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Globalization, a political and not simply an economic question

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 8 Aug 2001 - Globalization is not divinely ordained, but a product of human society, and has no a priori existence independent of structures humankind has put in place, nor are its basic tenets foreclosed from negotiations, two Human Rights jurists have said in a progress report to the UN Sub-Commission on promotion and protection of human rights.

Globalization is not simply an issue of economics, but very much a political phenomenon, with the processes taking place in the context of increased social tension and political discordance, say Mr. Joseph Oloka-Onyango Of Uganda (Expert member of the sub-commission) and Ms. Deepika Udagama, alternate expert from Sri Lanka.

The progress report by the two Special Rapporteurs, “Globalization and its impact on the full enjoyment of human rights”, presented to the Sub-Commission Tuesday, has focussed on the tensions and complementarities between international economic law and international human rights law, and dealt with globalization and IPRs and TRIPS, the mechanisms in the operation of the WTO, and the poverty-directed efforts at the World Bank and the IMF.

It was clear, said the jurists, that globalization could affect civil and political rights, including right to life, as well as economic, social and cultural rights. In his intervention, Olaka-Onyango spoke of their concerns about the human rights implications of IPRs and their connection to international trade, and the WTO’s binding dispute mechanisms applied to those who might violate IPRs, especially if needs of owners of property gained primacy of place and in effect superceded human rights of significant populations. Also of concern were issues of abuse of IPRs to violate human rights, and pressures applied and negative impacts on developing countries, as well as balancing individual rights with communal rights, questions about IPRs and monopoly control, and its implications for farmers, for persons and right to health and access to life-saving drugs, pricing drugs out of range of access for persons in developing countries.

Udagama focussed on the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism and the troubling problems arising from it - including its costs and lack of transparency. In relation to the IMF and the World Bank, the question arose over their New Poverty Agenda (NPA) - whether it was a new phenomenon or simply conditionality wrapped up in a different garb.

Their main conclusions, Ms. Udagama said, were the need for tracking the review of TRIPS and for a more definitive rendering of its exceptions, for the review of other aspects of the operation of the WTO, for commencing a process for drafting guidelines and general principles for the multilateral institutions, MLIs (the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF) and the issue of their constitutional restrictions.

The special rapporteurs note that the range and impact of globalization was producing profound results on life in the 21st century and there was virtually no area of human existence free from the varied consequences of globalization.  As such, globalization is an issue that requires continuing scrutiny and attention by the international community, and the main concern must be with the dichotomies that globalization has produced or enhanced, and the way they relate to the overall promotion and protection of human rights. And, more critically, within a human rights framework questions arise: who has benefited from all the spectacular developments heralded by the processes of globalization? To what extent has globalization aided peasants, indigenous peoples, women and ordinary working people? How has globalization improved the capacities of states, particularly those with low levels of human development and lacking in economic resources, to meet the basic and fundamental human rights obligations to their citizenry? Thus, in reviewing the global communications and technological developments, “the bright side of globalization”, it was also essential to remain cognizant of the fact that they are taking place in “a sea of stark disparity.”

The processes most closely associated with globalization are rent with contradictions. Although globalization is closely associated with the notion of free trade, many developed countries such as the USA and members of the European Union maintained protectionist regimes and subsidies as basic instruments of economic policy. Developing countries on the other hand are being pressured to open up and liberalize their own economies, even as they face tremendous obstacles in attempting to access the markets of the developed world, especially in sectors such as agriculture and textiles where they have a comparative advantage. Globalization has thus brought tremendous benefits, but it has also led to significant social dislocation, particularly in the developing areas of the world. Globalization is thus not simply a question of free trade, increased investments, and liberalized regimes of finance. The processes of globalization are taking place within a context of increased social tension and political discordance - with a growing global movement of activists drawn from all walks of life seeking to have their voices heard in the debate about adverse consequences of globalization. It is not simply an issue of economics, but very much a political phenomenon. Coming to grips with the politics of globalization is thus an essential prerequisite to the design of alternative structures of international economy and governance. Globalization is not divinely ordained, nor are its basic tenets foreclosed from negotiation. The phenomenon of globalization is the product of human society, motivated by specific ideologies, interests and institutions. It has no a priori or inevitable existence independent of the structures humankind has put in place.

There was hence a need for the two sides in the globalization debate to speak much more intensely to each other, rather the be deluged as now by a monologue between the prime movers of globalization (institutions such as the OECD, the G-7 industrialized countries and the World Economic Forum (WEF)at Davos, and the protesters and other critics stalking their meetings on the other.

The major regimes of law implicated in the on-going processes of globalization mainly concern those related to international trade, investment and finance and, broadly speaking, they fall within the rubric of International Economic Law, which is primarily concerned with the principles and institutional mechanisms that undergird developments within the international economy. Some basic questions that arise are: Does a liberal regime of international trade, investment and finance especially that espoused by the dominant proponents of globalization always foster the promotion and protection of human rights? Is there a necessary synergy and mutuality of support between increased international trade, investment, finance and human rights? Are there situations in which the two regimes may conflict?

There is a general misconception that the two regimes of law exist in pristine, self-contained isolation. However, the same entities (states) have created and adopted the norms and standards of the two bodies of law. It is thus necessary to ensure that there is greater coherence between the two. Answers to the questions are not clear cut. On the face of it, International Economic Law has largely not paid much attention to International Human Rights, and vice versa.  Until revival of discussion of the right to development (RTD), human rights law and practice has largely been concerned with the duties and obligations of states.

Until recently, there has been a marked reluctance on the part of the institutions that play a significant role in the global economy such as the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO to engage in an extended discussion of the issue. And when such discussions take place it has focussed on the external dimension, rather than on the integration of human rights policies into their operations, policies and procedures of governance and accountability. In such a context, states face a serious handicap, since the obligations placed on them by such institutions may undermine or usurp their human rights undertakings.  Individuals, supposedly the ultimate subjects of concern, are even further disadvantaged because of a lack of standing and effective representation in these bodies, a handicap noted by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in an early statement on globalization.

Though the MLIs are essentially made up of states, this does not address relations of power, resources and inequality confronting states in the context of their operations and policy formulation. It is these concerns that informed the debate behind the promulgation of the Declaration on the Right to Development.

On the other hand, the regime of law concerned with the promotion and protection of International human rights is itself not free of problems. Despite assertions about the universal character of human rights, several issues remain outstanding whether of a conceptual or an enforcement nature. Thus, the insidious categorization of international human rights law continues, despite the Vienna Declaration’s proclamation on the indivisibility, interdependence and interrelationship of human rights, and the considerable work by the CESCR in clarifying this category of rights. Sometimes couched in terms of implementation, resources, or their alleged non-justiciability, the net effect has been to downgrade the importance of economic, social and cultural rights while paying lip-service respect to civil and political ones. Secondly, the enforcement mechanisms of international human rights remain weak and perfunctory, unless there is an overriding interest of a political or economic nature that is driving the action.

Against the background of these tensions, the problem remains that some countries have not benefited from the new developments in the global economy.  Neither have many individuals in such countries gained from the increased attention to international human rights.

The last decade has witnessed numerous countries especially developing and least developed ones (LDCs) adopt all the basic tenets of a liberalized economy, including free exchange rates, reduced regulations on prices and markets for goods (including farm produce), and the dismantling of trade and financial barriers, all in the name of deriving maximum benefits from the processes of globalization.

But, as brought out in UNCTAD’s most recent report on LDCs, most of the poorest countries’ economies have still fared badly, some even worse than before liberalization, partly on account of dependence on a single cash crop, insufficient donor support, and the intervention of wars and coups, and even further to the very conceptualization of the policies and programs of

liberalization. There is thus a problem with both regimes of law. It is fairly obvious that resolving the tensions and bringing the two regimes of law closer together will be no small task. – SUNS4953

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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