Human dignity is sacrosanct. But what if it is violated? What if world market conditions increase poverty? Michael Windfuhr says the gap between international law and practice is getting wider.
Human rights came into being as a form of protection against an overpowering state and were ultimately adopted in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Human rights protect the dignity of every individual against a state that has gained or taken too much power and which tortures or arrests people, makes them disappear, discriminates against them on the basis of their background, skin color, gender, sexual orientation etc., does not allow them to work, or makes it harder for them to access land or credit because they belong to the "wrong" sex or the "wrong" population group.
Civil, political, economic, social and cultural human rights establish the right of all people to determine their own lives free from oppression and cruelty, social want, despotism, exclusion, and exploitation.
States and the international community have a duty to respect, protect and guarantee human rights. That means they also have to keep an eye out for situations in which private companies or other actors stand in violation of these rights. They also have a duty to guarantee particularly disadvantaged groups are guaranteed their human rights, using whatever resources necessary.
In an age of globalization there are, however, an increasing number of situations in which human rights fall by the wayside.
International contracts as an obstacle
International contracts may prevent states from taking the measures necessary to implement a right. One example was government getting around patent protection for HIV/AIDS medication by issuing licenses to produce cheaper generic products.
International organizations can also prevent states from taking the political measures necessary to ensure rights. Indebted developing countries are a case in point. Pointing to reasons of cost efficiency, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund advised these countries to dismantle their state infrastructure for rural development and open markets to import food instead. Credit approval was often dependant on these factors. The result was that families with small farms became increasingly unable to secure their income.
Direct investment as an obstacle
Private companies often have the upper hand when it comes to foreign direct investment, and most investments are only made if they are "investor friendly."
In practice that can mean that employee rights or protection from forced displacement fall by the wayside. For example, thousands of families are forcibly resettled by mining companies, especially by those that work in mountaintop removal. Often this is done without adequate compensation. Trade unions and those affected are rarely able to improve unfair or unsafe labor conditions because international companies are rarely brought to justice in national courts.
Local or regional governments and monitoring bodies are often tainted by corruption and do not pursue reports of abuse.
Subsidies as an obstacle
Tax law in one country can have human rights consequences on another continent.
In recent years, several NGOs have pointed to the huge impact that both the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy and the European fisheries policy have had on markets, working conditions and living conditions in West Africa.
European imports of chicken, made cheap by subsidies, and Europe's overfishing of its coasts have indirectly contributed to increasing poverty and hunger among certain population groups. This constitutes a violation of the right to food but the governments of countries in West Africa lack the power to influence its causes in any significant way.
Weak states as an obstacle
The situation can become particularly problematic for people if their national government is barely functioning. If it is too weak to control or direct international influences, human dignity falls by the wayside.
In the case of "failed states" and countries embroiled in civil war, the responsibility for standards in mines and on plantations tends to lie with companies which have operations there.
Congo is a case in point. Important precious metals are mined under horrible conditions there. But these precious metals come to Europe, where they are used in the manufacture of mobile phones and other electronics.
Globalization as a challenge
Numerous examples show that, in the age of globalization, a gap is opening when it comes to protecting human rights. This gap could be closed if international law could bring the actors to justice. But that is not yet the case. The victims of human rights abuses rarely sue those responsible for the violations and are almost never compensated.
Human rights activists, politicians and academics all over the world are now calling for private actors to respect and protect human rights in their fields of responsibility. Through their campaign work, non-governmental organizations are bringing more and more cases to public attention.
Such naming and shaming tactics have led many transnational actors to set voluntary codes of conduct. Kofi Annan, the former general secretary of the United Nations, attempted to point to the meaning of human rights for economic actors in 2000 by setting up "Global Compact," although it, too, is falling short of its goals.
Extra-territorial state obligations
But whether human rights are respected, protected and guaranteed continues to be largely dependant on NGOs, skilled lawyers and human rights activists making the problems public.
That cannot be the only solution. But neither is making voluntary instruments responsible for implementing economic, social and cultural human rights.
In order to close these human rights gaps, rules concerning so-called extraterritorial state obligations are increasingly necessary. In the end, all countries ultimately have a duty to make sure that their conduct - and that includes trade and dealings with international organizations like the World Bank - conforms to accepted human rights standards.
Experts in international law are due to meet at Maastricht University in the Netherlands this autumn to formulate principles to make sure human rights rules are applied across borders. They hope to provide a road map for human rights law that can navigate the challenges of globalization.
Michael Windfuhr is the deputy director of the German Institute for Human Rights.
Author: Michael Windfuhr / mm
Editor: Sean Sinico
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