Globalization: The Double-edged Sword

September 25, 2007

Activists struggling for human rights have always aspired to global reach, but in the last generation that reach has begun to become a reality. The growth of global action corresponds to a new era of multilayered human rights threats, from legacies of authoritarianism to democratic deficits to the contradictions of globalization itself. This new reality has begun to transform human rights activism, which must seek to defend new kinds of victims, use and foster new organizations, and make new connections between civil rights and a broad array of social conditions challenged by globalization.

In this sense, though international trade and global investment are the most widely chronicled transnational influences on Latin American development, the globalization of the political sphere is growing as well. International actors like the United Nations and Organization of American States (OAS) are attempting to move toward global—or at least regional—governance, while cross-border linkages among social movements are laying the foundations for a global civil society. Despite the region's continuing economic dependence, its international interactions are actually becoming more varied and diffuse. While some nations are simply neglected by the international community, many Latin American countries now find themselves in a wide range of relationships with outside forces as they attempt to find their way through projects of regional integration, negotiate with extra-hemispheric partners and deal with multilateral lenders. As far as human rights are concerned, this broad set of global relations has become both a threat to and a vehicle for the development of more humane political, social and economic relations.[1]

Colombia is a dramatic case in point. The struggle to control the international cocaine market—the ultimate free trade—underlies much of the ongoing political violence. Land rights conflicts between peasants and transnational corporations seeking shares of potentially lucrative oil and coffee export markets also contribute to rural violence. The Colombian military—the worst violator of human rights in the hemisphere—has long been trained and equipped by the United States, and is slated to receive a $1.3 billion aid package. On the other hand, the United States has assisted efforts to reform the Colombian judiciary. The UN has set up a special division of its Human Rights Office in Colombia, and helped found and fund a Children's Peace Movement which spearheaded nation-wide demonstrations. Dozens of international NGOs are active in Colombia, including Peace Brigades International, which offers direct accompaniment for potential victims. A group of internal refugees from the conflict has pressed for state recognition by occupying the International Red Cross, and one beleaguered indigenous group petitioned the Spanish Embassy for political asylum for the entire tribe.

So while some forms of globalization are generating new threats to human rights, other forms are creating new channels for accountability. Indeed, over the past generation, new forms of human rights enforcement, international accountability and global cooperation have gradually become institutionalized. Human rights activists have been able to achieve greater levels of success for four identifiable reasons. First, international relations have become more structured by rules while domestic rules have become more tightly bound to international standards. Second, all forms of social interaction involve greater and faster exchanges of information, some through new media. Third, citizens have founded, joined, and linked organizations across borders. And fourth, there has been a growing sophistication in both the form and content of transnational mobilization.[2] In what follows, we will discuss these four developments.

There has been a maturation of international law and institutions with respect to human rights. This means both the introduction of new rules, like the sanctions at the disposal of the International Criminal Court, and an increased willingness to use longstanding rules, such as the 1984 Torture Convention, as a basis for extradition. Furthermore, the growth of formal ties of economic interdependence among nations has inspired some human rights violators to recalculate the trade-offs of international cooperation with human rights norms, and has increased their propensity to comply.

Spain's attempt to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from Britain to face human rights charges was a "shot heard round the world" for transnational legal accountability—regardless of the shot's impact on its intended target. Pinochet was arrested in London in October 1998, following an extradition request from Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón. As Chile's new President Ricardo Lagos expressed it, "Pinochet's detention in London has shown that globalization has now expanded from economic affairs to the institutions of politics and justice. Chile enjoys the unique status of having been buffeted by both forms of global contagion—with diametrically opposite results."[3]

After numerous delays and appeals through every level of the British legal system, Britain's High Court eventually ruled that Pinochet was unfit to stand trial for health reasons. However, subsidiary rulings established important principles and precedents for transnational accountability. First, the Pinochet proceedings affirmed that Britain—and implicitly its partners in the European Union—was bound by international convention to extradite suspected torturers. Second, Spain's request contributed to the doctrine of indirect "chain-of-command" responsibility for human rights violations established after World War II at Nuremberg. Finally, Britain's courts clarified the potential culpability of former heads of state for human rights abuse.

In addition, the transnational activity catalyzed a new wave of human rights accountability within Chile. As of June 2000, Pinochet himself has been stripped of his parliamentary immunity by Chilean courts, allowing the possibility of domestic prosecution for disappearances authorized by the military regime. Following the Pinochet case, Chilean courts have partially withdrawn his regime's 1978 self-amnesty, which has resulted in the arrests of several dozen military officers to face new charges. These new charges result from the evolving legal doctrine that forced disappearance—kidnapping—is an ongoing crime not subject to statutes of limitations.

Furthermore, Spain v. Pinochet is only the best-known of a number of transnational legal proceedings for human rights accountability. Spain's Baltasar Garzón, the judge prosecuting Pinochet, has also issued arrest warrants for 98 Argentine military officers from the same era. Guatemalan Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú has brought charges in the same Spanish court against former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, leading a Guatemalan attorney to charge her with treason. Within the United States, the Alien Torts Act has been used to bring civil actions against Latin American torturers by their victims when both are resident in the United States, resulting in recent judgments against an Argentine and a Guatemalan general. And in 1999, an OAS ruling forced Honduras to acknowledge responsibility for death-squad activity and pay $2.1 million compensation to victims' families.

New forms and flows of information have also become a resource for the protection of human rights in the Americas. First, repressive or negligent states can be challenged from above and below with new, better or more widely disseminated information about their domestic human rights practices.[4] Second, intervening states can be pressured with information by their own citizens to change their behavior towards a subject state. Amnesty International, for example, using information which shows an association between certain military units slated for aid and a high prevalence of human rights abuse, has lobbied the U.S. government to reduce or suspend military aid to Colombia.

Third, transnational information campaigns can target international actors such as multinational corporations. Activists on the U.S.-Mexican border, for example, have used information appeals to groups who might have some influence on corporate behavior—including U.S. consumers, Mexican and U.S. manufacturers, the governments of both countries, and even third-country owners or sub-contractors. Labor coalitions, through press campaigns, letter-writing, tours, testimonials and documentation, have exposed oppressive working conditions and defended workers' rights to organize, winning union rights in Mexican and Nicaraguan assembly zones. In a similar vein, labor and human rights groups like Human Rights Watch publicized and reframed border assembly plants' practices of compulsory pregnancy testing of Mexican workers. As a result, several multinationals such as the Aluminum Company of America and General Electric have discontinued such practices. Transnational coalitions have also disseminated and translated information about labor rights and occupational safety to border workers, enabling them to better defend their own rights.

Reaching horizontally across borders, information flows and technology can be used to build networks and coalitions. The outstanding illustration of this phenomenon is Mexico's Zapatista guerrilla movement, which built a dense transnational support base through the "Zapatista Intergalactic Network" bulletins, dozens of Web sites, media events, international conferences and monitoring tours.[5] A new human rights organization, Derechos Human Rights, was formed on the Internet by U.S., Argentine, and Spanish activists, with Web-based networks, action campaigns, and legal services.

Finally, new information technology can become a resource for documentation by human rights defenders. Such technology is often developed in the North, and transmitted or adapted by transnational human rights advocates. In El Salvador, for example, satellite mapping of military zones was used by investigators for the UN Truth Commission to correlate abuses with command structures. Accessible video cameras have enabled indigenous peoples in isolated areas to document their own conditions and confrontations with officials. In Brazil, a U.S. anthropologist founded the Kayapo video project using equipment donated from Japan—institutionalizing this empowerment through media.

Globalization has also enabled and encouraged the formation of multiple models of organizations and alliances on a transnational level. The oldest tradition of humanitarian advocacy speaks for victims who cannot speak for themselves. A variation on this arose during the 1980s when solidarity or accompaniment was carried out by Witness For Peace and Peace Brigades International, whose members served—and continue to serve—as "unarmed bodyguards" for local populations at risk of human rights abuse. A second kind of internationalism unites people within common sectors—co-religionists, for example, or professional groups—around the activities of actors with sufficient resources to play a leading role. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists fits this model. The group monitors and protests harassment, prosecution and assassination of journalists worldwide and has recently been quite active in Colombia. Another growing form of internationalism consists of non-hierarchical coalitions of human rights organizations within Latin America itself. One of the first such coalitions was the Federation of Families of the Disappeared (FEDEFAM) founded in Argentina in the 1980s to unite national human rights organizations comprised of relatives of the disappeared.

There are also informal partnerships between northern NGOs, including those that are not traditional human rights organizations, and Latin American grassroots groups. The Amazon Alliance, for example, unites northern environmentalists with Latin American indigenous peoples' organizations. The Sierra Club, together with Amnesty International, has launched a campaign to protect environmental activists worldwide, with featured cases in Mexico and Ecuador, and a special focus on the responsibility of multinational corporations. In Mexico, anti-logging activist Rodolfo Montiel—winner of the 2000 Goldman Environmental Prize—has been declared a prisoner of conscience, and as a result of accompanying pressure, his case is being re-examined by the Mexican government. International networks often combine labor, religious and human rights groups on the Northern side. The Texas-based Coalition For Justice in the Maquiladoras, for example, includes the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, the American Friends Service Committee, Human Rights Watch and the United Auto Workers.

The campaign for the indigenous U'wa people of Colombia illustrates many of these modes of transnational alliance. The U'wa tribe, a small and isolated rainforest group, is threatened by oil drilling planned by Occidental Petroleum under a lease from the Colombian government. Initially, the U'wa threatened to commit mass suicide, in accord with their traditions, if their land was lost. But before they reached that level of desperation, they called upon global allies and set up an on-site blockade of the proposed drilling site. Humanitarian advocacy groups brought the case of the U'wa to the OAS and protested the Colombian military's abusive attempts to dislodge the blockade. Peer networks of indigenous organizations engaged in world-wide media campaigns, and sent representatives for monitoring and accompaniment. Three of these international activists were murdered in 1999 by guerrilla forces also contesting U'wa territory. Indigenous rights and environmentalist coalitions such as the Amazon Coalition and Rainforest Action Network have mobilized multinational waves of protest against Colombia and Occidental. In October 1999 alone, activists marched on Colombian consulates in 21 cities in ten countries. The U'wa's defenders overseas have picketed Occidental Petroleum and Fidelity Investments, and exposed the Gore campaign's financial ties to Occidental.

U'wa blockades in Colombia have temporarily halted oil development, while transnational legal appeals continue within and beyond the country. The U'wa case has split the Colombian government. The Indigenous Ministry has sued the state for negligence, and Congress has censured its own Environment Ministry for granting Occidental's permit without consultation. Meanwhile, U'wa leaders brought to the United States by international supporters have confronted corporate representatives in U.S. Congressional offices.

New institutions, information and organization have contributed to new forms and levels of collective mobilization. Political mobilization in the United States has increasingly focused on transnational human rights issues, many in Latin America. The December 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO), for example, in which 30,000 demonstrators disrupted the international meeting, included demands for "fair trade"—including the enforcement of basic labor rights—within the Americas. The creation of alternative "fair trade" marketing networks which offer improved labor rights and local control is a program activity of Global Exchange, one of the lead organizers of the protests. The case of the U'wa was cited by Seattle demonstrators against the WTO as an example of the dark side of globalization.

Similarly, massive April protests against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in Washington, D.C.—in which some 1,300 protesters were arrested—linked demands for social rights, relief from oppressive foreign debt and greater grassroots influence on the U.S.-dominated global institutions. In addition, the new wave of mobilization has been taken up at every subsequent meeting of the major multilateral financial institutions—both global and regional—and such institutions have been forced to respond to the demands of labor, environmental and indigenous-rights groups at a new level. In the latest episode this past June, U.S. and Canadian activists linked protests in Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario against the OAS meeting in Canada. Although the OAS is not the main vehicle for pan-American economic integration, transnational protestors against globalization have begun to contest the basic structures of inter-state governance.

Transnational human rights activism has strengthened existing opportunities, while also promoting new institutions, issues and organizations. This new layer of global support is necessary—though not yet sufficient—to address the persistence of state-sponsored repression, along with the intertwined threats to civil, social and environmental rights generated by globalization itself. Matching universal standards with global action is a key step towards protecting human rights within and across borders.

Latin America has benefited more from the globalization of human rights than any other region. Inter-American institutions, information flows and networks have grown dramatically, while broadened conceptions of rights better confront Latin American reality. At the same time, Latin America has suffered more from economic globalization than any other region. What remains to be seen is how activists across the Americas can meet this double-edged structural challenge.

Alison Brysk is Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of International Studies at University of California, Irvine. She is author of The Politics of Human Rights in Argentina (Stanford, 1994) and From Tribal Village to Global Village: Indian Rights and International Relations in Latin America (Stanford, 2000).

1. See Alison Brysk, ed., Globalization and Human Rights: Transnational Problems, Transnational Solutions? (forthcoming), based on a conference at the University of California, Irvine, January 2000.
2. See Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999) for a discussion of the use of information politics, leverage, and organization by transnational networks.
3. Ricardo Lagos and Heraldo Muñoz, "The Pinochet Dilemma," Foreign Policy, No. 114 (Spring 1999), pp. 26-39.
4. For further discussion including Latin American cases, see Thomas Risse, Steven Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink, The Power of Human Rights (London: Cambridge University Press, 1999), and Alison Brysk, "From Above and Below: Social Movements, the International System and Human Rights in Argentina," Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 26 (October 1993), pp. 259-85.
5. For details on the Kayapo and Zapatista cases, see Alison Brysk, From Tribal Village to Global Village: Indian Rights and International Relations in Latin America (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2000).

Tags: globalization, human rights, activism, transnationals, alliances

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.