Can Human Rights Help Mitigate the Worst Excesses of Free Trade?


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Up to 50,000 people a day die from poverty related causes with 22,000 of these fatalities being children under the age of five. The plight of the world’s most impoverished and vulnerable people have been further aggravated by the current global financial and food crises. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), this international instability has resulted in a massive increase of some 11 percent in the number of chronically hungry people from 915 million in 2009 to 1.02 billion in 2010.

However, despite poverty and hunger being recognized as critical social and economic ills they are generally not regarded as human rights violations in themselves. Indeed, there have been few calls for a more active application of international human rights’ covenants and instruments as a means to improving the horrendous deprivation endured by billions worldwide.

Instead, the mainstream view held by most economists and many development experts is that the key to tackling poverty is through economic growth. They argue that in order to improve the living conditions of the poor free trade should be promoted and increased at the global level. For these analysts, it is the failure to adequately integrate the South (Southern Hemisphere) into the world market that explains the continued widespread poverty in ‘developing’ countries.

However, this roseate view of the benefits of free trade has been trenchantly questioned by critics such as the development theorist Richard Peet. Peet points out that despite two decades of rapidly increasing open markets and significant growth in trade volumes in the South, the significant increase in exports has failed to add greatly to their income. Moreover, although global poverty has decreased in overall terms, this has been accounted for by China and India with the rest of the world showing a slight increase.

The contemporary free trade model has also been widely criticised for preventing states in the South from introducing economic reforms suitable to their own growth and poverty-reduction needs. The imposition of a ‘one size fits all’ open market approach has drastically curtailed their development policy options. Ironically, when nations such as Britain and the US were industrialising, they nurtured their nascent domestic enterprises by the judicious imposition of tariffs and other interventionist economic policies. These options are now mostly denied to the South.

This approach has not resulted in any narrowing of the global inequality divide. Instead, inequality has continued to escalate not only at the international level between states but also internally within states. The 2005 UNDP Human Development Report revealed that the richest 50 individuals in the world had an income greater than the poorest 416 million. The 2.5 billion living on US$2 a day, some 40% of the world’s population, only accounted for 5% of global income less than ?10 of the 54% reaped by the richest 10%. These divergences in income and wealth continue to grow and are without historical precedent.

There is clearly a need therefore for some form of political intervention to tackle the massive and accelerating gap between the haves and the have-nots. However can human rights, particularly economic and social rights, play a role in such a process?

Makau Mutua argues that the international awareness of human rights and their moral weight might enable them to be harnessed as a springboard for global initiatives to tackle poverty, hunger and inequality. Now that human rights have become, as he terms it, an “integral part of the human conscience”, Mutua feels this would give them a significant degree of weight in such an emancipatory process. The pioneering work of the NGO 3D in striving to improve access to patented medicines by applying human rights rules and mechanisms in order to create a more human rights-consistent approach to trade policy serves as a possible example of how such an approach might work.

However, the fact that 3D were forced to close down recently due to a lack of funding illustrates the difficulties faced by any organisation trying to promote human rights, particularly in the area of free trade. The blunt reality is that human rights considerations are unlikely to receive the same political weight or backing as free trade. There have even been suggestions that human rights in the area of trade should be incorporated under the World Trade Organization (WTO). These calls have quite rightly been rejected by amongst others, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston. Alston argues that they would result in human rights considerations being subordinated to the WTO and its free trade objectives.

As it is, the reduction in policy flexibility imposed upon states in the South through free trade agreements, both multilateral and bilateral, can undermine their capacity to comply with their human rights obligations. To address this problem, trade rules need to be evaluated in terms of their impact upon the human rights of those affected. Furthermore, international human rights rules and accountability mechanisms should be assessed as to whether they are capable of reducing the negative impact of trade rules on the enjoyment of human rights. Where they are found wanting in this respect, they should be amended to provide the required human rights protection.

However, the question remains as to whether human rights in their current format genuinely have the potential to help tackle the scourges of poverty and hunger in the South? This is particularly true with respect to economic, social and cultural rights, which have the greatest potential for tackling such issues. These rights have tended to be awarded significantly less attention since their inception than civil and political rights. This can be seen in the failure of the US to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) as well as the favouring of civil and political rights by most human rights organisations in the Northern Hemisphere.

Even if states in the South should be committed to fulfilling the human rights of their citizens, they generally lack the resources, both financially and institutionally, to do so. They are therefore frequently dependent upon the ‘goodwill’ of the North (Northern Hemisphere) in supporting their efforts to realise their human rights’ obligations. There is also the well-merited concern that states in the North have been using this leverage to advocate for the realisation of human rights measures favourable to their trading objectives while watering down or obstructing the realisation of those that are inimical to free trade. Such concerns have been verified by the Wikileaks revelations that Washington has been funding NGOs in Venezuela that are purportedly promoting civil liberties and human rights but are really a cloak for anti-Chavez groups.

Perhaps the most important criticism of using human rights mechanisms is the fact that they might be an unsuitable means to try and deal with the global inequities that exist, given their deep rootedness in the systems that created them in the first place. Can rights in general, and economic and social rights in particular, ever offer a genuine way of enabling the South develop their own ways of addressing the issues of poverty, hunger and inequality, with which they are faced. Or is it just one more ‘policy straitjacket’, through its presupposition of a certain type of society or “level of social development” limiting the options at the disposal of the South in their efforts to develop.

If human rights are to be considered as a weapon in the fight against the ever-increasing spiral of global inequality and egregious levels of poverty worldwide it is imperative that at the very minimum realistic, clearly defined and measurable progress goals are set in place. This would then at least enable the definition and implementation of substantive and trackable actions to mitigate the worst excesses of free trade and improve the fulfilment of the human rights and status of the world’s poor.


4 Responses

  1. sarah c

    January 6, 2011 2:04 pm

    Actually there is an inherent problem when you take these two doctrines and try to have them function together; free market fundamentalism would say that an individual has rights only to what they can win in a freely competitive market place, that taken as an absolute would mean to follow this doctrine in its pure form would utterly contradict any claims for an individuals ‘Human Rights’ . Then conversely Human Rights as described by the UN Convention aslo includes rights for people such as the economic and cultural rights art 22 – 27 for ex. which make it impossible for them to be adequately incorporated into a resl free competition model. Most western liberal democratic (sic) states run some form of bastardisation of these two ideologies, and it is within this tension between two contradictory idealogical standpoints in operation concurrently in nation states or things like the EU UN and the IFI ie -the two competing worldviews held at one time scizophrenia if you like by those in structures that admisnister state’s responsabilities that a lot of what disempowers and impoverishes poeple the world over happens. Furthermore it is apparent that there has never ever been a state administered by an elected government that has actually fully implemented either doctrine in a ‘pure’ fashion. Easy examples of this are how through political pressure from lobby groups supposedly free market governments subsidise their own unsustainable economic activities( US grain growers for example get subsidised heavily to grow rice and wheat and then these are exported to developing countries and sold there in competition usually undercutting the unsubsidised local produce prices and there’by removing a source of income and ‘welfare’ ie a human right. Anyway enough blather I am all in favour of human rights but we should never forget that the term is rights and responsabilities – it’s not just one way. The market has proved itself consistently totally ineffective as dispersing the world’s wealth and produce – some would say this is as a result of states interferance in its freedom but I think that to prove that point would involve a type of genocide against the poor and so I think give the rights the priority along with an enhanced recognition for communal rights as well as individuals and we’ll deal with the markets. Profits can be made in the worst as well as the best situations so companies and corporations will adapt to whatever regime the are forced to…

  2. William Wall

    January 9, 2011 11:13 am

    One of the problems with human rights is the victim/saviour relationship. Western bourgeois liberals are the saviours, by and large. As long as the suffering people are passive it’s possible to see them as victims of human rights abuses. The minute they take action to claim their human rights they become ‘trouble-makers’ at best and terrorists at worst, even though what we generally claim as universal human rights were wrested by revolutionary violence from the hands of kings, lords, and the gentry who know what’s good for us. The minute a ‘victim’ takes up the struggle to claim her rights, the ‘human rights community’ washes its hands of the affair. It’s very bad publicity. It’s much easier to make the case for people who are prepared to lie down and die, or at least be kicked. Who’ll stand up for the right to revolution?

  3. Tom Lynch

    January 13, 2011 10:41 am

    Upendra Baxi has a number of interesting and useful things to say about this current age of human rights discourse. To my mind, the broader issue is how to bring a different awareness to the issues that have historically animated the best of human rights discourse. In a very real and material sense,human beings are a collective species. We share common ancestor (at least as far as paleo-genetics is concerned)and we occupy a fragile and isolated blue ball if we understand the deep meaning of the pictures from space showing our home as a fragile blue bubble in an expanse of blackness. Moving forward on human rights means acting on our collective aloneness and shared cosmic fragility. Human rights discourse and implementation have to be mechanisms that bring about species solidarity in face of our apparent cosmic uniqueness and aloneness. Human rights may ultimately be anchored in the duty of care we each owe each to the other which ensures that the loneliness of our common humanity does not swamp us all.