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HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE GLOBAL ECONOMY / Vol. 79, No. 4 (Winter 2012)

Nehal Bhuta, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, and Miriam Ticktin, Guest Editors
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

This issue contains the proceedings of the “Human Rights and the Global Economy” conference, the twenty-fifth in the Social Research conference series.


This paper explores the role of human rights in overcoming the fragmentation of international law and international governance. It explains why the current imbalance resulting from this fragmentation, in which undertakings under trade and investment treaties tend to take priority over the duty of States to progressively realize human rights, can only be overcome by reshaping the international economic environment. The ‘Rome model’, illustrated by the reform of the global governance of food security following the global food crisis in order to ensure that sectoral policies converge towards the realization of the right to food, provides a source of inspiration for the reforms that are needed. The challenge is not to imagine utopias: it is to define how we can make progress towards achieving them.

This paper examines the implications of a legal and political discourse which frames the right to health as being mainly about access to medicines. Such a politics associated with the right to health is resulting in the provision of medicines to individuals that otherwise would have been marginalized within national health systems. However, while often empowering marginalized individuals and groups, litigation and mobilization around the right to health nevertheless facilitates access to only some medicines and for only some people. The right to health has not typically been interpreted as a general right to medicines, but rather, has had a narrower operative orientation. This has consequences on the understanding of the public commons, and the responsibilities of the state in the realm of public health. Moreover, by interpreting the right to health as the right to treatment, there is an implicit equating of health with health care. Such an orientation in effect deflects the understanding of health away from an emphasis on broader structural and contextual determinants. Health increasingly becomes about therapies and diagnostics, and not about social factors that contribute to well-being and illness. As such, much of the extant politics of the right to health might be contributing to a narrowing of the frameworks within which to address health of individuals and populations.


Since its adoption in 1986, the Declaration on the Right to Development has been mired in academic and political controversies and has had little impact. Yet it was an important innovation that takes international human rights in addressing injustices in the operations of the global economy that impinge human rights, especially in developing countries. The concept is particularly relevant to the 21st century challenges as global market integration continues to proceed. The paper argues that the failure of RTD to gain momentum is due not only to ideological capture by states but by lack of civil society mobilization. A new discourse on this right is needed for the concept to fulfill its potential in bringing human rights principles into the governance of the global economy. Such discourse should focus on three areas of global economic systems: resource flows, volatility of global markets, and asymmetrics of power in multilateral rule making.

In recent years it has often been claimed that policies such as subsidies paid to domestic producers by affluent countries and tariffs on goods produced by foreign producers in poorer countries violate important moral requirements because they do severe harm to poor people, even kill them. Such claims involve an empirical aspect—such policies are on balance very bad for the global poor—and a philosophical aspect—that the causal influence of these policies can fairly be characterized as doing severe harm and killing. In this essay, we examine the philosophical aspect of this issue. We conclude that these policies do not do harm to the poor, but rather enable harm to them, and explore the moral implications of this fact.


Climate change poses unprecedented challenges. No one knows the suitability for human life in a planet three or four degrees warmer on average. But we know climate impacts are already changing socio-ecological systems and will lead to profound changes and conflicts over resources. This paper looks at how issues concerning the injustice and human rights violations caused by climate change are transformed and manifested in legal conflicts. Law is at the center of efforts by national, local and international actors—state and non-state—to transform and develop societies. We coin the term "climate change lawfare" to theorize about how emerging rights-related issues around climate change manifest themselves in legal strategies. Climate lawfare aims to capture the diverse strategies in which rights and legal institutions figure prominently, are adopted intentionally and used strategically with the aim of helping deliver or at least catalyze social transformation in relation to climate change. This includes both legal reform strategies and diverse forms of legal activism from ‘below’. This paper develops the concept of "climate change lawfare" and constructs a typology by systematizing emerging material on climate related legal conflicts. This may in turn provide a better starting point for systematic investigations into the conditions that place rights and courts at the center of such disputes, and of the effects and impacts of various legal strategies.

The South African Constitution guarantees everyone's right to an environment that is not harmful to his/her health or well-being. Nevertheless, the Witwatersrand basin—once a site of environmental beauty—has been ravaged by 160 years of gold mining, which has resulted in severe environmental damage in the form of toxic water and air and dust pollution that has not, to date, been addressed. In this context, we sought to ascertain the extent to which objectively affected residents are sensitized to environmental issues and whether, to what extent and in what circumstances, any sensitization has developed into mobilized action. This article presents the findings of the qualitative social survey we undertook to examine these questions across four residential sites on the Witwatersrand basin.

Global environmental governance has been strongly oriented around a North-South axis, with rights and obligations following the two sides of the divide. The climate change regime, in particular, stressed different obligations for a set of developed countries—those historically responsible for the GHG emissions that cause climate change—and countries that retained a right to continue developing without addressing their own emissions. The rise of a set of large, fast-growing economies in the first decade of the twenty-first century has challenged that framework. Both academic and political discourses have been divided between those that stress the ongoing historical responsibility of developed countries to undertake climate action and financing and those who see the emerging powers as developed enough to acquire their own obligations to act.

This paper looks first at temptations and mirages: the warm nest of the nation, the dream of problem-transcending growth, and the visionless vision of overlooking the weak, ignoring the marginal, and excluding the Other; and second at the human rights agenda's vital contributions, but why it is insufficient, and at the value-added by formulating and pursuing human rights within a vision of shared human security.


The question of whether human rights principles and practices can soften the deleterious effects of capitalism is a long-standing one. Anthropologist Jane Collier (2001) recounts how sociologist Émile Durkheim, growing up in the aftermath of the failed social revolutions of 1848, was concerned with the effects of capitalism on people, which led him to search for a moral discourse that would help mediate the harmful effects of capitalist market relations, where profits were privileged over people. The papers in this section examine whether attempts to regulate global corporations by drawing on human rights laws, norms, and practices succeed in easing the harmful effects of capitalism. Gay W. Seidman is concerned with the nefarious effects on labor standards and workers rights; Chris London is most interested in the effects on—and our ability to further—human flourishing.

Over the past three decades, globalization has created new regulatory challenges. As businesses rail against "red tape" and threaten to move if labor, health, and safety codes do not become more "flexible," what are policymakers to do? When workplaces are spread around the world, what kind of new regulatory system might ensure that basic standards are met—not only to protect consumers but also workers and their communities around the world? The question is perhaps especially pressing in developing regions: in many countries, governments already find it difficult to uphold the codes that are on their books, yet a relentless chorus of international agencies and global corporations warns them that strengthening enforcement will frighten away investors, reducing employment and undermining future growth. Can regulation be redesigned to take advantage of the new possibilities as well as the new challenges—inherent in globalization? Many observers have suggested that instead of seeing globalization only in negative terms, perhaps we can turn to global trade for a new approach to regulation: if ethical consumers can choose to buy only goods produced under conditions that comply with global label standards, perhaps producers will discover an incentive compelled to treat workers better.

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads in part "Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity…." To say that this right is routinely violated, and indeed that its violation is a structural feature of the global economy, is not unusual. But saying so leads me to a question: What is it about the structure of the economy such that, despite wide recognition of the essential moral truth that humans ought to be able to live dignified lives, we find ourselves routinely unable to do much about it? I approach this question through a consideration of the move to construct alternative value chains in the global coffee economy through social, agricultural and environmental certifications, the so-called ‘cause coffees’. Emerging in time with the post-Cold War liberalization of the coffee market, cause coffee's promise to humanize the market by making transparent the social and environmental relations on which it is built. This transparency however, works in only one direction: it is producers who are made transparent, not the consumers, or even the retailers who serve the consumers. By reproducing the default relation that has always underwritten the global coffee economy, that of dominating core and subordinate periphery, coffee certification opens up a conversation about the content of market relations but it does not change those relations. I conclude though that it does serve as a place to start.


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