Human Rights: Solution to, or Problem of Globalization?


Defining human rights: whose interpretation?

By Grahame Russell

Since World War Two, the international human rights community has played an important role to popularize the notion that all people have rights.  Yet, if this "international human rights community" does not broaden its analysis and advocacy work to employ an 'all rights guaranteed all actors accountable' framework, it may actually contribute to the perpetuation of poverty and social injustice on a global scale (poverty and social injustice understood as systemic and systematic violations of over-lapping political, social, civil, cultural and economic rights) and to the impunity with which a host of "state," "inter-state" and "non-state" actors act, violating the rights of individuals and peoples worldwide, particularly, but not exclusively, in the South.

Since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and subsequent Covenants in 1968,(2) and particularly since the 1970s -- and the formation of tens of thousands of solidarity and community human rights organizations worldwide --, the notion of "human rights" has made important contributions to struggles to address and remedy profound injustices, both within and between nations.

Worldwide, victims of poverty and repression -- imposed by the actions and policies of governments, inter-governmental institutions, private military forces and a range of economic actors -- refuse to accept the suffering caused by these entities.  Basing themselves in their own sense of dignity, and making allies with those who believe that all humans have inherent rights that should never be violated, they educate, organize and empower themselves to fight back.

Human rights -- both as concepts which help us to understand human beings and communities, and as a set of legal norms rooted in the rule of law -- can and should be an important tool for analyzing and remedying abuses of power, regardless of whether these abuses are committed at the local, national or international levels; regardless of whether the abuses are committed by governments, inter-governmental bodies (World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, etc), or private actors (corporations, banks, investment funds, etc).

Yet, with respect to the interpretation of human rights, there is a large gap between the work of tens of thousands of grassroots, rural and urban human rights groups, on the one hand, and the "international human rights community", on the other.  The latter is guided by a narrower notion of which rights are to be promoted, guaranteed and protected, and which actors are to be held accountable for their actions that violate the rights of individuals and communities, both in the home country of the actor and, more often, in other (primarily Southern) countries.

For the most part, inter-governmental institutions (such as the United Nations -UN- and the Organization of American States -OAS-) along with well-known NGOs (such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) have focused attention on certain political and civil rights ("PC rights"), and have argued that the only actor that can be held accountable for rights violations is the government of the particular countries in which the selected PC rights were violated.

The problems with this narrow interpretation lie not so much in the actual work that traditional human rights institutions have done.  Indeed they have established important investigative and reporting standards and their work has been extremely important in many different struggles.  Rather, the problems lie in which rights violations they have chosen to investigate and report on and in which actors they have chosen to identify as responsible for violations.

Being assassinated by a death squad, or living illegally detained in abusive conditions, are matters of human rights concern, possible legal remedy and attention from the "international community".  Being killed by malnutrition or preventable diseases, or living in conditions beneath human dignity (i.e., numerous, overlapping rights violations), are not matters of human rights concern, possible legal remedy or sustained attention from the "international community".

This is wrong and unacceptable.  Annually, more people are killed due to systemic and systematic violations of overlapping political, social and economic rights than by violations brought by wars, repressive governments and armed movements, i.e., those PC rights violations which have received most traditional attention.

Traditional human rights work has also narrowly defined which actors can or should be held accountable for rights violations.  Problems with this narrow interpretation were manifested during the 1980s, when certain human rights groups identified the Nicaraguan government as the only actor responsible for PC rights violations during the war with the "Contras."  These groups did not name the Contras and, more importantly, the United States as violators of PC rights in Nicaragua.  While the Nicaraguan government did violate certain PC rights, violations committed by the United States government, both on its own and via the Contras, were greater in number and more brutal in nature.

By focusing attention on the Nicaraguan government, the international human rights community [US State Department Human Rights Reports were particularly manipulative in this regard] contributed directly to the impunity of another major actor, the US.

The impunity of other actors is also manifest when analyzing the creation and perpetuation of what is often referred to as "poverty".  Many actors who contribute directly and indirectly to social exclusion, vulnerability and political marginalization are not categorized as potential rights violators.

Structural Adjustment Programs -SAPs-, forced on many Southern countries by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank since the early 1980s, have reduced the role of governments with respect to guaranteeing and protecting rights to health, education, housing, a healthy environment, basic work standards, etc.  At the same time, the SAPs have promoted and strengthened an economic model that has increased levels of poverty at the same time that wealth has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of minority sectors.

Recently, attention has been focused on the WTO (World Trade Organization), an inter-governmental actor that -- with the weight of northern wealthy nations behind it -- wields huge amounts of real power, impacting direct and indirectly on the rights of people worldwide. While international economic actors -- companies, banks, funds work together with the powerful governments to use the WTO to guarantee and protect "corporate rights" to engage in any type of economic activity, relatively unfettered worldwide, these same governments and economic actors are working hard to ensure that they not be held accountable -- nationally or internationally -- to established environmental and human rights standards.

In effect, these other actors act with impunity, unaccountable for their actions that threaten the basic dignity as well as survival of people throughout the world.

Vicious circle of poverty and repression Worldwide, people and communities face the daily reality that if they quietly accept exploitation and misery, their living conditions will not be a human rights issue, nor provoke any legal action in their favor. But if they struggle for social justice, if they organize and advocate for their rights, and if, as is often the case, governments and certain private actors use repression against them and their organizations, "human rights" work might kick in!

It is long overdue for solidarity and community human rights organizations worldwide to take back and appropriate "human rights".  The international human rights community should follow the lead of urban and rural grassroots groups -- North and South - that are working to see that all rights are promoted, guaranteed and protected, and that all actors -- private or governmental; local, national or international -- are held accountable for all actions that, directly or indirectly, violate rights. 


Feel free to reproduce, copy and distribute this article, citing and providing contact information for the author.

Grahame Russell, an international human rights lawyer and development expert, is director of Rights Action (formerly Guatemala Partners) based in Washington DC & Toronto, Canada. 

Tel: 416-654-2074.  

Thanks to Aaron Pollack ( for his contributions to this article.

(2) International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.  International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.


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