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Are Your Humanitarian Heartstrings Being Tugged in the Name of Empire?

Author James Peck's new book 'Ideal Illusions' challenges our basic assumptions about the universal crusade for human rights.

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In the human rights world, though, rule-of-law rhetoric often increases as interest in social transformation wanes. The words seldom appear in the same paragraph with “redistribution.” A focus on law suggests a calmer, gentler sense of change and transformation—of rules followed, bills enacted, and bitter political and economic debates diminished. As law prevails, radical economic change recedes; in the words of one observer, “political choices fade from view—as do choices among different economic ideas about how development happens or what it implies for social, political, or economic life.”

To assert that legal formalities increase rights, an argument is required—as to how, for example, assets in the hands of a foreigner rather than a local investor will encourage growth, or how property under the control of the title holder rather than the squatter will lead to economic growth or justice. Is due process served when interpretations of law stress the rights of those with inordinate power in a society? Is clarity of law always a benefit? Max Weber’s account of the English exception—the puzzle that industrial development arrived first in the nation with the most confusing and least formal system of property law and judicial procedure—comes to mind.

Along with a focus on the rule of law, groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch also began to adopt language similar to that of national security managers and World Bank publicists on “corruption,” “good governance,” and “transparency.” For example, in 2001 the executive director of Amnesty USA declared, “When it comes to business interests, the ‘rule of law’ encompasses three things: combating corruption, providing transparent regulations for the conduct of business, and guaranteeing the fair enforcement of contracts.”The policy of privatization and liberalization was embedded in the overlapping discourses. A human rights approach, explained one report, does not seek “to shut down global trade and investment, only to invoke broadly accepted rights to define the limits within which commerce should proceed.” Moreover, added another, “far-sighted companies” were coming to understand “that the same strong judiciary and rule of law needed to protect dissidents also safeguard their own commercial interests.” They were increasingly aware that human rights problems are “bad for business,” that a “healthy civil society and democratic society are the best guarantor of the long-term stability that business needs to thrive.” “Rogue” companies might still be a problem, but “for hard headed businesspeople, the smart move is to face up to global human rights standards early and make them work by making them stick.”Human Rights Watch pointed out that companies would “want something better than a kangaroo court” to deal with business issues. Amnesty International created a “corporate responsibility project.” “The observation that human rights are actually good for business,” the leader of Amnesty USA noted, fell into the category of “startling but true.” Washington agreed.

Major foundations espoused similarly rosy visions of NGOs, corporations, and the market coming together, with “NGO’s influencing economic forces (which means private forces) for the better—working with and within corporate structures in order to bring pressure for less exploitative ways of operating.” Former NGO officials were “becoming advisers to multinational corporations (MNCs), with MNCs approaching NGOs for ‘certification,’ and campaigns for fairer trading and better terms for producer groups.” In 1998, the director of the Governance and Civil Society Unit of the Ford Foundation said, “I think the foreseeable future will be dominated by attempts to reshape capitalist processes to reduce their social and environmental costs while not killing incentives to growth.”

In all these areas, human rights organizations typically ended up once again judging specific situations, not the general organization and operation of American power. They came to accept transnational corporations, arguing that their operations could be infused with a rightsbased ethos; they insisted that the World Bank and the IMF could be turned from obstacles to indigenous democratic struggles into organizations relevant to human rights pursuits. Such institutions were criticized, often strongly, for “not factoring in human rights concerns” and for focusing on “narrow economic considerations.” What was talked about far less was whether these institutions could really adopt the changes human rights groups were advocating without altering their basic modes of operation.

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