Globalisation and human rights

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Interview with Irene Khan, Secretary-General, Amnesty International.

Bangladesh-born Irene Khan, Secretary-General of Amnesty International since August 2001, brings a unique triple combine of attributes to the job. She is the first woman, first Asian and first Muslim to assume the top job in the international human rights body. Once the head of U.N. refugee operations in India, Irene Khan was in Mumbai to attend the World Social Forum and spoke to Sukumar Muralidharan about the human rights agenda in the context of globalisation. Excerpts:

How do you view the WSF and what special interest does Amnesty have in this event?

It is an opportunity for social activists from around the world to get together, to learn from each other, to mobilise on key global issues. I think the forum is very important at this particular time, because of the global agenda that is being set by the superpower - the United States and its allies - around the issue of war. An agenda is being set around national security. And what is happening at the WSF is that people are coming together to talk about the real sources of insecurity of people, which has less to do with the military agenda and much more to do with the social and economic agenda. Amnesty's objective at the WSF is to learn from others, to share with them the message of human rights that we have, because we believe that human rights can make a very important contribution to the social agenda.

Amnesty has traditionally been more focussed on political rights rather than social and economic entitlements in modern societies. Are you moving towards operating at the interface between all these kinds of entitlements?

Well, it is true that, historically, Amnesty worked on political and civil rights, but over a number of years now, we have been shifting towards looking at human rights in a much more comprehensive manner. I think the agenda of economic globalisation as well as the agenda of global security and war have made that even more important, because when we talk of the security of people, we talk about a whole range of rights and the relationship between those rights. So the right to a fair trial is as important as the right to education, or health or employment. These are to be seen as one integrated whole. Peoples' lives, a woman's life - if she is facing violence - this could well be because she has no access to the courts, and the laws discriminate against her. But it could also be she is strapped in poverty. We need to look at the whole issue.

Would it be a fair characterisation that Amnesty is focussed on a defensive agenda of human rights protection rather than an expansive agenda? You document abuses with great diligence but are you equally attentive when it comes to expanding the reach of the human rights discourse, so that other kinds of entitlements would follow?

Well, I would say that Amnesty's agenda has always been a proactive one. We have put issues on the agenda that did not exist there. Amnesty was the first organisation to put the issue of torture on the agenda in the 1970s. We have put the implementation of human rights and the ending of impunity on the agenda. We have worked for and helped to create the International Criminal Court, for example. So we are not simply exposing problems, but as a campaigning organisation, working actively for change. Our next campaign will be to stop violence against women and here we will be working with movements around the world to put forward proactively the responsibility of governments, community leaders, religious leaders and others, to stop violence against women.

But could you deal, for example, with the economic disenfranchisement of several groups and communities in the process of globalisation? We are talking about a gradual erosion of rights that does not have the effect of spectacle, but is nonetheless a serious problem.

Torture was a historical example that I used, but I think what is happening today is that very large numbers of people are being excluded from access to justice. And justice is not just legal justice but social justice, and underlying social justice are fundamental economic and social rights. Amnesty has historically fought for justice and it is only natural that our concept of justice should evolve over time to include social justice for all. In that sense, we are opening up to the issue of marginalisation. It is not an issue of adding new rights to the agenda. The rights are all there, but it is an issue of making those rights work for people.

How do you see the process of globalisation itself impinging on human rights and other aspects of your agenda?

Globalisation has brought benefits to some, but very large numbers of people seem to be excluded. For instance, I was in Mexico in August to look at the situation of women who work in the assembly plants for American companies. And the increasing violence against these women has been totally ignored. We see that in the case of women textile workers. Free trade tends not to be very fair for very large numbers of people in the developing world. So globalisation is having very serious implications. Some of it is good, but large parts of it need to be addressed, because it is pushing back the human rights agenda.

It is now clear that the informal economy has been expanding very rapidly all through the decade or more of globalisation. And the informal sector by definition is where modern institutions do not reach and the protections of law are not available. Does this mean that we in the developing countries have to get used to an idiom of sacrificing political rights today to gain in economic prosperity? Are we facing a binary choice between poverty with human rights and prosperity under a police regime?

I don't see there is any inherent inconsistency there. In fact, human rights is probably a tool to address poverty, because it does empower people and brings in the notion of accountability of actors - whether they are governments or otherwise. And what has been happening is that there has been a disconnect between the economic debate on the one hand and the human rights discourse on the other. Now one of the issues that we are pushing in the context of globalisation is greater corporate accountability. It is not that companies were not subject to laws - they were within their national context. But companies are now working across borders. Secondly, state powers are getting weaker and economic actors are getting stronger. And yet there is no system which is addressing the issue of corporate accountability. Now one of the things we are launching at the WSF is a document on business laws. What we are saying is that new tools have to be devised to fill the gaps that globalisation has created for accountability on human rights.

The notion of growth without human rights is very similar to the notion that you get greater security by setting back human rights, which is the American agenda now around the world - that the war on terror means that you have more security and less rights. What we see in fact is that security does not come when you erode human rights. In the same way, prosperity does not come either. The question is prosperity for whom? What we see is a global economic agenda which is ignoring human rights, bringing prosperity for a few at the expense of many.

For instance, one of the agendas we are looking at is privatisation and how privatisation of utilities and basic services can affect human rights. We are not saying don't privatise. What we are saying is that you should put in place certain safeguards to protect the most vulnerable sections. We are not rejecting one model for another. We are saying you must inject human rights into whatever model you follow.

But enforcement would still have to be in the hands of the state.

The state remains a key actor. The state retains the primary responsibility, but we must not ignore the responsibility of other actors and we must give the state the tools and the means to enforce law against, for example, big business or multinationals. On the other side of course, there is a very strong coalition of big business and governments joining hands to resist human rights demands. And that is where the mobilisation of social movements that is taking place here in Mumbai is so important. We have to build awareness on these issues. And the real situation on the ground is so compelling when you look at poverty not as statistics but as the life stories of people. Yes, there will be many arguments among economists over the figures of absolute poverty - whether they are going up or down. But when you look at specific situations in countries, and you see that disparity is creating violence, instability - that is not good for business either.

There is a perception that globalisation in a sense by breaking down borders, has opened up countries to global scrutiny through the increasing reach of the media. But at the same time, the ground-level situation is not changing in a manner that will enable them to stand up to this scrutiny. They would be found wanting on human rights criteria, but they don't have the kind of international aid and trade environment that would enable them to enforce minimal human rights standards. There is, in other words, none of the required accountability enforced upon developed countries.

I think there has been an opening up of national scrutiny. There has also been a questioning of international accountability and I think the trade debate is opening that up very clearly - that there is a bigger issue here of how the international community and the governments react on the international stage. It is not going to be easy though. What past experience has shown is that simply giving economic resources to governments is not going to improve the human rights situation. Now, on the issue of the media I would like to say that it is true that the media is opening up, technology has helped the media to make more progress. But while the avenues for the media have opened up, the ownership of the media is becoming more concentrated. And you have been seeing media powers that have been emerging that are, in the same way as big business, controlling the message.

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