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A Human Rights Framework

In this divisive debate, human rights offer a promising framework to address many of the problems of globalization, including the tendency of some governments and corporations to compete by profiting from repression. Some of the most alarming by-products of globalization are clear violations of rights enshrined in international treaties. By the same token, upholding these rights provides the basis for solving many of the ills associated with globalization in a way that need not shut down global trade or benefit the world's richer countries at the expense of the poor.

Within the workplace, for example, human rights speak directly to the problems of exclusion. Factory workers often face poor wages, abysmal working conditions, sexual abuse, no social safety net, and no legal protection. Respect for freedom of association would allow workers to join together -- in trade unions should they choose -- to improve wages and working conditions. The prohibition against discrimination on such grounds as gender, race, or ethnicity ensures that historically marginalized people enjoy the fruits of their labor on the same terms as others. The prohibition of forced or abusive child labor and the ban on arbitrary violence require employers to negotiate with adult free-agents.

On a societal level, respect for civil and political rights, including the right to elect one's government, allows the disadvantaged to have a voice in the direction of their nation's social and economic development. These rights permit citizens to press their government to take on such issues as increasing the minimum wage, protecting union activists from retaliation, enforcing prohibitions on discrimination, regulating extraction industries, or ensuring that investments are made with social values in mind. They also promote the transparency and accountability in national governments and international institutions that are prerequisites to making them responsive to popular concerns.

In addition, respect for these basic freedoms helps to encourage governments of the industrialized and developing world to take seriously their obligations to uphold economic, social, and cultural rights. It allows people to urge governments to ratify the leading treaty safeguarding these rights and to adopt reasonable plans to realize these rights progressively, including in the regulation of trade and investment. It also permits popular input into the choice among alternative routes to fulfill economic and social rights, such as the amount of investment to put into education or health care, the level of restrictions to place on industries that cause environmental damage or social disruption, or the type of social welfare programs needed to temper the shock of trade liberalization and structural adjustment policies.

This emphasis on rights may not guarantee particular wage levels, working conditions, or regulatory policies. Nor does it eliminate inequalities in bargaining power or eradicate all forms of social exclusion. But by allowing an unfettered civil society to make its views heard, a rights approach permits workers and citizens to have a say in these important matters.

A rights approach also discourages the tendency of some governments and multinational corporations to gain a competitive advantage by suppressing workers' demands for better treatment or society's pursuit of such goals as a clean environment. Corporations might still seek lower production costs by moving to lower-wage or less socially demanding countries. Governments might still seek a competitive advantage by restricting taxes, wages, regulations, or social benefits. But competition through repression -- the most nefarious aspect of the "race to the bottom" -- would be significantly constrained.

A rights approach would give developing countries a legal basis to broaden discussions of trade and investment policy to include the need for reciprocal benefits and concessions from the industrialized world to facilitate the realization of economic and social rights. Such demands would have more resonance because they would be grounded in legally binding international human rights treaties rather than more malleable and selective economic theories. A rights approach would thus serve as a useful supplement to development models that are premised on market liberalization but pay insufficient attention to attendant social and economic problems.

At the same time, a rights approach should prove acceptable to proponents of "free trade." It does not seek to shut down global trade and investment, only to invoke broadly accepted rights to define the limits within which commerce should proceed. It does not raise the drawbridge against global competition, but insists that the market be grounded in respect for international human rights law.

Finally, a rights approach would help develop international solutions to problems arising from the global movement of people, such as the lack of protection for migrant workers and trafficking victims. Many industrialized countries erect barriers to legal immigration from developing countries but tacitly accept undocumented migrants, or migrants with strict legal limits on their presence, to perform undesirable work. Many developing countries also export workers, some with documentation and some without, to earn foreign exchange through remittances. Lacking legal protection, these workers have little recourse in the face of such problems as sexual abuse, dangerous working conditions, and violations of the right to organize. In addition, many governments wrongly equate the smuggling used to infiltrate undocumented migrant workers with human trafficking -- transport based on deception or coercion -- thereby denying trafficking victims the protection they need.


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Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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