Globalization and Human Rights: It's a Small World after All

By Brysk, Alison | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Globalization and Human Rights: It's a Small World after All


Brysk, Alison, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


The odds are that it has touched you. Perhaps your immigrant family or neighbors came to this country seeking refuge from repression--or perhaps the shirt on your back was stitched by a virtual slave. It has certainly touched your wallet: your business, your pension fund, and your tax dollars may be bankrolling dictatorship or investing in freedom. And human rights have probably touched your conscience, when you read about mass graves with your morning coffee, answer an e-mail petition for women threatened with mutilation, or write a check for the latest victims of the latest war. Tens of thousands of Americans are risking their own lives in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Liberia, and Iraq, in part because we now believe (rightly or wrongly) that the atrocities of despotic regimes make our own world more dangerous. It's a small world after all--and often a very brutal and disturbing one.

The recognition of human rights and the weaving of a web of globalization are probably the most important political developments of our lifetimes. Like water carving a canyon, the slow, quiet power of human-rights pressures and aspirations helped bring down the Soviet empire, transform long-suffering Latin America, and construct unprecedented international institutions: the United Nations system. Meanwhile, the world is also more connected by trade, more susceptible to neighbors' weapons and distant wars, more bound together by the very vanishing air that we breathe--and the microbes it carries across borders. Globalization in all of these forms affects human-rights conditions for better and for worse, and at the same time, the spread of human rights ideals and institutions affects the shape of international integration. Understanding these connections is the key to building a small world worth living in.

THE IMPACT OF GLOBALIZATION ON HUMAN RIGHTS

Most lasting political change is driven by powerful ideas (good or bad), and the current era of globalization is no exception. These ideas inspire leaders, shape institutions, drive nations, and create communities--locally and globally. Ideas, in turn, evolve as they are adopted by new populations, tested in practice, and used to advance and resist the interests of the powerful.

Globalization and human rights both have roots in the powerful ideas of liberalism, which originated during the Enlightenment and evolved notably following the Second World War. The fundamental tenets of liberalism include the dignity of the individual, the desirability of freedom, the superiority of reason over belief, and the possibility of progress through exchange. By the end of the Cold War; most international interactions--from negotiations to lower tariffs to appeals against torture--shared the common elements of this world-view. But by the end of the twentieth century, the relationship between globalization and human rights had become more complicated--and at times, even contradictory.

Human rights are universal principles affirming the inalienable dignity and equality of persons. The principle of human rights limits legitimate forms of coercion and deprivation that may be used in the exercise of authority, usually but not always by governments (Brysk forthcoming). The "first generation" of rights inscribed in international treaties and institutions protects the individual's life, liberty, and bodily integrity from persecution and discrimination. A "second generation" of social and economic rights was introduced to international debate by developing countries and is gaining increasing recognition. For example, new trade agreements granting poor countries free access to patented pharmaceuticals seem to grant the legal basis for the "right to health" claimed by African AIDS patients. Finally, new challenges such as environmental devastation and new movements such as indigenous peoples' campaigns raise questions of a "third generation" of collective and cultural rights, which may be necessary to counter fundamental threats to survival and self-determination not captured by individual civil liberties. …

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