Rethinking Human Rights (11/00)

For too long, economic and development actors – supported by governments, and bolstered by academics and the corporate press – have claimed that there are no links between economics, human rights, and political issues. In fact, there’s no separation between commercial and financial issues, and the protection and well-being of human beings and the environment.

The recent spate of global activism has successfully challenged the reigning development model, favored by banks, corporations, mutual funds, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and World Trade Organization (WTO). But it’s also critical of an international human rights movement dominated by organizations based mainly in the North.

Human Rights Gaps

Since World War II, the human rights community has helped popularize the concept that all individuals have rights, addressing profound injustices both within and between nations. Yet, if it doesn’t broaden its analysis and advocacy, employing an "all rights guaranteed – all actors accountable" framework, it may contribute to the perpetuation of poverty and other injustices. The impunity with which many inter-state, non-state, and "other state" groups violate the rights of individuals and peoples may continue unabated.

There’s a large gap between the way tens of thousands of community groups around the world interpret human rights, and how the traditional human rights community views them. For the most part, inter-governmental institutions like the UN and Organization of American States, as well as non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), focus on certain political and civil rights. Moreover, they usually maintain that the government of a country is the only actor that can be held accountable for violations taking place there.

The problem resides not so much in the actual work of the traditional human rights community. Indeed, such groups have established significant investigative and reporting standards, and their efforts have been important in many struggles. Rather, the problem lies in which rights violations they choose to investigate and which actors they hold responsible.

Selective Focus

Assassinations by death squads, illegal detentions, and abusive conditions are certainly matters of human rights concern, open to legal remedy and worthy of international attention. But the same consideration isn’t given to death from malnutrition or preventable disease, or conditions of imposed poverty. Annually, more people are killed because of systemic violations of overlapping political, social, civil, cultural, and economic rights that create poverty than by violations brought about by wars, repressive governments, and armed movements – that is, those receiving the most attention.

In the 1980s, certain human rights groups identified the Nicaraguan government as the only party responsible for civil and political rights violations during the war with the Contras. They only belatedly named the armed opposition – and never identified the US – as sharing responsibility. While Nicaragua’s government was guilty of some violations, those committed by the US, on its own and via US-funded, trained, and armed Contras, were greater and more brutal. By focusing attention almost solely on the Sandinistas, the human rights community, often manipulated by the US State Department, contributed to the impunity of another major perpetrator.

Economic Actors

Structural Adjustment Programs, imposed by the IMF, World Bank, commercial banks, and aid programs funded by Northern governments, have delegitimized and reduced the role of governments in guaranteeing rights to health, education, housing, a healthy environment, and basic work standards. While often increasing the number of poor people, these policies have strengthened a corporate economic model – misleadingly called a "free trade" market system. In many cases, wealth has been further concentrated in the hands of small sectors.

Today, international firms, banks, investment funds, and certain governments use the WTO in hopes of protecting the "right" to engage in any type of activity, anywhere. At the same time, these governments and private interests want to ensure that they aren’t held accountable for failing to meet established environmental and human rights standards.

In a November 1999 statement, HRW said, "We welcome the deal between the US and China on WTO entry. This agreement is good for … human rights and the rule of law." HRW’s efforts to draw attention to atrocious violations of rights in China and Tibet are certainly laudable. But such statements about the free trade model are problematic. HRW directly associates the "rule of law" with the "free trade" economic system that the WTO et al defends. This position exposes its narrow definition of which rights are guaranteed and who should be held responsible.

Unfortunately, HRW misunderstands the relationship between economic development policies imposed by government and outside forces and the perpetuation of systemic inequities. It also seems to ignore the link between poverty and repression. Worldwide, communities understand that if they quietly accept poverty, exploitation, and misery, their living conditions will never be accepted as a human rights issue. But when they organize and demand accountability from those who violate their rights, repression is often the response. International human rights groups like HRW end up investigating these actions.

Entitlement and Accountability

Human rights and solidarity groups need to reclaim the broad concept of rights entitlement and accountability. Both as a concept helping us to understand one another, and as a set of ethical values and norms rooted in law, human rights can be a crucial tool for analyzing and redressing abuses – no matter what level of government or which type of institution is involved. International human rights groups should follow the lead of mobilized communities, defending the idea that all people are entitled to respect, all rights are important, and all actors should be held accountable.