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  Written by
  Jacqueline Bhaba


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Weak players in a strong market
>>Human-rights advocate Jacqueline Bhabha

Globalization and human rights are commonly portrayed as opposing forces in contemporary transnational development. Recent media attention to the dramatic protests surrounding the world trade conferences in Seattle and Prague illustrates this point. Inside the conference halls and roaming the corridors of power are representatives of government and big business debating World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO), and International Monetary Fund (IMF) policy. Outside on the streets are representatives of human-rights organizations, drawing attention to the growing list of social ills inflicted on weak players in the global marketplace. Seen in this way, globalization signifies economic liberalization, global capitalism, the quest for profit sans frontieres; human rights signifies civil society, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), labor and environmental grassroots movements, the quest for equity and justice. The opposition could not be more stark.

Such polarized images convey simplistic and schematic views of a more complex situation. Despite the growing inequalities of power and wealth, there are multiple intersections between the forces of economic globalization and human-rights bodies. Human-rights norms, based on 50 years of international treaty making, are slowly being introduced into international trade agreements to provide ethical codes. Even multinational corporations feel increasingly compelled to formulate and implement codes of conduct to address human-rights considerations in the course of their business; Nike, for example, announced on September 29 that it was terminating an agreement with a clothing supplier that had violated the company's policy against the use of child labor. This is far from the end of exploitative labor practices, but it does signal some human-rights impact on multinational corporate conduct.

Human-rights practitioners are also changing their perspectives in response to the growing scope of global activism. The Spanish extradition request against Pinochet for gross human-rights violations in Chile, the grassroots mobilization to produce the United Nations treaty banning land mines, the global women's alliance that has spearheaded the redefinition of war crimes to include violence against women, and transnational NGO networks that share expertise about negotiating with the World Bank are examples. In addition, the traditional focus of human-rights activism on state violations, such as torture or imprisonment without trial, is now supplemented by a recognition of the importance of non-state entities. The pressures exerted against Shell Oil in Nigeria, Calvin Klein clothing factories in Saipan, or Dutch child sex tour operators in Thailand all demonstrate this development.

But globalization and human rights do not simply intersect as discrete entities. Human rights can be seen as "globalization from below." As a form of transnational integration and agenda setting, this bottom-up globalization shares many features with the profit-driven globalization from above. Among the most significant is dependence on dense transnational connectivity and activity: free e-mail and cheap flights have somewhat leveled the global playing field, at least for the educated middle classes who sit on either side of the conference table. Global conferencing and transnational organizing are no longer the exclusive prerogative of the corporate or diplomatic worlds, but the stock-in-trade of globalizers however positioned. The growing influence and power of human-rights idea brokers, serving as representatives of civil society, who now find themselves at the negotiating table with governments, CEOs, and trade representatives, is noteworthy. Of course their presence is dependent upon securing elusive foundation grants or other scarce sources of support, and it does not ensure a changed outcome. Twelve hundred NGOs attended the forum at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo-yet about 1.5 million infants still die from diarrhea in India every year. But the participation of these groups in discussion is a product of the growing visibility of some of the constituencies they speak for and the acknowledgment of a changed universe of significant global actors.

Globalization from above and from below are both powerful agents of contemporary change. Both operate across borders, compressing time and space. Yet, ultimately, their power is firmly located in specific institutions, in local histories, and in their effects on distributions of resources and possibilities: the sneaker factory in Phnom Penh, the brothel in London, the Amazon forest in Brazil. That is why the division of insiders and outsiders at Seattle and Prague endures as an important symbol of what remains to be done to achieve a more just and humane global community.

Jacqueline Bhabha is director of the Human Rights Program, associate director of the Center for International Studies, associate member of the Committee on International Relations, a lecturer at the Law School, and executive director of the Globalization Project.


  DECEMBER 2000

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