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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

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Human Rights Quarterly 21.3 (1999) 735-766

Globalization and Human Rights This process of globalization is part of an "ever more interdependent world," where political, economic, social, and 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.

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. 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." This twofold process has many aspects. Clearly, it is a political, social, and cultural process, but "[i]t is foremost an economic process." 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.

As Cerny's definition suggests, economic globalization is seen in terms of "markets" where the actors in the market have changed, as have the goods and services on offer.

The establishment of globalized economic institutions has been both a symptom of and a stimulus for globalization. The development of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), regional development banks such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and, more recently, multilateral trade institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) indicates the trend away from the dominance of the state as the exclusive unit of analysis in international affairs. Acknowledging this trend, the World Bank has stated that:

[t]he state still defines the policies and rules for those within its jurisdiction, but global events and international agreements are increasingly affecting its choices. People are now more mobile, more educated, and better informed about conditions elsewhere. And involvement in the global economy tightens constraints on arbitrary state action, reduces the state's ability to tax capital, and brings much closer financial market scrutiny of monetary and fiscal policies.

Globalization has thus been transformative in terms of a reconceptualizing of state sovereignty within both international relations and international law.

Of course, states have never had exclusive control over their economic, legal...


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