HUMAN RIGHTS

BY Richard Falk,

in THINK AGAIN section, Foreign Policy
March/April 2004, pp.18-26.

The concept of human rights is the mother's milk of the international community. Problem is, these days human rights come in more flabours than coffee or soft drinks.

Would you like the Asian, Islamic, indigenous, economic, European, or U.S. version?

And how would you like your human rights served: with sanctions, regime change, corporate window dressing, or good old-fashioned moral suasion?

Here is a look at the most effective - and most misguided - recipes for promoting human dignity around the world.

(Excerpted from the full article - compiler's remark).


Human Rights Are Primarily About Political Freedom"

The Answer: NO

Human rights should be understood as covering both political and economic concerns. It is true human rights efforts have been most successul with political abuses. Yet, to create the sort of solidarity needed to promote dignity of persons throughout the world, it is crucial to address economic deprivations associated with poverty as human rights issues. Indeed, there are two authoritative international covenants governing human rights: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both adopted by the United
Nations in 1996.

The United States has never ratified the second covenant, and U.S. political leaders are skeptical about its moral claims and status as law. But regardless
of such doubts and any quibbles about the wording of covenants, the bottom line is that a country that fails to address the basic needs of its entire
population is guilty of human rights violations. This approach puts a lot of pressure on poor countries and the economically disadvantaged in various ways.
It also exerts pressure on the United States and other prosperous nations that practice a form of market economis that does NOT take responsibility for the
homelessness, hunger and other manifestations of poverty. An estimated 840 million people suffer from chronic hunger around the world. At the end of 2002
in the United States, there were 34.9 milllion people living in hunger or lacking sufficient food, 1.3 million more than a year earlier. A human rights
approach, bsaed on morality and law, would ensure every human being the basis necessities of food, shelter, health care, education, and employment at least
to the extent of the material capabilities of a particular society. It is only by shutting out these issues of economic well-being that the United States can
be proud of its human rights record. Indeed, given the remarkable level of U.S. wealth and might, the existence of such deep pockets of poverty is nothing
short of a human obscenity.

"Economic Sanctions Help Improve Human Rights Worldwide"

The Answer: RARELY.

If applied with the genuine backing of the world community, economic sanctions can be effective, both symbolically and substantively. But such backing is
rare. The case of sanctions imposed on South Africa during the last stages of apartheid is a rare success story, and those sanctions worked as much by
delegitimizing the government in Pretoria as by their adverse effects on the South African economy.

Most other instances of relying on sanctions for these purposes have failed. Between 1990 and 2003, the U.S.-led U.N. economic sanctions on Iraw
indiscriminately killed hundreds of thousands of civilians without reforming or unseating the repressive Baath Party regime. Citing this disastrous
humanitarian impact, two widely admired U.N. administators of the sanctions program in Iraq resigned on principle in 1998 and 2000 respectively. In
Bosnia, half-hearted sanctions directed at the Yugoslav government in Belgrdae served as an excuse for not taking more energetic protective action on behalf
of a severely abused Bosnian Muslim population. For mroe than 40 years, the U.S. government has maintained economic sanctions against Cuba in defiance of
the majority of the U.N. General Assembly; indeed, in recent years, only Israel and Marshall Islands have backed Washington's stance. These sanctions have led
to great hardships for the Cuban people without contributing to an improved human rights record, though they have helped successive administrations in
Washington court Cuban exile communities that exercise political leverage in such key states as Florida and New Jersey.

Sanctions are a policy tool that should be used more sparingly, and then only with the overwhelming support of the international community. If the situation
is serious enoughto warrant sanctions, humanitarian intervention might well be more appropriate, not least because it has a far better chance of addressing
the direct causes of human suffering.

"Corporations Have a Moral and Legal Obligation to Uphold Human Rights"

The Answer: NOT NOW.

Multinational corporations are essentially profit-making actors without established moral obligations beyond their duties to uphold the interests of their shareholders. In some cases, the constituencies of corporations have grown to encompass so-called "stakeholders," including those groups affected by
corporate activity. And to some extent, corporations have an interest in not alienating consumers and public interest groups by ignoring fundamental human
rights concerns. Civil society leaders can organise boycott against corporations with high-profile links to human rights violations, as has occurred with Shell, Nestle, and others. Campaigns by these and other corporations to improve their public image in relation to human rights are a matter of self-interest that does not reflect the existence or acceptance of a moral obligation. Of course, to the extent that a human rights culture takes hold, corporate officials and their shareholders will likely become more receptive to moral imperatives associated with treating workers decently, in accordance with human rights standards. In that respect, voluntary initiatives such as the United Nations' recently established "Global Compact." which certifies corporations as good global citizens if they agree to abide by a checklist of standards, may pay off. And if such voluntary processes go on for a long time and are widely practised, they could ripen into a moral obligation
at some point, but that is a long way off.

Also, virtually no legal obligations are effective outside the protection of property rights such as trademarks and copyrights in international business activity. Almost all human rights regulation of coporate sector is based on national laws and their implementation. Some countries, especially the United States, have tried to extend their standards to the foreign operations of corporations headquarerted in their countries, but usually in the context of business activity (bribes, monopolies) rather than human rights. Efforts by U.S. state courts to ban business deals in response to severe human rights abuses in places such as Burma have been strucky down by the U.S. Supreme Court as an interference with the foreign affairs powers of the Executive Branch. To the extent the U.S. corporations are legally restricted from dealing with certain foreign countries for human rights reasons, such as Cuba, the underlying motivation is political, reflecting ideological hostility. After
all, why not restrict business with other countries that engage in servere violations such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan?

A framework of international legal obligations would doubtless help protect human rights, especially in countries with minimal or nonexistent human rights regulations. But to ensure that multinational corporations from some countries would not benefit from a competitive advantage, such a framework would require widely endorsed regional and global treaty regimes. And given the clear benefits of foreign investment in mitigating poverty, imposing international
standards that reduce the economic attractivenss of countries with minimal regulation world, in the short term at least, likely accentuate human suffering.

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