point in the chapter an interrogation of the veracity of these dual claims. At the outset, and for reasons that will become apparent in the next section of this chapter, it should be noted that for advocates of globalization the extension of free market capitalism is the sine qua non of globalization, and the precondition for the promise of globalization to be realized.

If we assume the greater integration of national markets into the functioning of the global capitalist system, and the steady removal of barriers to trade, the logic then is straightforward for the proponents of globalization. As Thomas Friedman argues:

[it is an] irrefutable fact that more open and competitive markets are the only sustainable vehicle for growing a nation out of poverty, because they are the only guarantee that new ideas, technologies, and best practices will easily flow into your country and that private enterprises, and even government, will have the competitive incentive and flexibility to adopt those new ideas and turn them into jobs and products. That is why … nonglobalizing countries … saw their per capita GDP growth shrink in the 1990s, while countries that moved … to a globalizing model saw their per capita GDP grow in the 1990s.11

In similar terms, Andrew Berg and Anne Krueger argue that ‘the weight of evidence is overwhelming on the positive effect of openness on growth’, and they go on to argue that there are ‘strong reasons to suppose that trade liberalization will benefit the poor at least as much as it benefits the average person’.12 Going one step further, David Dollar and Aart Kraay argue that between 1980 and 2000 those countries that integrated most with the global economy witnessed both significant reductions in absolute poverty, and a generally egalitarian distribution of the benefits of economic growth and increased prosperity.13 Furthermore, they argue that the ‘real losers from globalization are those developing countries that have not been able to seize the opportunities’ of globalisation.14

One of the best known advocates of globalization, Jagdish Bhagwati, makes the link between growing prosperity and human rights explicit, by arguing that greater integration into the global economy will, along with reducing poverty, lead to the gradual overcoming of practices which are considered contrary to human rights, such as gender discrimination (in pay and other fields) and child labour.15 A more expansive version of this argument is presented by Daniel Griswold:

Economic freedom and rising incomes … help to nurture a more educated and politically aware middle class. A rising business class and wealthier civil society create leaders and centers of influence outside government. People who are economically free over time want and expect to exercise their political and civil rights as well. In contrast, a government that can seal its citizens off from the rest of the world can more easily control them and deprive them of the resources and information they could use to challenge its authority …. In other words, governments that grant their citizens a large measure of freedom to engage in international commerce find it increasingly difficult to deprive them of political and civil liberties, while governments that ‘protect’ their citizens behind tariff walls and other barriers to international commerce find it much easier to deny those same liberties. Of course, the correlation between economic openness and political freedom across countries is not perfect, but the broad trends are undeniable.16

Griswold concludes that for ‘the past three decades, globalization, human rights, and democracy have been marching forward together… in a way that unmistakably shows they are interconnected. By encouraging globalization … we not only help to raise growth rates and incomes … we also spread political and civil freedoms.’17 This view is echoed by Erich Weede, who argues that globalization engenders a ‘virtuous circle’ in which human rights and increasingly liberalized international trade reinforce one another.18 Significantly, this view is also shared by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF),19 which might go some way to explaining its prevalence. Later in this chapter we will look at the extent to which globalization has or is likely to deliver on its promise; however, before that, we will use the next section to gain some greater clarity about what we mean when we talk about globalization.

3. Definitional Clarity

Precisely because of the all-encompassing nature of the term ‘globalization’, it defies easy definition. Much ink has been spilt on debates over the precise genesis, nature and content of the phenomenon referred to as globalization. Indeed, so extensive is the disagreement that Jan Aart Scholte has concluded that ‘the only consensus about globalization is that it is contested’.20 In somewhat more exasperated terms, Gerald Helleiner has argued that the ‘term globalization has become so slippery, so ambiguous, so subject to misunderstanding and political manipulation that it should be banned from further use, at least until there is precise agreement as to its meaning,’21 Notwithstanding this extensive and ongoing disagreement, there is an analytical imperative to adopt a definite understanding of globalization before we can reflect on its implications for human rights. Put simply, it is entirely unsatisfactory to posit an analysis of the impact of x on y, without having a clear understanding of the nature of the two phenomena under discussion. In the same way, we cannot discuss the implications of globalization for human rights, without first clearly setting out our understanding of human rights and globalization.22 For the purposes of this chapter, human rights are to be understood as the catalogue of fundamental rights set out in the UDHR.23 In the paragraphs that follow, we will seek some definitional clarity with respect to globalization, by looking at two distinct approaches to defining and comprehending it, before adopting the most satisfactory account, and reflecting on its implications for human rights.

3.1 Globalization Simpliciter

The first approach to defining globalization which we look at, and the one which has held sway in many respects, is what I will refer to as the lowest-common-denominator definition of globalization, or globalization simpliciter. These simplistic definitions of globalization tend to proffer a vague, descriptive account of the objectively observable phenomena associated with the era of globalization as equivalent to a satisfactory definition of globalization. For example, in a recent article, John Glenn defines globalization as ‘the intensification of economic relations between states’.24 In similar terms, Nicholas Stern, the former Chief Economist of the World Bank, defines globalization as ‘the growing integration of economies and societies around the world’,25 while Eduardo Aninat refers to it as ‘the process through which an increasingly free flow of ideas, people, goods, services, and capital leads to the integration of economies and societies’.26 In the same vein, albeit with a move away from the purely economic dimensions, Manfred Steger refers to globalization as ‘a multidimensional set of social processes that create, multiply, stretch, and intensify worldwide social interdependencies and exchanges while at the same time fostering in people a growing awareness of deepening connections between the local and the distant’.27 Jost Delbrück goes one further and imputes a positive, moral character to the process when he notes that ‘globalization … may be defined as the process of denationalization of markets, laws and politics in the sense of interlacing peoples and individuals for the sake of the common good.’28 In one sense this approach to defining globalization is not objectionable. As a descriptive account, it is perfectly fine; however, it is sorely lacking as a useful explanatory definition of the process.29

With respect to human rights, it is interesting to note that while human rights lawyers have begun to develop evaluative positions on the relationship between globalization and human rights,30 they have thus far failed to adopt an adequate or satisfactory analytical conception of globalization. Instead, they have tended, by and large, to embrace definitions of globalization akin to the globalization simpliciter account. For example, Allison Brysk defines globalization as ‘the growing interpenetration of states, markets, communications, and ideas across borders’.31 For Dinah Shelton, globalization ‘is a multidimensional phenomenon, comprising numerous complex and interrelated processes that have a dynamism of their own. It involves a deepening and broadening of rapid transboundary exchanges … at all levels … creating a more interdependent world.’32 Again, these simplistic, descriptive accounts are unobjectionable at one level; however, if we are to seriously enquire into the relationship between globalization and human rights, the globalization simpliciter account is unsatisfactory, principally because such a definition fails to adequately address the values which underpin contemporary globalization and the agents which drive the process.33 This failure, in turn, leads to the reification of the process, whereby it is presented as a natural, neutral inevitable process,34 and this, in turn, seriously impairs our ability to interrogate and respond to globalization’s impact on human rights.35

3.2 Neo-Liberal Globalization

The simplistic definitions of globalization given above assume, or at least imply, that globalization is in some respect, a natural and neutral phenomenon. This is revealed by Friedman when he argues that ‘the flattening of the world [Friedman’s euphemistic phrase for what globalization is about] is connecting all the knowledge centres of the planet together into a single global network, which – if politics and terrorism do not get in the way – could usher in an amazing era of prosperity, innovation, and collaboration, by companies, communities, and individuals.’36 This idea that globalization somehow exists and develops independently of politics, that it has its own agency and momentum, and that, if left to its own devices, it will deliver its own form of utopia, is the fundamental flaw at the heart of the optimistic account of globalization and of globalization’s likely impact on human rights. The simple reality is that politics is a possessive mistress, and globalization is very much a creature of politics. Appreciating this fact sharpens our understanding of globalization, and allows us to better analyse the relationship of globalization to human rights. Therefore, this section sets out the contours of a normative, political account of the nature of globalization, which in turn frames the subsequent discussion of globalization’s impact on human rights.

It is useful at this point to note an important distinction here, one helpfully made by Eric Hobsbawm, between globalization as an objective material process, and globalization as a political and ideological construct.37 While both are, of course, products of human agency, the former, which is marked by greater global interconnectedness in every sphere of life, is in some respects now beyond control, in the sense that it cannot be ‘undone’ (the clock cannot be unwound, as it were). In contrast, the latter form is fundamentally a historically contingent and mutable dispensation, one which can be altered and remade in myriad ways. The globalization simpliciter approach is perhaps least objectionable when addressing itself to the former form of globalization, although such clear distinctions are rarely drawn, whereas it is completely inappropriate as an optic through which to view the latter form of globalization. The rest of this section is concerned with an exposition of the political and ideological nature of contemporary globalization, or at least the politically and ideologically dominant form, as providing a necessary starting point for adequately conducting an interrogation of the impact of globalization on human rights.

It follows from this that, contrary to the implicit view of the globalization simpliciter thesis, the consensus among the majority of globalization scholars is that throughout the modern era of globalization ‘the ideologically hegemonic position has been the neoliberal agenda.’38 As James Mittelman notes, ‘Globalization … has been normalized as a dominant ideology that joins with neoliberalism to extol the virtues of individualism, efficiency, competition, and minimal state intervention in the economy. Neoliberalism also forms a policy framework, whose instruments of deregulation, liberalization, and privatization centre on heightened market integration.’39 Jan Aart Scholte sets out in detail the extent of the influence of neo-liberalism on the dominant actors who have shaped globalization:

Neoliberalism has generally prevailed as the reigning policy framework in contemporary globalization … Most governments … have promoted neoliberal policies towards globalization, especially since the early 1980s … agencies such as the IMF, the WTO and the [OECD] have continually linked globalization with liberalization. Champions of neoliberal globalization have also abounded in commercial circles, particularly in the financial markets and among managers of transborder firms. Business associations like the International Organization of Employers and the World Economic Forum … have likewise figured as bastions of neo-liberalism. In the mass-media, major business-orientated newspapers … have generally supported neoliberalism. In academic quarters, mainstream economists have extolled the virtues of global free markets …. Given this widespread hold on centres of power, neoliberalism has generally ranked as policy orthodoxy in respect of globalization. Indeed in the late twentieth century neoliberal ideas gained widespread unquestioned acceptance as ‘commonsense’.40

Given this assessment, the contemporary era is best understood as one in which neo-liberal globalization has been pre-eminent. With this understanding, we can now fruitfully move on to look at the impact of neo-liberal globalization on human rights; however, before that we will take the time to spell out what we mean by neo-liberalism, and what has contributed to its emerging as the ‘commonsense’ world-view over the last quarter-century.

Neo-liberalism41 emerged as a coherent ideological and political programme in the early 1970s, a time at which global profit rates were either stagnating or falling. What neo-liberalism proposed was a break with the post- World War II consensus, which placed limits on corporate activity and also provided for a relatively strong welfare state. The raison d’être of neo-liberalism was to roll back this social state, although, as Leo Panitch notes, the neo-liberal rhetoric of rolling back the state belies the fact that neo-liberal globalization has relied heavily on strong, activist states; it augments the manner and reasons for which the state intervenes, but does not, in truth, diminish the state’s power. What neo-liberal globalization has really been about is rolling back the state’s involvement in social provision (education, health care, etc.) and opening up these fields to profit-making while at the same time strengthening the state’s coercive capacities and its pro-capital, market-friendly regulatory functions.42

However, the subsequent influence enjoyed by neo-liberal doctrine within the so-called ‘halls of power’ did not develop in a vacuum. The point is made cogently by William Tabb:

[to date] globalization has been overwhelmingly the result of a political project, an agenda of the most internationalized fractions of capital in the leading states of the world carried on in significant measure through both private consultations between peak organizations of the business community in the most powerful economies and through the agencies of their governments, actualized above all through the leadership of the executive branch of the American government.43

Thus, neo-liberal globalization has, first and foremost, been ‘part of a hegemonic project concentrating power and wealth in elite groups around the world, benefiting especially the financial interests within each country, and US capital internationally’.44 This is the understanding of globalization adopted here.

Clearly, as David Harvey notes, an open project around the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a small elite would be unlikely to gain much popular support or forbearance.45 Therefore, in order to advance its central agenda, the rhetoric of neo-liberalism has virtually promised the sun, moon and stars to those who would adopt its orthodoxy. Based on the cardinal belief that ‘the market works perfectly and should be extended to as many areas of life as possible’,46 neo-liberals urged the ‘liberalization of cross-border transactions; deregulation of market dynamics; and privatization of both asset ownership and the provision of social services’,47 arguing that if governments followed this general policy prescription the ‘magic of laissez-faire’,48 as Scholte sardonically termed it, would result in rapid economic growth, stable economies, a generalized reduction in poverty and improvement in material well-being, among other things (i.e. the promise of globalization). While the rhetorical promise of an eventual ‘trickle down’ may have been presented as the public rationale, the real driving force behind neo-liberal globalization has been its powerful backers, chief among them the governments of the USA and the UK and the various financial institutions which govern the global economy, both formally and informally.49

Following the Reagan–Thatcher revolution of the 1980s, the virtues of neo-liberalism were persistently extolled by two of the world’s leading economic, political and military powers.50 The support of these governments also ensured that the leading institutions of global economic regulation, the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO), made governments throughout the world ‘safe’ for liberalized, mobile capital and imposed neo-liberal orthodoxy, with respect to small government,51 in return for access to the putative benefits of the global economy. Thus, since the purge of the Keynesian influence in the early 1980s, these institutions have been ‘centres for the propagation and enforcement of “free market fundamentalism” and neo-liberal orthodoxy’.52 In concert with the most dominant Western governments, they have advanced the neo-liberal global project in two principal ways. In dealing with underdeveloped and impoverished countries, they have used structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) to compel neo-liberal reforms from governments in return for much needed capital.53 In contrast, when dealing with more affluent countries, the agents of neo-liberalism have extended the project’s hegemony through enforcing international trade rules which keep transnational capital ‘disembedded’ from the societies in which it operates. The consequence of these policies is that all governments are now subject to a generalized ‘market discipline’, which ensures that they augment their legal and policy structures so that they are more conducive to the generation of profits for global and domestic economic elites. In turn, this makes states subject to the whims of transnational corporations.54 As Held and McGrew have noted,

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