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  • Human Rights and the Ethics of Globalization
  • Morton Winston (bio)
Daniel E. Lee & Elizabeth J. Lee, Human Rights and the Ethics of Globalization (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 252 pp. ISBN: 978-0-521-14799-6.

Human rights campaigners have been concerned with abuses committed by private economic actors for nearly as long as human rights have existed. The first major international human rights campaign, the slavery abolition movement, expressed moral condemnation of the practice of human chattel slavery and the slave trade, both of which had been regarded as legal and acceptable forms of economic activity for centuries. John Locke's theory of natural rights consisted of life, liberty, and property, but liberty was not generally understood to entail the right not to be held in slavery or involuntary servitude, except for propertied white men. Only through the efforts of eighteenth and nineteenth century slavery abolitionists was the scope of this right enlarged and the right not to be enslaved added to the catalogue of universal human rights. Abolitionists achieved this outcome only through prolonged political struggle in the teeth of vigorous opposition by powerful commercial interests whose defenders insisted that the efforts to end slavery and the slave trade violated their sacred "God-given" property rights.

During the latter half of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, industrial workers and the trade union movement pressed employers and governments to enact legal protections that would prevent private employers from using child labor, help maintain safe working conditions in factories and mines, and allow workers to organize unions and bargain collectively to secure better pay and reasonable limitations on working hours. The League of Nations in 1919 founded the International Labor Organization in order to codify these hard-won economic rights and to defend working men and women from human rights abuses perpetrated by private economic actors. These economic rights were accepted into the canon of international human rights law in the Universal Declaration (1948), refined and reaffirmed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976), and again in the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998).

Given this history, is it not surprising that during the current era of globalization, which is characterized by the impact of the Information Revolution on global trade and the rise of multinational corporations with global supply chains, human rights campaigners have addressed contemporary patterns of human rights abuse associated with the activities of businesses. Indeed during the past thirty years, beginning with the Sullivan Principles (1977, 1984), which were introduced in the context of the [End Page 893] anti-apartheid movement, and continuing with the anti-sweatshop campaigns of the 1990s, the UN Global Compact (2000), and many other initiatives, there has been a rapidly expanding sub-field of human rights activism. This activism has been intent on pressing home the idea that corporations and other nonstate actors have their own responsibilities to respect human rights, which are independent of states' human rights obligations under national and international law.

This book by the father-daughter team of Daniel and Elizabeth Lee attempts to provide an overview of these developments by surveying some of the main issues at the interface between business and human rights. The first part of the book outlines a theoretical approach, which argues that corporate social responsibilities for human rights derive from a firm's relationships with its stakeholders: shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, and the communities in which company facilities are located. The theoretical framework outlined in the first three chapters might be useful in the context of undergraduate courses that address human rights and business ethics, but scholars and specialists in this field are likely to find it superficial and incomplete. The second part includes several strong chapters that deal with cases, such as the history of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Liberia, fair trade coffee certification in Ethiopia, and the labor practices of the maquiladoras in Mexico. The third and final section addresses the challenge of enforcement and includes a useful discussion of the most important cases brought under the Alien Torts Claims Act.

While generally well researched, the book suffers from some glaring omissions. For instance, there is...


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