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Globalization and Human Rights

From: Human Rights Quarterly
Volume 21, Number 3, August 1999
pp. 735-766 | 10.1353/hrq.1999.0041

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Globalization and Human Rights*

I. Introduction

An advertising campaign by the McDonald’s food corporation in the late 1990s showed images of Russian soldiers and American grandfathers, young Mexican women and Australian Aboriginal children, all celebrating the thing they share in common: a love of McDonald’s food. According to the advertisement: “everyone around the world is saying ‘It’s Mac time now.’”

These advertising images are simultaneously symptomatic and symbolic of globalization. The apparent universal market and demand for a product, which is created and presented by the use of new communication tech-nologies and produced by a transnational corporation, could be seen as a manifestation of new opportunities provided by globalization for all people after the end of the Cold War. At the same time, the impacts of the universal market on diverse cultures and on state sovereignty, as well as the pervasiveness of development measured in market terms, could indicate the dangers in this process of globalization. These opportunities and dangers arise because globalization is “an economic, political, social, and ideological phenomenon which carries with it unanticipated, often contradictory, and polarizing consequences.” 1 This process of globalization is part of an “ever more interdependent world,” 2 where political, economic, social, and [End Page 735] cultural relationships are not restricted to territorial boundaries or to state actors and no state or entity is unaffected by activities outside its direct control. Developments in technology and communications, the creation of intricate international economic and trade arrangements, increasing activity by international organizations and transnational corporations (such as McDonald’s), and the changes to international relations and international law since the end of the Cold War have profoundly affected the context within which each person and community lives as well as the role of the state.

The focus of this article is the effect of globalization on the protection of human rights, particularly the protection of human rights through international human rights law. This effect of globalization must be considered because, as the former Secretary-General of the United Nations noted:

[t]echnological advances are altering the nature and the expectation of life all over the globe. The revolution in communications has united the world in awareness, in aspiration and in greater solidarity against injustice. But progress also brings new risks for stability: ecological damage, disruption of family and community life, greater intrusion into the lives and rights of individuals. 3

This article examines the processes of globalization and of international human rights law, as well as the impact of the economic processes of globalization on the protection of some human rights. Examples from Africa are primarily used here because the impact can be seen most clearly there. In this analysis, the consequences of globalization, including both the opportunities and dangers that it creates, are considered not only with regard to the protection of human rights, but also in terms of globalization’s effect on the international legal order, of which international human rights law forms a part.

II. Globilization

Globalization is a contested term and there is no one accepted definition of it. 4 Robertson provides a definition which captures the contradictory elements of globalization: “we may best consider contemporary globalization in its most general sense as a form of institutionalization of the two-fold process involving the universalization of particularism and the particularization of universalism.” 5 This twofold process has many aspects. Clearly, it is [End Page 736] a political, social, and cultural process, but “[i]t is foremost an economic process.” 6 Cerny defines the economic process of globalization in the following way:

it . . . create[s] permissive conditions for a range of distinct but intertwined structural trends—that is, it expands the playing field within which different market actors and firms interact. It transforms the international economy from one made up of holistic national economies interacting on the basis of national ‘comparative advantage’ into one in which a variety of ‘competitive advantages’ are created in ways which are not dependent on the nation-state as social, economic, and/or political unit. 7

As Cerny’s definition suggests, economic globalization is seen in terms of “markets” where the actors in the market have...