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Can Globalization Promote Human Rights?

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann


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Essays on Human Rights

Can Globalization Promote Human Rights?

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann

“This is a book which, in the words of Paul Collier, can help ‘citizens of the rich world . . . take responsibility for their own ignorance about trade policy’ without capitulating to the simplicities of neoliberalism. It refuses to discuss human rights in an economic vacuum, but neither does it advocate forswearing them in the name of economic growth. Masterly in its use of evidence, careful and balanced in argument, this book is essential reading for anyone who is suspicious of the too-easy moral rectitude of some of globalization’s ‘radical’ critics, but who still prioritizes human rights in all circumstances and wants the rest of the world to do so too.”


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Globalization has affected everyone’s lives, and the reactions to it have been mixed. Legal scholars and political scientists tend to emphasize its harmful aspects, while economists tend to emphasize its benefits. Those concerned about human rights have more often been among the critics than among the supporters of globalization. In Can Globalization Promote Human Rights? Rhoda Howard-Hassmann presents a balanced account of the negative and positive features of globalization in relation to human rights, in both their economic and civil/political dimensions.

On the positive side, she draws on substantial empirical work to show that globalization has significantly reduced world poverty levels, even while, on the negative side, it has exacerbated economic inequality across and within countries. Ultimately, she argues, social action and political decision making will determine whether the positive effects of globalization outweigh the negatives. And, in contrast to those who prefer either schemes for redistributing wealth on moral grounds or authoritarian socialist approaches, she makes the case for social democracy as the best political system for the protection of all human rights, civil and political as well as economic.

“This is a book which, in the words of Paul Collier, can help ‘citizens of the rich world . . . take responsibility for their own ignorance about trade policy’ without capitulating to the simplicities of neoliberalism. It refuses to discuss human rights in an economic vacuum, but neither does it advocate forswearing them in the name of economic growth. Masterly in its use of evidence, careful and balanced in argument, this book is essential reading for anyone who is suspicious of the too-easy moral rectitude of some of globalization’s ‘radical’ critics, but who still prioritizes human rights in all circumstances and wants the rest of the world to do so too.”

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann holds the Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights and is Professor in the Department of Global Studies and the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University.




1. Human Rights and Globalization

2. Globalization, Poverty, and Inequality

3. Global Neoliberalism

4. A Positive Model

5. Negative Models

6. Global Human Rights Governance

7. Civil Society

8. The Politics of Resentment

9. The Primacy of Politics



Human Rights and Globalization

One day in December 2007, I stood in my local drugstore contemplating which seasonal greeting cards I should buy. Several packages imported from the United States offered twelve cards for Can $14.99. One package imported from China offered twenty cards for Can $5.99. I debated over whether to buy the Chinese cards: Were the workers who produced them exploited? Should I boycott Chinese products? But in the end, I bought them.

This personal debate illustrates the questions about globalization asked by private citizens in the Western world who value human rights. Many wonder whether globalization further impoverishes the underprivileged in poor countries or improves the prospect of their enjoying their human rights, especially economic human rights. Since the early 1990s, there has been much academic discussion about whether globalization is “good” or “bad.” Some scholars, notably legal scholars and political scientists, think it obvious that globalization is detrimental to human rights. Schwab and Pollis, for example, focus only on the negative aspects of globalization, stating, “Clearly globalization has had a deleterious effect on the entire complex of human rights” (2000, 217). Other scholars, economists in particular, argue implicitly that globalization can and often does have beneficial effects on human rights (Bhagwati 2004; Legrain 2002).

A core aspect of this debate is whether globalization deepens or relieves poverty. If more people are poor, they are less likely to enjoy their economic human rights; if fewer people are poor, they are more likely to enjoy their economic human rights. However, although the level of poverty does roughly correlate with the likelihood of enjoying economic human rights, it is not the whole story. Whether citizens enjoy their economic human rights is also affected by whether they enjoy their civil and political rights. Moreover, even in societies where civil and political rights are protected, different types of political regimes are more or less likely to protect economic human rights. The type of political regime that exists is in turn influenced by the intensity and objectives of citizens’ social movements in defense of human rights. In this book, I argue for the interrelation of all types of human rights and the need for social democracies that will protect them.

The rapidity of globalization causes so much social change in so many parts of the world that it affects billions of people, some to their benefit but many to their detriment. In this situation, the arguments against globalization by popular intellectuals like Naomi Klein (2000) as well as social movement and political leaders are persuasive. They are often easier to follow than the complex arguments of economists, which are very difficult not only for ordinary citizens but also for scholars in other fields to understand. To many critics, contemporary free trade policy—a defining characteristic of globalization—is an unmitigated disaster for the poor, yet some economists argue that it is the best possible solution to poverty. Indeed, the distinguished economist Paul Collier notes his frustration with the “citizens of the rich world, who must take responsibility for their own ignorance about trade policy” (2007, 157).

My purpose in this book is to sort out some of the arguments about the effects of globalization on human rights. Although I respect the international law of human rights and the scholars who refer to it when opposing globalization, I also present some of the economic arguments for globalization. Human rights scholars have a special responsibility to take economics seriously rather than avoid its intellectual challenges. The standards of economic human rights in international law are the standards of the wealthy, industrialized world, of countries that have already experienced economic growth. Human rights scholars must, therefore, understand what creates economic growth, and in order to do so they must try to understand economic analysis, whatever their home disciplines (mine is political sociology). There are no simple ways to predict globalization’s probable effects on human rights; its effects vary in different parts of the globe and on different sectors among each country’s residents. Those who are interested in human rights need to watch and comment on globalization’s effects without resorting to rhetorical objections to or defenses of globalization.

I view globalization as the “second great transformation,” referring to Karl Polanyi’s classic work, The Great Transformation (1944). Polanyi analyzed the great transformation of Britain and Europe from agricultural to industrial societies from about 1780 to 1940; I argue that the contemporary period of globalization involves the transformation of the entire world from agricultural to industrial societies. In chapter 3, I refer to Polanyi while discussing how neoliberal capitalism has transformed the world. In chapters 4 and 5, I investigate two possible theoretical outcomes of globalization’s transformation of the world, one positive for human rights and one negative. In chapters 6 and 7, I argue that the second great transformation has the advantage of being characterized by “human rights leapfrogging.” The concept and law of human rights, I maintain, has leaped over centuries and oceans to enhance the entire world’s capacity to confront the negative aspects of industrialization. Chapter 6 discusses global human rights governance and chapter 7 the global human rights social movement. Chapter 8 explores the possibility of a backward human rights leap caused by the politics of resentment against “Western” globalization and human rights, just as, according to Polanyi, there was a reaction against industrialism in early twentieth-century Europe. Chapter 9 concludes that only social democratic countries can fulfill all aspects of their citizens’ human rights but also warns of the various aspects of human insecurity that are exacerbated by globalization.

International Human Rights Defined

This book refers to human rights as they are defined by international law (Weissbrodt and de la Vega 2007). They are rights to which all human beings are entitled merely by virtue of being biologically human; they are individual rights not tied to group, communal, national, or any other membership. Human rights do not have to be earned, nor are they dependent on any particular social status, such as whether one is male or female. Duty-bearers—those who have duties to protect, promote, and fulfill human rights—are primarily states, although increasingly duties are also imposed on international organizations (IOs) and transnational corporations (TNCs).

The promotion of human rights is one of the principal purposes of the 1945 Charter of the United Nations. The UN’s purposes as described in chapter 1, article 1 include “to achieve international co-operation in . . . promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion” (Brownlie and Goodwin-Gill 2006, 4). Human rights are further enshrined in the UN’s International Bill of Rights, which consists of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (Brownlie and Goodwin-Gill 2006, 23–28, 348–74).

Civil and political rights include, for example, protection against torture, the right to a fair trial, the right to vote, and the right to act politically through freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association. Economic, social, and cultural rights include the right to work, the right to form trade unions, and the rights to education, social security, an adequate standard of living, and the highest attainable standard of health. So-called collective rights encompass the rights to peace, development, and a clean environment. Civil and political rights are often referred to as first generation rights; economic, social, and cultural rights as second generation; and collective rights as third generation. These generations roughly reflect the chronological development of the international conception of human rights. For the sake of brevity, throughout this manuscript I will refer to economic, social, and cultural rights merely as economic human rights or economic rights, as there is no clear distinction between what is economic and what is social; for example, the right to education could be considered both economic (resulting in higher earning power if one is educated) and social (helping one to participate in the society at large).

Discussion of globalization’s effects on human rights tends to focus on economic rights, as critics of globalization are chiefly concerned with its detrimental effects on the poor in developing countries. States have three obligations regarding economic rights: to respect, protect, and fulfill them (Eide 2006, 175). To respect economic rights means not to subvert individuals’ enjoyment of them or individuals’ capacities to provide for themselves. To protect economic rights means to protect citizens against state and nonstate entities—the latter referring especially to IOs and TNCs—that could undermine their rights. The state’s obligation to fulfill economic human rights is the most difficult, as it requires positive intervention in economic, social, and political relations to ensure that citizens enjoy the substance of their rights—that is, that they enjoy their rights not only in principle or in law but also in practice.

Many critics argue that globalization seriously undermines economic human rights by increasing poverty and economic inequality. Chapter 2 investigates these arguments. Globalization has increased inequality within many states and among states; however, the argument that globalization impoverishes more people than it benefits is contentious, as there is much evidence that globalization has significantly reduced poverty worldwide. In any case, alleviation of poverty is often as much a matter of politics, particularly giving the poor a voice and a vote, as it is of economic policy. Therefore, it is important to consider globalization’s effects on the political process as well as on economic policy. Critics of globalization do not devote much attention to civil and political rights; indeed, some think of them as a Western phenomenon that should not be imposed on non-Western societies (Thomas 1998, 183).Yet one important aspect of globalization is the worldwide spread of the ideals of democracy, the rule of law, civic equality, minority rights, and individual human rights. Furthermore, despite globalization, states are still sovereign entities. Democratic states that respect the rule of law and protect their citizens’ civil and political rights are better able to withstand the detrimental aspects of globalization than nondemocratic states.

The ideals of international human rights are also increasingly incorporated into institutions of global governance such as international financial institutions (IFIs), especially the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), and into the governance structures of some TNCs. This recent trend to require that nonstate actors accept human rights obligations largely results from the actions of human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and social movements, including the global social movement against, or favoring serious reform of, globalization. However, the creation of new human rights duty-bearers is very recent and far from complete. We cannot yet predict the outcome of the very weak, current obligations of IFIs and TNCs for the human rights of the billions of individuals affected by globalization.

It would be easy and satisfying to predict that, in the long run, the international law of human rights will control economic globalization so that its overall effects will be beneficial. But such a prediction cannot be made at this juncture. Equally, however, one cannot positively predict that the overall effects of economic globalization will be harmful to human rights. In this book, I discuss possible intersections of economic change, political change, and social action to demonstrate that politics and social action are the crucial activities that will determine whether globalization undermines or promotes human rights.

Globalization Defined

Some definitions of globalization focus only on its economic aspects. Bhagwati states, “Economic globalization constitutes integration of national economies into the international economy through trade, direct foreign investment (by corporations and multinationals), short-term capital flows, international flows of workers and humanity generally, and flows of technology” (2004, 3). Other definitions are broader, encompassing social and political as well as economic relations. Held, McGrew, and their colleagues define globalization as “a process (or set of processes) that embodies a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations and transactions, generating transcontinental or interregional flows and networks of activity, interaction, and power” (Held et al. 1999, 483). In a globalized world, everyone lives in “overlapping communities of fate” in which “the very nature of everyday living—of work and money and beliefs, as well as of trade, communications and finance . . . connects us all in multiple ways with increasing intensity” (Held et al. 2005, 1–2).

Space and time are compressed in the new globalized world; the present era is, in effect, the “end of geography” (Bauman 1998, 12). The information revolution began in the 1980s with the widespread use of personal computers and the invention of electronic mail and the Internet. The technology of information transfer, combined with the end of the division of the world economy into socialist and capitalist blocs, facilitated much easier movement of capital across national borders. The constraints of geography also receded as people traveled much more frequently and easily during the late twentieth century. Communication and travel resulted in new global social and cultural arrangements as well as new economic arrangements. The information explosion, the worldwide reach of mass media, and ease of communication affected all cultures. Similarly, ease of travel, migration, and circulation among ancestral and new homes changed social arrangements.

Although globalization includes political, social, and cultural aspects, the chief impetus and beneficiary of globalization is capitalism. I define capitalism as a particular type of market economy in which the costs of labor and of financial and physical capital, in addition to costs like transportation, determine choice of products to be made, the geographical location of production, and the number and types of workers to be employed. Capitalism is the economic system behind new technologies of information and communication and behind the capacity of TNCs to spread worldwide. The technology of information transfer also facilitates much larger and faster finance capital transfers than previously possible. George Soros, the international financier and philanthropist, makes this point in his own definition of globalization as “the development of global financial markets, the growth of transnational corporations, and their increasing domination over national economies” (2002, 1).

For some commentators, capitalism is an evil word, connoting privilege and power for the few over the interests of the many; for example, O’Connell defines globalization as “a consciously undertaken political project to privilege economic power over public power, in the interests of global and local economic elites” (2007, 492). I agree that unregulated capitalism privileges the rich over the poor; the history of the struggle for human rights in the capitalist Western world is largely a history of workers’ struggles for political freedom and economic security. O’Connell, however, refers specifically to the neoliberal economic aspects of globalization, which I discuss in chapter 3. My use of the term “globalization” is broader. I define globalization as a process by which local states, economies, cultures, and social actors are increasingly drawn into a global polity, economy, culture, and civil society. Thus, I refer to the following as aspects of globalization:

• The expanding world market, and international trade and capital flows

• Transnational corporations

• Institutions of global governance, including the international law of human rights, IFIs, and IOs established to regulate the market

• Travel, migration, communication, and global culture

• Global civil society, including international NGOs, global social movements, and other private social actors

Before commencing my discussion of how globalization affects human rights, however, it is necessary to clarify three of its other aspects.

Dating Globalization

This book discusses the most recent stage of globalization, which began in the mid-twentieth century and has intensified in the last two decades. There have been earlier episodes of partial “globalization,” such as the creation of the Roman and British empires and the opening up of European trade with China. I do not address the debate about the appropriateness of referring to the current round of globalization as a new phenomenon in world history (McNeill 2008). It is enough to note that it is truly global and all-encompassing in its effects.

While there is no consensus on the exact moment at which the world entered this latest round of globalization, the end of World War II may be considered a good starting point. The UN, the first even partially effective institution of global governance, was formed in 1945 as a successor to the League of Nations. The League had been established after World War I to prevent further wars but had failed to avert World War II (MacMillan 2003, 84–86). Before disbanding in 1946, it transferred all its assets to the UN (United Nations Office at Geneva 2008). The League’s central mandate became the central mandate of the UN: chapter 1, article 1 of the UN Charter states that one of its central purposes is “to maintain international peace and security” (Brownlie and Goodwin-Gill 2006, 4). The UN quickly expanded to embrace many other goals, including the promotion of human rights. Its member states wrote and endorsed human rights documents, and various UN organs were created both to encourage states to protect human rights and to monitor their progress in doing so (Mertus 2005). The UN also established many subsidiary institutions that helped to ensure that people enjoyed their economic human rights; these include the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the World Food Program (WFP), and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The founding of the UN coincided with the creation of the Bretton Woods Institutions. At a conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in 1944, delegates from forty-four nations met to devise new rules for the post–World War II international monetary system. This resulted in the formation of the IMF and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, later known as the WB. They were to regulate the international economy to prevent another economic depression like the one that had occurred in the 1930s. The then-prevailing economic orthodoxy was that open markets and free international trade were less likely to cause an international depression than closed markets and restricted trade. The Bretton Woods Institutions evolved in part from the Atlantic Charter, a statement issued by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the United States and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom in 1941. The Charter’s aims included not only international economic collaboration but also improved labor standards and social security for all (U.S. Department of State 2008).

The logic behind the creation of the Bretton Woods Institutions in 1944 was the same as the IFI logic promoting world free trade as of the 1980s. From the 1950s to the 1980s, many countries in the “developing” world (as it was then known), especially in Latin America and Africa, experimented relatively unsuccessfully with closed or socialist economies. To remedy these states’ perceived failures, the IFIs insisted on open markets and free international trade. They argued that closed markets raise the prices of goods for consumers, who are not able to buy foreign-produced goods that may be cheaper than locally produced ones. Closed markets also permit inefficient production by local producers, who do not need to worry about foreign competition. Thus, closed markets discourage local producers from specializing in those goods for which they have a productive comparative advantage in the international market. This impedes technical and organizational innovation and drives up the cost of goods to consumers worldwide. The Bretton Woods policy of world free trade, still dominant in the early twenty-first century, has caused much economic, political, and social change and inspired much hostility. Critics often identify free trade as promoted by IFIs as the central and most harmful aspect of globalization. Seemingly, the IFIs have forgotten the original mandate of the Atlantic Charter, with its focus on labor standards and social security as well as free trade.

Several other key events define the current round of globalization. In 1978 China moved from economic isolation to active participation in the world economy, experiencing extraordinarily high internal economic growth rates as it became extremely competitive in the global market. In 1989 the destruction of the Berlin Wall, which had previously separated East and West Germany, respectively communist and democratic countries, signaled the end of Eastern European communism. In 1991 the communist regime fell in Russia (formerly the Soviet Union). The formerly closed economies of the communist states were then integrated into international markets. Thus, by the last decade of the twentieth century, there was an almost universal international market economy regulated by an almost universal system of global economic governance.

Time Frames

Predictions about the effects of globalization on human rights depend in part on the time frame used. The first great transformation of Britain and Europe from agricultural to industrial societies took at least one hundred sixty years, from approximately 1780 to 1940 (Polanyi 1944). The second great transformation of the entire world from agricultural and/or socialist economies to capitalist industrial economies will probably take a shorter time, perhaps from twenty to fifty years. This time frame, however, is much longer than that sometimes used to measure effects of globalization.

In 1996 and 1999, Human Rights Quarterly published a debate about the relationship between globalization and human rights. The relevant factors in this debate were foreign investment by TNCs (representing globalization) and civil and political rights (representing human rights). William H. Meyer (1996) investigated two contrasting theses. The first was that transnational investment is an “engine of development”: TNCs promote economic rights through investment and job creation and promote civil and political rights through the creation of a stable and tolerant political environment. The second was that TNCs undermine national development and by extrapolation undermine improvements in human rights that might result from national development.

Meyer used quantitative data about fifty-two countries in 1985 and twenty-nine countries in 1990 to investigate the relationship between TNC investment and human rights, assuming “a time lag of roughly two to three years between the determinants and the level of human rights” (1996, 390). He compared levels of direct U.S. foreign investment and foreign aid to levels of civil liberties and political rights in recipient countries, as ranked by Freedom House, an American organization that measures political freedom around the world. He also compared the levels of U.S. investment to recipient countries’ physical quality of life index (PQLI), an index that combines the infant mortality rate, life expectancy at age one, and adult illiteracy rates. The PQLI is often used as a proxy measure for citizens’ enjoyment of their economic rights. Over this very short time period from 1985 to 1990, Meyer found that “the presence of multinational corporations . . . [was] positively associated with political rights and civil liberties as well as with economic and social rights in the third world,” confirming the thesis that multinational investment was an engine of development (1996, 368; emphasis in the original).

Meyer’s conclusion was challenged by Jackie Smith, who with her co-researchers reanalyzed his data, comparing it with her own independent study. Smith used data on civil and political rights from Amnesty International (AI), a major human rights NGO, and the annual reports on human rights produced by the U.S. State Department, as well as WB data on direct foreign investment from all countries, not only the United States. She concluded that there was “little relationship between DFI [direct foreign investment] and political and civil rights practices. . . . The factors that seem to have a much stronger and consistent impact on a government’s human rights practices relate to more general structural factors, namely GNP [gross national product] per capita and levels of public debt” (Smith, Bolyard, and Ippolito 1999, 218). Smith’s finding that the more general structural factors of GNP per capita and levels of public debt had a stronger impact on a country’s human rights performance than TNC investment is directly relevant to the debate on globalization. If globalization stimulates growth in a country’s GNP and if, as a result, the country can pay down its national debt, then it will have more resources for provision of economic human rights—assuming a government committed to its citizens’ needs.

In the debate just summarized, Meyer and Smith both relied on the assumption that the relationship between globalization and human rights can be measured by data spanning only a few years. I argue that the relationship cannot be predicted over such a short period. Looking to the medium term, a period of about twenty to fifty years, is a more reliable way to ascertain the possible effects of globalization on human rights. This longer time frame permits the scholar to better analyze the social, political, and economic changes that globalization has caused. The most important long-term changes are the adoption of market economies and political democracy. South Korea is a model of almost complete transition from a poor peasant to a wealthy urban society, from a dictatorship to a democracy, over a period of fifty years (Donnelly 1989, 170–78). China has experienced a very rapid transition from a collectivist command economy to an individualist market economy within thirty years, yet with a party-bureaucratic dictatorship still in place rather than political democracy. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, there are multiple examples of greater and lesser success since 1989 in integrating into the world capitalist system and adopting democracy. Some of the more economically successful postcommunist countries, such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, already show evidence of positive medium-term change.

One might argue that it is fruitless to look to either the short or medium term to ascertain the relationship between globalization and human rights. The eventual outcome of the Industrial Revolution certainly could not have been predicted in Europe in 1780; so, too, the final outcome of globalization cannot be predicted in the early twenty-first century. Such an argument, however, would not take into account globalization’s capacity to speed up the world. Economic policies change quickly with international institutions like the IMF and the WB to guide the changes and with foreign consultants available to teach the rules and practices of capitalism to willing policymakers and entrepreneurs. For example, the disastrous “shock treatment” transformation of the Soviet Union from communism to Mafia-style capitalism resulted from the advice of IFIs and independent consultants (Stiglitz 2002, 133–65). Similarly, constitutional and legal consultants guide political changes. Social changes are influenced by transnational NGOs and social movements that strive to protect and promote human rights while political and economic forces simultaneously undermine them.

Thus, the rest of the world may not need to wait 150 or 200 years before it is in the same fortunate position as the West was at the end of the Industrial Revolution, enjoying a relatively rights-protective society. Medium-term analysis does seem possible. Even so, assuming that globalization will necessarily enhance human rights is unwise. In most societies entering the world capitalist economy, there is severe social disruption. Social relations in the new global society are more fluid than people in many parts of the world are used to. Some people are confused by these changes and long for a simpler time with a stricter normative order; some fight viciously to retain the old order from which they are being so abruptly torn. In this situation of flux, there is not necessarily a positive correlation between the processes of globalization and the entrenchment of human rights; multiple economic policies, political and legal changes, and social actors affect the final outcome. In each case, moreover, the domestic, national context is as important as transnational, global influences.

National Sovereignty and Democracy

Some critics blame globalization for all the adverse conditions for human rights that coincide with it. Many decisions that affect citizens’ human rights, however, are made by sovereign national governments. Sovereignty refers to states’ legal capacity to make and enforce independent decisions about almost any aspect of their citizens’ lives occurring within their borders. Some commentators argue that in the era of globalization states have modified their sovereignty, citing the increasing number of international treaties that states sign and their willingness to submit to international oversight of their adherence to these treaties. For example, the dispute settlement mechanism of the World Trade Organization (WTO) undermines states’ economic independence, while the decisions of the UN’s Human Rights Committee undermine their political independence. Moreover, some argue, substantive sovereignty has been significantly eroded as states conform to the dictates of IOs and TNCs (Evans 2001, 82). Realizing this, “individuals increasingly seek solutions to their problems outside its [the state’s] confines” (Albrow 1997, 73).

Despite the modification of sovereignty that occurs when states sign international treaties, they do retain substantive control over most of what occurs within their territories. There are no international treaties that effectively prevent states from perpetrating severe human rights violations against their own populations; even the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide does not require any outside intervention when a state systematically murders its citizens (Brownlie and Goodwin-Gill 2006, 284–87). Only recently has the international community begun to consider its responsibility to protect individuals from these severe violations (Secretary-General 2005; International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001). For now, states continue to make their own decisions about whether to protect, promote, and fulfill human rights.

In this respect, the fear that globalization undermines the autonomous decision-making powers of sovereign states seems to idealize the nation state. While “nation-states remain for the foreseeable future the necessary instruments for the provision of security and welfare for their citizens” (Beetham 1998, 65), nondemocratic states are governed by elites who act in their own interests, whether their powers derive from local or global political and economic relations. Such elites are no more likely to protect their citizens’ interests against foreign than against local exploiters. Citizens need the democratic right to guide their governments’ policies and to change their governments when they so desire, to ensure that their rights are protected.

Political democracy is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for human rights and their protection (Donnelly 1999; Freeman 2000). Democratic rights can be confined to only a segment of a nation’s population, as in the all-white “democracy” of South Africa during apartheid, from 1948 to 1994. In the worst cases, the democratic tyranny of the majority can contribute to civil war as minority groups that feel themselves excluded from power resort to violence. Democracy, then, must be buttressed by the rule of law, political freedoms, and a civic culture of activism if it is to protect human rights, and under these conditions it is more likely than any other type of political system to do so. Rule of law means that the government and its individual members are subject to the same law as ordinary citizens and that judges are independent of political influence. A civic culture of activism and political freedom both precedes and is a consequence of democracy and the rule of law. In most countries, citizens have to fight for freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, as well as for the vote; indeed, these were some of the earliest human rights campaigns in the Western world (Ishay 2004, 117–72). These rights, once attained, become instrumental in the fight for other rights, especially in establishing welfare states that provide at least minimal guarantees of economic human rights.

Democratic principles of government, the rule of law, and a civic culture of activism took centuries to emerge in the Western world, with intervening episodes of dictatorship and fascism in Europe, severe racism in North America, and systematic discrimination against women and other groups. What are now known as human rights were denied to the vast majority of the West’s citizens until well into the twentieth century. Rights-based democratic societies certainly did not emerge through some easy, predictable, and inevitable coincidence of capitalism and human rights. Social actors fought for rights; governments and capitalists capitulated when the costs of not doing so became higher for them than the benefits of repression. These same characteristics of democracy, rule of law, and a civic culture of activism and political freedom must emerge elsewhere if human rights are to be protected. Globalization’s various aspects can either impede or promote their emergence, depending on each country’s approach both to integration into the world capitalist economy and to political democracy.

Similar to political democracy, economic growth is a necessary condition for economic human rights; in this economists who defend the necessity for economic growth are correct. Economic growth is not a sufficient condition for economic human rights, however. It appears that there are two paths to economic growth, both requiring a market economy. One is the authoritarian capitalist model, as found in East Asia in the mid- to late twentieth century and in China today. The other is the democratic capitalist model, as found in the West in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries and in countries such as India today. Human rights advocates obviously prefer the latter path, which protects civil and political rights at the same time as economic growth makes protection and fulfillment of economic rights easier. Yet even democratic capitalism does not automatically protect the economic rights of the poor; that requires a social democracy that pays equal attention to civil/political and economic, social, and cultural rights.

A Personal Statement

At this point, I wish to clarify my personal position on the human rights abuses caused by globalization. Every effort ought to be made to ensure that during the process of globalization everyone enjoys her or his full range of human rights, including economic rights. I would like to see a world in which every policy change intended to promote globalization adheres to the principle that the poorest not be rendered even worse off. Thus, I agree with Rawls that “it is not just [fair] that some should have less in order that others may prosper” (1999, 46). Nor do I believe that present generations should suffer abuse of their human rights so that future generations may enjoy them. As Sen argues, “In the context of economic disparities, the appropriate response has to include concerted efforts to make the form of globalization less destructive of employment and traditional livelihood, and to achieve gradual transition” (1999, 240).

My analysis is a theoretical discussion of the possible long-term human rights outcome of globalization; I do not suggest that legal activists, members of civil society, and others who point out its detrimental human rights consequences in the short term should cease their activities. On the other hand, my analysis is meant to persuade readers that in the long run globalization may help to create a world of increased prosperity, democracy, and protection of human rights. This depends, however, on successful social action in defense of human rights. A positive human rights outcome is not inevitable; it is a matter of social action and political decision making.