One Human Family

Ethical Globalisation in Our Times

by Mary Robinson

Having finished her term as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson explains what she and her new organisation, The Ethical Globalisation Initiative, are now trying to do.
One of the things I learnt during my time in the United Nations as High Commissioner for Human Rights was that the term human rights means different things to almost everybody listening. To some it means political prisoners or freedom from torture. Some think of conflict and refugees, others think of freedom of the press, or freedom of religion. Yet others think straightaway of places like Tibet, or Burma or Cuba. I think of these lines of the poet W.H. Auden

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same,
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help. . .

There is far too little sense that we are all in this together. Failure to establish shared values and ethical standards in national and international decision-making is at the heart of the divides and controversy surrounding globalisation. Although global markets, transportation and communication increasingly connect us, we are increasingly divided between rich and poor, North and South, religious and secular, them and us. For many people globalisation has come to mean greater vulnerability to unfamiliar and unpredictable forces that can bring on economic and social dislocation.

A week ago on 10 December, we marked international human rights day - the day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 — fifty five years ago. The Universal Declaration, the first - and to this day - the most influential international rights statement, affirms that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." To that I would add sisterhood. It is interesting to note that 'dignity' comes before 'rights'. Personal dignity and worth is vital to people worldwide, and is linked to respect for human rights.

The fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration occurred while I was serving in the UN, and I took the opportunity to emphasise that it is not a Western human rights agenda, but a truly universal one. It is an agenda that puts equal emphasis on civil and political rights: fair trial, freedom from torture, freedom of the press, and on economic, social and cultural rights: the right to food, to safe water, to health, to education, to shelter. Having a balanced approach and emphasising both sets of rights strikes a chord particularly with developing countries.

Take a country like China which has made great strides in providing access to food, in improving education and the health of the population. To ignore what that represents is to lose the audience when talking about civil and political rights. The Universal Declaration speaks to the heart and soul of every person on the planet; it inspires and can bring out the best in us all. But for most people, it remains a light on a distant hill...

When I became High Commissioner, the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, gave me and my office a new task which was to mainstream human rights throughout the UN system. You might ask why it was thought necessary. Were not the Charter and the Universal Declaration core to the UN and its mission? In fact, human rights were not part of key programmes such as peacekeeping, or development.

During my five years there I saw how important integrating human rights could be. When you bring human rights principles into peacekeeping then you have a different approach to ending conflict and to building up new societies. When you have a human rights based approach to development you don't talk about needs to water, food, health and education, you talk about rights, and you talk about participation of people and accountability of governments.

Given the broad mandate of my office it was also important to identify priorities. An overall priority was to try to be close to the victims of human rights violations. I needed to try and see things from their perspective and if possible either be their voice, or help them to have their voice heard. During the five years I visited more than 80 countries, some several times and saw what it means to be a civilian caught up in conflict. Civilians are not just collateral victims of war — today they can be instruments of war: starved, murdered, terrorized, and raped.

In Sierra Leone I saw children with an arm or a leg hacked off by other children, child soldiers. I listened to accounts of children being abducted by rebels and sent to training centres or directly to the battlefront. Children were forced to attack their own villages and families and commit the most horrendous atrocities. These children had been forced to give violent expression to the hatred of adults. Many child soldiers were killed, others were maimed and psychologically scarred for life. I watched an old man try to shave with two hooks because his hands had been cut off. I saw pregnant women with two or three children already at their side, without one leg, perhaps, or a hand.

What happened in East Timor is a graphic example of the plight of civilians in conflict situations. After the terrible conflict there, at a time when the people were bravely voting for their independence under UN guardianship, they were attacked and suffered terribly - some were killed, others were raped, brutalised or displaced into West Timor. On one occasion in East Timor I visited the village of Suai and met a number of widows there. One of the widows handed me a little baby saying 'This baby's name is Maria'. I asked her why she had handed me the baby and she said 'Your name is Mary. I want you to hug my child. She's a child of terrible rape and I have learnt to love her.' And that is the reality for a lot of women in conflict situations - to be raped, to be assaulted, to find themselves pregnant through rape, to have to cope with all that as well as frightening displacement.

As I visited scenes of terrible violations of human rights I was also visiting areas where people were extremely poor. I learnt what it means to say 'absolute poverty'. You bury your children young, you worry every day where the next meal will come from. If a child is sick there is no doctor, no medicines. So when journalists would ask me 'High Commissioner what is the worst problem in human rights?' I would reply - absolute poverty.

This then became an important part of my thinking of how to move forward after my term at the UN, how I might bring the experience of human rights into tackling poverty. In the context of globalisation I reflected on how much things had changed so early in this century. The twenty first century began well for human rights. It began with a gathering in September 2000 of the largest number of Presidents, Prime Ministers and Ministers of Government the world had ever assembled. Together they adopted the Millennium Declaration which was a commitment to addressing the divides in our world. The Millennium Declaration set specific development goals with timelines — goals such as:

• halving those in extreme poverty by 2015,
• providing full access to primary education for all children, boys and girls, by 2015.

Other goals were to:
• bring down infant mortality and maternal mortality
• tackle HIV and Aids.

In the Millennium Declaration world leaders said: "It is our priority to make globalisation work for all the world's people".

Alas we all know how far we are from living up to the Universal Declaration's words. Much of the human rights story for 2003 has been bleak. Leading experts and activists fear that the human rights movement is under attack and faces an historical reversal that may force the whole enterprise into retreat. They fear the erosion of civil liberties and a lowering of respect for international human rights values after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the US. Looking at the targets of the Millennium Development Goals, we see even more starkly how fundamental rights remain unfulfilled on a massive scale:

• 6.3 million children die each year of hunger. That is more than the population of Ireland.
• More than 30,000 children die of preventable diseases every day.
• Over 120 million children will never go to school, and the majority of them are girls.
• Women are still the poorest of the world's poor - eight hundred million of them are surviving on less than a euro a day.
• A thousand million people do not have access to clean water supplies and 2.4 billion people lack basic sanitation

The UN Human Development Report 2003 launched jointly in Ireland and Mozambique last July points out that during the 1990's some fifty four countries got poorer, and in a number of countries child mortality rose. Life expectancy fell dramatically in Sub-Saharan Africa - primarily because of the Aids pandemic. In Botswana life expectancy has gone down from the age of 70 to about 41. By 2010 in most of sub-Saharan Africa the life expectancy for those born will be in the late 30's.

I believe human rights have become the world's common benchmark for justice - but they have yet to become our common framework for action. Let me put the question squarely: Can we honestly say that in most countries, developed and developing alike, international rights commitments are fully understood and accepted or that the resources necessary to ensure their realisation have been marshalled?

We need to ask ourselves, why is there still such a gap between aspirations and actions? In seeking the answer, we must consider first the role of the state in today's world. The human rights approach has historically addressed nation states. It has assumed that states have a shared understanding of expectations and performance, are accountable and are capable of reform.

Clearly, bad performance on the part of some governments continues to be caused by lack of respect for the rule of law, by corruption and by repressive measures that prevent accountable governance. I found two overarching trends.

The first was a genuine willingness on the part of some governments to make good on their human rights commitments, but a lack of capacity to make meaningful changes in their own national protection systems. By those systems I mean the entire institutional arrangements that function under the national, constitutional and legal order to ensure that human rights are advanced, enjoyed and defended. Human rights cannot be realised in the absence of effective and accountable institutions. Where courts are corrupt, over-burdened and inefficient, basic civil rights will be violated. Where social ministries are under-resourced, disempowered or lack qualified staff, basic rights to adequate health care, education and housing will remain unfulfilled.

The second trend I found was that issues of accountability and good governance had become more complex due to globalisation. While few would question that the primary responsibility for protecting human rights remains with national governments, there is increasing recognition that if human rights are to be implemented effectively, it is also essential to ensure that obligations fall where power is exercised, whether it is in the local village, the corporate board room or the international meeting rooms of the WTO, the World Bank or the IMF.

In significant ways, power has shifted from the public to the private, from national governments to multinational corporations and international organisations. The top 200 companies today represent a quarter of the world's GDP. International institutions influence economic and social policy in many countries as never before. People increasingly perceive their respective national governments to be unwilling or unable to stand up to or influence their political and economic conditions. The result is gaps in accountability for human rights protection and an absence of transparency and broad public participation in critical policy decisions.

In my view, this can only be addressed through a human rights-based approach to development. This requires a shift to recognising people in need as individuals with rights, with valid claims, rather than as objects of care, benevolence and charity. Such a shift in our thinking clearly requires a significant change in attitude and practices among governments and development agencies. The need for such a change is becoming obvious, particularly with the increased commitment to engage people themselves as agents for their own development.

Having completed my mandate as High Commissioner in September 2002, the first thing I did was take a two-week holiday with my husband Nick or I would have been divorced! We then went to New York and I began work on a new project with a small number of highly committed colleagues. We had been given thinking time by some foundations to work out how to bring human rights into trade and development and other issues of globalisation. And so the Ethical Globalisation Initiative was born, and fortunate to be supported by three partners -the Aspen Institute, Columbia University, and the International Council on Human Rights Policy in Geneva. We used this valuable thinking time to consult widely and talk to a lot of people: NGOs dealing in the front line with issues of poverty, with child rights, women's rights, with discrimination. We talked to a range of thoughtful and influential people who became part of our advisory group. During that year of thinking time I took on two new responsibilities - as Honorary President of Oxfam and as Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders — a group of thirty-two former or current Presidents or Prime Ministers who are women.

When we examine economic globalisation we see that despite the fact that there is free movement of goods, services and capital, there are undue barriers to the free movement of people. These barriers have been getting worse since the terrible attacks in the United States of 9/11. The result is that people cannot move to where there are jobs and increasingly criminal gangs are smuggling people, trafficking women and children in particular, sometimes for work, sometimes for sex work purposes. The dimensions of this are enormous and growing; it is the dark side of globalisation. It is a key challenge to integrate human rights into migration policies. So in selecting the issues and advocating for a more values led globalisation, our point is that you don't need to go back to the drawing board and invent new values, those values are accepted by the states already.

The starting point of the Ethical Globalisation Initiative is the reality that globalisation doesn't work for all the world's people. We have embarked on a new approach, taking human rights outside their traditional home and applying them to other fields. Vartan Gregorian has said 'there is a universal language emerging among the peoples of the world: it is the language of knowledge and of understanding' - and to that I would add - it is a rights based language of knowledge and understanding.

Globalisation is an enormous and vague idea and process. Despite, as I said earlier, being increasingly connected by global markets, transportation and communication, we are divided between rich and poor, North and South, religious and secular, them and us. For many people globalisation has come to mean greater vulnerability to unfamiliar and unpredictable forces that can bring on economic and social dislocation. So we decided that we would focus on three areas and try to make an impact over the next few years. These are:

• a human rights analysis of trade and development,
• a human rights analysis and approach to migration
• a right to health, meaning a right to drugs and treatment, particularly in the context of HIV and Aids.

In looking at trade we are focusing initially on the role of the World Trade Organisation which has a hundred and forty eight members - encompassing both developed and developing countries. We noted an important meeting in Doha called the Trade Development Round. At that meeting the rich countries of the EU and the United
States promised that they would address the agricultural subsidies that they provide for their own farmers. They also undertook to investigate the barriers to poorer farmers from developing countries being able to sell their products in the EU or the US. A third undertaking was to examine the trade situation with regard to textiles.

Not being an economist I have been on a steep learning curve during this early stage. I benefited from the work that Oxfam, as a development agency, has been doing, and their critical analysis of the imbalances and unfairness of world trade. I draw on their expertise - for instance at the meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Cancun, Mexico in September. There were about thirty Oxfam people there who were linking with developing countries, and with other NGOs. Each morning we would have strategy meetings at which I got intelligence of exactly what was happening at the WTO meeting, the fact that it is not a transparent and fair process, but rather a process where the stronger, more influential countries have an inside track and exert that influence.

Cancun was also interesting because for the first time developing countries joined together in a group of twenty one led by countries like Brazil, India, South Africa and China saying "we are not going to be pushed around any more." There was also a wider grouping of the really weaker developing countries, many of them African.

The failure to reach agreement in Cancun was a disappointment. It is in the interests of poorer countries to have rules that help them and in particular that result in the lifting of agricultural subsidies and the removal of tariffs. That is an issue that is going to have deep significance for Ireland. There is a paradox here. Ireland is admired internationally for having a very progressive approach to development aid. We are one of the very few countries that is seeking to reach the target of 0.7. %. At the moment we are at 0.41 % which is very good. But the other side of the coin is that the agricultural subsidies here in Ireland are in fact penalising poorer developing countries. There must be ways of supporting small farmers in Ireland that wouldn't be distorting of trade.

The second issue migration is one that should evoke a sympathetic response from Irish people. Looking at our history over the years, particularly at the time of the great famine, those who were able to leave Ireland were mainly economic migrants. Today economic migrants are the ones that are being stopped at the borders of a fortress Europe, and elsewhere in the developed world. A key challenge is the integration of human rights into migration policies. About 175 million people today live outside their countries of birth. Of those, 16 million are refugees, most of whom have left because of conflict and persecution. Our challenge is to provide effective protection for the human rights of this migrant community. And we must ensure that people who have been trafficked are viewed as victims, not offenders.

Refugees and asylum seekers have an even more difficult time since 9/11. In seeking to bring a human rights analysis to the whole issue of migration flows we must ask hard questions:

• What have we learnt?
• What is the impact on people ?
• What is the existing international law?

We will focus particularly on the problems of trafficking and smuggling, and the problems of undocumented migrants. A new independent Commission on Migration is being established and we will aim to influence their work to ensure that it has a focus on the rights of migrants - because even undocumented migrants have human rights.

The third issue is to begin from a right to health and to insist on access to drugs and treatment and to preventive information in the context of HIV and Aids. In particular our focus is Sub-Saharan Africa. The figures are catastrophic. Worldwide there are some 42 million people who are HIV Positive or have full blown Aids. 29 million live in Sub Saharan Africa, 58% of them are women or girls. Of that 29 million about 70,000 - a tiny fraction - has access to drugs and treatment. We are standing by, condemning millions to die prematurely.

Already there are 11 million Aids orphans in Africa and by 2010 it is going to be 25 million. These are children who won't ever have a normal childhood. I have met grandmothers trying to care for 19 children of different ages. No person, no superwoman could cope with that. It is true that children are better off in a family context but we need to be innovative. We need to have new ways of housing, new supports, a whole new approach.

In our project we will bring a human rights and gender perspective, whilst others bring expertise from a medical perspective. During 2004 we will co-organize two conferences encouraging African parliamentarians and women's leadership to focus on access to drugs and treatment, and on the issue of aids orphans. Already we have witnessed women's groups bonding together, becoming actors for change in their society.

I think in particular of Cambodia, where there has been appalling trafficking of women and children. I visited a Cambodian run organisation that was doing sterling work in rehabilitating young girls aged between nine and fifteen years who had either been forced or trapped into prostitution. They were being nurtured and trained in crafts. I sat on the ground with a group of young girls making paper flowers as a form of therapy. Then the awful truth dawned - each of them was HIV positive, and I realised that they would all be dead within about five years.

As well as looking at access to treatment, it is extremely important to tackle issues of prevention to show that a human rights approach works. It has worked in countries like Uganda, precisely because there has been leadership from President Museveni and his wife. In Senegal, there is no stigma towards Aids and if you come forward for testing you get treatment.

Ultimately we must all tackle the terrible over-arching human rights problem of poverty. To tackle it not for people in Africa, but with people in Africa - and to come in in support of their priorities. Our chief goal must be to listen to those on the margins. That is what ethical globalisation is all about. It is listening to those who live in poverty, live on the margins, for whom globalisation is only a threat something that has never benefited them, something that is making their lives worse. The mission for all of us, our challenge, is to turn that right around.

It is interesting to speak on radio about human rights because radio is such a powerful medium. I have seen examples of the power of radio used for evil as a terrible tool for spreading hate. In Rwanda radio was used first of all to prompt the Hutus to hate the Tutsis and later it was used to urge them to go out with their machetes and guns and kill as many Tutsis and moderate Hutus as possible. In a matter of a few short weeks some 800,000 perhaps 1 million were slaughtered whilst the rest fled. Just recently, setting a new precedent, an international tribunal for Rwanda found three journalists guilty of genocide for their work for a newspaper and a radio station in whipping up anti-Tutsi fervour, sending two journalists to prison for life and the third for 27 years.

Radio can also be very positive. It can reach places where no television can. And it can and must be used as a way of communicating the human rights message. People listen differently and more intently to radio than they listen when watching television. You all know the story of the young boy who preferred radio because the pictures were better. Radio can also be a way of inspiring listeners to think about what they themselves can do to make a difference, and we need to remember that everyone can make a difference.

Indeed, Article 29 of the Universal Declaration reminds us that: Everyone has duties to the community. I heard recently - by coincidence on radio - about an initiative promoting 'Principles of Responsibility" as an interfaith project, led by Archbishop Tutu, Prince Hassan of Jordan, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and others. Their objective to 'unite to promote individual and collective action to build a more just and more equitable world' is the kind of action by individuals that we need. So even if the human rights picture looks bleak at the moment, the message is that each of us can make a difference.

I finish with Vaclav Havel's optimistic words from 'The Power of the Powerless'

'For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?' Thank you.

Author: Mary Robinson is an Irish woman who has been a law professor, the elected President of Ireland, and the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights. She now runs her own organisation The Ethical Globalization Initiative based in New York.

Source: This was the first Michael Littleton Memorial Lecture, broadcast on Radio One, RTE. Mary introduced her lecture by saying: "Although a very modest and unassuming man to meet, Michael had a wide-ranging impact on the development of Radio 1. He could also be very persuasive. And I was glad to have been persuaded to give one of the Thomas Davis Lectures he organised as it gave me an insight into how committed Michael was to equality, social justice and human rights."
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