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The Global Economy

After street protests over the past year in Seattle, Prague, Washington, and elsewhere, proponents of the global economy seem on the defensive. Globalization -- the increased international flow of trade, capital, information, and people -- has delivered undeniable wealth and opportunity and created millions of jobs. But there is widespread unease at some of the associated and parallel ills. Income inequality is growing, as are the number of people in abject poverty. The much-criticized "race to the bottom" seems to stymie certain attempts at social and economic betterment. Resource extraction -- the business of oil, minerals, and metals -- often proceeds without regard to the rights of local residents. Governments depend on migrant workers to take on less desirable jobs but frequently deny them legal protection. Trafficking in people has flourished.

Despite these problems, the current system to regulate global commerce leaves little or no room for human rights and other social values. Relevant international human rights standards exist but are not uniformly ratified, effectively enforced, or adequately integrated into the global economy.

The debate about solving these problems has been unhelpfully polarized. Advocates of unfettered trade and capital flow tend to see commerce itself as a panacea. Pointing to the immense wealth generated by the global economy, they frequently resist any governance regime that might constrain globalization by attention to other social values. More and freer commerce, in their view, is the best route to social as well as economic betterment.

But as Human Rights Watch has repeatedly found, a world integrated on commercial lines does not necessarily lead to human rights improvements. In China, increased international trade has not lessened the government's determination to snuff out any political opposition. In Sudan, oil revenue made possible by international investment has allowed the government in only two years nearly to double the defense budget for its highly abusive war. In Central Asia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, international investment in oil and gas exploration and production has only reaffirmed the new governments' resolve to cling to power at all costs while their people plunge into poverty. In Sierra Leone and Angola, international trade in diamonds has fueled deadly civil wars. The number of migrant workers and trafficking victims has grown with international commerce, yet abuses against them remain largely ignored. Experience shows that global economic integration is no substitute for a firm parallel commitment to defending human rights.

Opponents of globalization highlight the fate of the millions of people who are excluded from the benefits of the global economy or are forced to accept it on unsatisfactory terms. They argue that globalization mainly benefits the wealthy and that it aids the poor too slowly or actually contributes to their plight. Some opponents would simply shut down the process of globalization, convinced that its benefits are not worth the price. They include those who have used violence against institutions they see as supporting globalization. Others focus more constructively on reshaping the global economy to better serve social values. Many reforms have been discussed but none has gained a consensus.

Some of the firmest defenders of unfettered global commerce come from the developing countries in whose name the opponents of globalization claim to speak. Both governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in these countries fear that linking trade or investment to respect for social values, however well intentioned, will end up serving protectionist interests in the industrialized world and shutting off developing countries from the benefits of global commerce. They are particularly wary of the efforts of some activists to prescribe a "living wage" on a national basis for fear of being deprived of their principal competitive advantage -- cheap labor. They also object to efforts by the global North to enforce selected social and economic values in the global South when it serves Northern interests, while neglecting more costly obligations to help achieve other important social and economic goals such as alleviating poverty or improving health care or education.


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Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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  The Global Economy
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