Castan Centre for Human Rights Law

The Castan Centre for Human Rights Law Inaugural lecture by

Philip Alston
Professor of International Law
European University Institute, Florence

Wednesday 28 March, 2001

The topic:

Following the World Economic Forum meeting and S11 protests in Melbourne late last year and coming hard on the heels of the latest World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January this year and its parallel 0 the World Social Forum in Brazil - the subject of Professor Alston's address is highly topical. No stranger to tackling the tough issues in human rights, Professor Alston will be highlighting the current lack of human rights accountability for the actions taken by some of the most powerful institutions on earth - namely, the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, the International Monetary FUd and multinational corporations. He insists that the regulation of the global economy cannot and must not be divorced from global social problems, including human rights violations. What is needed to put that idea into practice, argues Professor Alston, is the construction of new international architecture that not only brings these world economic regulators to account, but makes them work for the good of universal human rights.

Professor Philip Alston

Professor Alston, an Australian, is one of the world's leading human rights experts. He is a prolific author and has written leading texts in the areas of international human rights law, the UN and human rights, the EU and the human rights, Bills of Rights and children's rights. He has held a number of prestigious academic posts at Harvard, Fletcher, Michigan and NYU Law Schools in the US, at the ANU and his current position of Professor of International Law at the EUI in Florence. He was also chair of the UN's Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee from 1991 to 1998; the senior consultant the preparation of the UN's Human Development Report 2000; and Director of a major UNICEF-sponsored study on the Impact of the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1990-2000.

Summary of the Speech Given

Globalisation threatens to marginalise or entirely exclude human rights considerations from the activities of precisely those actors which are assuming the greatest importance. Having struggled for decades to develop and strengthen the regime which seeks to ensure that governments respect and promote human rights we now see the diminishing importance of those governments in many of the key areas that matter. Instead the place they once occupied is increasingly being taken over by new actors '" corporations, international agencies, and others '" who consider themselves largely immune to pressures to respect human rights. Thus for example The Economist notes in an Editorial this week (Mar. 24, p.23) that the lure of trade long ago detached human rights from matters economic.

It is now time, however, to reverse these trends and to ensure that corporations, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank accept that they have human rights obligations. An essential dimension of such obligations is the ability of the international community to hold all such agencies and groups accountable for failures to respect those rights.

We must reject the emerging distinctions between the economic and social sectors. Economic actors can no longer be considered to be governed by rules which are magically immunised from human rights considerations. Governments must show as much responsiveness to international pressures relating to social matters (including human rights, labour, and environmental) as they do to such pressures in regard to economic matters.

Regulation is often considered to be a thing of the past. But in fact, while national governments and the international community are busily jettisoning regulation in relation to human rights matters, and especially social rights, an endless array of regulatory initiatives is being pushed in order to regulate favourable conditions for foreign investment, protection of intellectual property rights, to eliminate corruption, to fight against terrorism, to combat the scourge of drugs etc. It is essential that a balanced approach be developed according to which both types of regulatory initiatives are supported.

Non-governmental groups and others must seek to resolve the unproductive schizophrenic attitude which they show towards many of the key institutions in the global economy. It makes little sense to, on the one hand, portray the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO as the mortal enemies of development and to call for their dismantlement, while on the other hand calling upon them to adopt ever more intrusive policies to protect the environment, to hold governments account in relation to endless conditionalities, and to promote the conception of these agencies as the potential saviours of human rights.

The way forward consists of six steps:

1. All such agencies (WTO, IMF, World Bank, etc) and corporations must recognise the relevance of human rights to what they are doing. The terminology of human rights must no longer be avoided through the use of vague and manipulable surrogate terms such as good governance, participation, or human security.

2. Human rights proponents, and the agencies themselves, must show some modesty in the human rights role that they foresee for these actors. We must ask ourselves whether we really want the World Bank as the final arbiter of human rights?

3. The comprehensiveness of human rights must be recognised. The exclusion of economic and social rights from the equation, as the Bush Administration has now returned the US to doing, distorts the entire conception of human rights in unacceptable and counter-productive ways.

4. There must in future be less emphasis on conditionality and punishing countries for violations, while at the same time the agencies must acknowledge the possibility of disengagement with countries which are flouting human rights standards.

5. Responsibility for monitoring and promoting human rights must be seen to rest primarily at the national level, but this does not mean abdication of the responsibilities of the international community.

6. Effective accountability mechanisms need to be established within the United Nations in relation to the key actors. The UNs Global Compact initiative risks becoming counter-productive unless serious steps are taken to give it some backbone. The risk of its serving to give corporations an alibi while they continue anti-human rights practices unabated is growing.