Globalise this: Human rights

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Amnesty International was founded more than 40 years ago. Economies have evolved rapidly in that time, political ideas too. But what about protection of human rights? 

What should globalisation mean for human rights? Clearly, human rights are central to any effort to manage the tide of globalisation to the benefit of all peoples in an equitable manner. But globalisation must not be confined to political and economic forces; it must also apply to social, cultural and civil movements. This means recognising the interdependence of all these aspects. Our clarion call should be “Globalise this – human rights!”

It may be hard to believe today that just 40 years ago two Portuguese students were sentenced to seven years in prison simply for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom. It was this incarceration that led to the foundation of Amnesty International in 1961 at the height of the Cold War. Our mandate reflected the clear divide at the time between civil and political human rights, and social, economic and cultural rights. Amnesty was clearly on the civil and political side of the divide, campaigning for the release of prisoners of conscience; fair trials for political prisoners; abolition of the death penalty and an end to torture of prisoners and political killings.

But the end of the Cold War and the spread of globalisation have broken down the division between political and civil rights and those of a social, economic and cultural nature to embrace the indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights. Gradually, human rights have assumed the centre-ground in all aspects of humanity, from development to trade; from healthcare to education; from discrimination to policing. The challenge we now face is to make the respect of human rights a reality for everyone, regardless of background or belief and to give true expression to what is meant by the universality and indivisibility of all human rights for all people.

Amnesty International is playing its part in moving away from the perception that civil and political rights are somehow more important than economic, social and cultural rights. We adopted a new mission in August 2001, completing the shift from a prisoner focus to a human rights focus. Amnesty International will now undertake research and action to end grave abuses of all human rights, including the right to integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination. During the Cold War years Amnesty International did not choose between different political systems; it held governments accountable for their human rights record, irrespective of their ideological orientation. Likewise today, Amnesty International does not choose between economic systems; it will seek to hold governments and non-state actors accountable for their record, irrespective of ideology. Some of the key elements for this new campaign are: the indivisibility of human rights; the need for accountability; and the need to address the effect of globalisation on human rights.

We cannot enjoy any of our human rights unless we can enjoy all of them. Collectively these rights are codified, universally shared, measurable and enforceable. They provide the framework within which development, democracy, and human security can be realised.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls upon “every individual and every organ of society” to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and to ensure their observance. Of course, the promotion and protection of all human rights is first and foremost the responsibility of the State. However, this responsibility is being blurred in today’s globalised society. International financial institutions, intergovernmental organisations, companies, non-state entities, private actors, and civil society, are all part of the increasingly complex governance structures of today’s world.

The confusion of responsibilities for human rights, whether in Beijing, Bamako or Boston, is complicating international accountability mechanisms, and allowing abusers to act with impunity. Over the past 40 years Amnesty International has sought to hold governments, non-government entities and non-state actors from the “private sphere” accountable for human rights abuses. The basis upon which the organisation has sought to hold these actors accountable has included the extensive framework of international treaties and regional and national standards governing human rights and, where they exist, using the mechanisms for enforcing these standards.

But it is clear that law does not govern all of the relationships that present themselves in the modern global village, not least in the realms of economic, social, and cultural rights. This is particularly true in the private sphere, in relation to companies for example. We, as members of civil society, must continue to explore new techniques and new avenues to hold all actors accountable in a legitimate way for ensuring respect of all aspects of human rights.

In our daily work at Amnesty International we report on situations involving gross, and sometimes widespread, human rights violations. Fighting against impunity and promoting the principle of universal jurisdiction are central to the work of Amnesty International. Universal jurisdiction is a tool to end impunity.

But the most powerful and potent force for human rights is the individual. When Peter Benenson founded Amnesty International as a letter-writing campaign he knew that like-minded individuals can join together to create indestructible forces of change. We know that the individual can achieve great things when faced with adversity. We must create a society that places human rights at the centre of power. Then, civil society will be able to channel concerns in an effective way: fighting for the respect of human rights for all.

For more information, contact

©OECD Observer No 231/232, May 2002 

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