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Civilizing Globalization: Human Rights and the Global Economy

By David Kinley, Devin T. Stewart | October 6, 2009

Policy Innovations interviews human rights expert David Kinley on his new book Civilising Globalisation: Human Rights and the Global Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Kinley explains his strategy for "principled engagement" with problematic states, a middle ground between the orthodoxies of ostracism and engagement.

Q: David, in your book you argue that human rights and the global economy depend upon one another. What do you mean by that and how is globalization "a civilizing force"?

The generation of economic wealth is a vehicle, not the destination. Even Adam Smith was clear about that (indeed, he especially). The betterment of the human condition—our health, welfare, freedoms, and security—are the ends to which the economy is put to work. I argue that it is imperative for human rights advocates to recognize the centrality of the economy to achieving their goals, and for the agents of the economy to recognize that without such goals their enterprise is stripped of legitimacy. Too often neither camp makes the necessary connection.

Economic globalization has helped to lift millions of people out of abject poverty. It has helped to provide people with jobs, health care, housing, and education, as well as giving them voice, knowledge, and greater self-respect. In these respects it is a civilizing force. However, these benign effects have neither been universal nor uniform. And there are also casualties of globalization where its impact has been ineffective or negative—thus for every South Korea or Brazil, there is a Myanmar or Zimbabwe. The challenge in recognizing globalization as an instrument is to use it in ways that extend its beneficence and curtail its savagery. In other words, to civilize it.

Q: How do you see the actions of businesses, finance, and industrialists impacting human rights and vice versa?

These are the heavy-lifters of the global economy. They spearhead commercial enterprise and international trade, and play an increasingly important role in overseas aid and development through public-private partnerships and other associations with state-funded aid organizations. In their exploitation of natural resources, engagement of labor, investment of capital, and transfer of technology and know-how, business is encouraged within, and welcomed from without, almost all countries. In the developing world, states and their citizens alike want to fill up their coffers and bolster their chances of leading a good life, or at least one worth living. But such activities also have the potential, and too often the reality, to spoil the environment, to exploit and degrade workers, to endanger the health and security of communities, and to corrupt government, whether directly or hand-in-hand with malevolent state authorities.

The language and to some extent the practice of human rights has, however, begun to permeate beneath the surface of businesses and financiers. Especially among businesses with high profiles and reputations to lose, human rights are accepted as relevant to their activities to some extent. They talk of them as part of corporate social responsibility, and as an element in the so-called social license to operate. In the soft-law world of voluntary codes of practice and conduct there are now many that refer (albeit usually very briefly) to human rights responsibilities or goals. And there are a slew of hard-law obligations imposed on corporations to respect human rights at home and, to a limited but much scrutinized extent, in their operations overseas.

Q: What are the policy implications for governments, businesses, and international organizations?

One of the biggest challenges at present, as economies in the West begin to see light at the end of the tunnel of the economic crisis, is to quell the apparent trend (within the financial sector in particular) to fall back into the groove of business as usual. The moral hazard that governments created by stepping in to save so many financial institutions has fueled this trend and so made the task that much harder. But it is, fundamentally, up to governments to provide the new policy directions and regulatory frameworks within which economic actors are to work in future. Regarding human rights concerns in particular, such reforms include:

  1. Matching the enormous power wielded by multinational corporations with their responsibilities to ensure that they do not violate human rights, whether by design or by neglect. This includes making corporations liable for their complicity in human rights abuses perpetrated by their business partners, whether they are brutal governments or bad companies.
  2. Ensuring that trade organizations like the WTO meet their expressly declared aims to help the poor, assist workers, and protect the environment. The rich states that effectively set the rules for international trade have lost sight of these ends as they focus on protecting vested interests.
  3. Getting serious about achieving the Millennium Development Goals by the target date of 2015 by increasing the levels of overseas aid and "fixing the plumbing" (to use Jeffrey Sachs's term) of economic development institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, as well as national aid agencies, through which the aid budgets flow.

Q: Given your research, how would you recommend governments effectively deal with authoritarian states?

Questions of how human rights and the global economy intersect are nearly always answered through the medium of the states in which business, trade, or aid is being done. And when those states are themselves guilty of promoting or permitting human rights abuses the picture becomes especially murky.

This was one of the reasons why Morten Pedersen (of the Australian National University and formerly of the International Crisis Group) and I started working on something we have dubbed "principled engagement" with problematic states. This is a third way—a sort of middle ground—in between the orthodoxies of ostracism and engagement. The project is dedicated to devising the alternative theoretical justifications for, and practical means of, dealing with pariah, dysfunctional, or dangerous States.

Borne of our own experiences working in and with such states in Asia and drawing from the wealth of experiences of many others working all over the world, we hold that the debates over how to promote human rights in authoritarian states have become stale—pitting those who favor ostracism through shaming and sanctions against those who believe in opening up countries through normal engagement in political and economic relations. Worse than that, we see that neither of these approaches has been particularly successful, especially when it comes to the most abusive regimes on the periphery of the global political and economic systems. Moreover, both approaches often have substantial perverse effects for the human rights of the general population in target countries.

Unlike ostracism, principled engagement relies on largely non-coercive means. Yet unlike normal engagement, it does not sweep the problems under the rug, but instead works proactively with governments and societies to expose the weaknesses of existing systems, promote alternative policies, and strengthen domestic forces for change. Indeed, while both ostracism and normal engagement essentially ignores the powers-that-be, principled engagement directly engages those responsible for the human rights situation, as well as broader groups in society, to address concrete problems and improve the practical framework for human rights protection.

The United Nations University in Tokyo is the principal sponsor of the project, the results of which will be published in a series of publications near the end of 2010.

Q: Are you optimistic that your ideas can be implemented by governments and other actors?

For me, one of the most important lessons learned from viewing the economy through the lens of human rights over the past ten years has been that while the latter may often occupy the moral high ground, it is the former that most has the attention of governments. The machinations during and following the global financial crisis are further evidence of how true that is. Along with my message to human rights advocates that we must take the economy very seriously is also a declaration that we must appreciate fully the implications of this important piece of Realpolitik. Unless we are acutely aware of the need to ally the goals of economic wealth creation and human rights protections, then human rights will nearly always be relegated beneath economic interests—unpalatable though that fact may be.

So my answer to the question is that if the sorts of recommendations I and others make about civilizing the economy are to have meaningful impact we must "box clever" in pushing them forward. At moments such as the present, when the free market is somewhat chastened, we must urge our leaders to be bolder in their regulatory prescriptions, and to do so by marketing such action as beneficial for the global economy and local communities. We must stress the fundamental importance of alleviating poverty and preventing human rights abuses not just as moral imperatives, but also as sure-fire means by which to enhance global peace and security.

Above all, we must take up the challenge implicit in John Maynard Keynes's lament on the "astounding belief" of capitalism, "that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone," by insisting, no matter what wickedness, ignorance, and carelessness stands in the way, that the economy is made to serve the good of society, not the other way around.

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Read More: Aid, Business, Development, Economy, Finance, Globalization, Governance, Human Rights, Trade, Global

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