Globalization And UN Human Rights System

Globalization and UN Human Rights System

Globalization has indeed become a weighted word. It can mean many things, depending on the view you want to take of it. It is interesting to note the definition of economic globalization used by John Madeley, who calls it:

“The process that forces democratic governments to become subservient to the financial power of the multinationals, promote the growth of the corporates, remove all hurdles in their relentless march towards exploitation of the poor, hungry, and the available natural resources with impunity”[1].

Although such generalizations have also faced criticism by academicians, none has ever asserted that there is no element of exploitation, abuse of power by multinationals or gross human rights violations when it comes to the economic globalization of the world. It is accepted that the benefits of globalization are very unevenly distributed. In the ‘New World Order’, transnational corporations (TNCs) and intergovernmental institutions have a bigger role to play than the states. Consider, for instance, the fact that among the world’s 100 biggest economies, only 49 are states and remaining 51 are corporations. Also, the globalised economic institutions like International Monetary Fund, World Bank and multilateral trade institutions like World Trade Organization now have dominance in international affairs.

Along with the economic globalization of the world, fortunately however, human rights law today has also been globalized. It is effectively a part of international law with institutional structure and universal application. The UNs’ Human Rights System is clear and amiable. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is exemplary due to its ‘universal’ character. Yet the earliest acknowledgment specifically of the impact of globalization on human rights was made by the then Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the report released in March 2000 titled ‘We the Peoples-The Role of the UN in the 21st Century’, which is widely known as the ‘Millennium Report’. Prepared ahead of the Millennium Summit of the UN General Assembly, the report lays out a detailed vision for the UN in the age of globalization. In Annan’s words,

“The benefits of globalization are obvious: faster growth, higher living standards, new opportunities. Yet a backlash has begun, because these benefits are so unequally distributed, and because the global market is not yet underpinned by rules based on shared social objectives.”

So how does the UN ensure that TNCs’ activities are not violative of human rights agenda set by it? One way of realizing this is by extending the role of the States which exercise sufficient control on them and have their headquarters contained within them. State obligations are not territorially defined in international human rights law (IHRL) instead, they are extended to both individuals in its territory and ‘within its jurisdiction’. Article 2(1) of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1950 includes both territory and jurisdiction. Such extraterritorial jurisdiction has given rise to many cases in which states had been held responsible for the activities of those who are not situated in its territory but are under its effective control.[2] An analogy can thus be drawn that host states must also be responsible for its corporate nationals’ activities of gross human rights violations in other countries, and failing to do so will lead to a breach of their obligations under international law.

As for the obligations that are placed on the TNCs directly, it is noted with despair that international law has always been extremely cautious in its conversations with TNCs. This approach has been widely criticized by those who put firm belief in the view that ‘with power must come responsibility and IHRL needs to focus adequately on these extremely potent international non-state actors’.[3]

UN began its mandate of dealing with the businesses with the launch of the UN ‘Global Compact’ (launched in 1999 by Kofi A. Annan, UN Secretary-General) which encouraged businesses to formulate their practices in accordance with ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption. Although there has been wide participation by corporations with the Global Compact its capacity to make companies strictly follow the principles is widely doubted and some binding legal instrument was desperately awaited. A cautious attempt in this regard was then made by the ‘Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with regard to Human Rights’ in 2003. They were presented by UN Sub Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in its Resolution 2003/16. The Norms were praised as constituting a benchmark in holding businesses accountable for their human rights violations. Simply put, although these Norms do not have any legal standing, they tend to place all the obligations on transnational corporations as is put on states in the international law – from rights of workers to security of persons, protection of the environment to right to equal opportunity.

Following the year after the Norms were adopted, John Ruggie was appointed as ‘Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) and submitted his ‘Guiding Principles’[4] (GPs) at the end of his term in 2011. The initial reading of those UN Guiding Principles may impress the reader by its formulation procedure. However, the responsibility of assurance of victim’s remedy in case of violations has almost been entirely left to the States (as usual). Such structure and reasoning have left many in ambivalence towards the usefulness of GPs. It has been contended that non-legal, non-binding regulations make corporate social responsibility (CSR) nothing more than a public relations job in response to outside pressure. [5]

Such constructive criticism has enabled the UN to engage in a process for the elaboration of an internationally legally binding instrument in this regard. In June 2014, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the Resolution 26/9 which established the UN intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights (IGWG), with a mandate to elaborate an international legally binding instrument in IHRL, to regulate the activities of TNCs and others. It is a welcoming giant leap and it is hoped that a legally binding instrument to regulate this all-important regime is not far.

Extraterritorial obligations of the state should be strictly enforced and so should the system to hold corporations directly accountable. UDHR has always been interpreted as a proclamation of ‘universal values’ and not a negotiated compromise between different wills of states or other power holders, and it should remain to be so seen.



[1] John Madeley, A People’s World: Alternatives to Economic Globalization, [2003], New York, Zed Books Lt, ISBN 1842772236, pp. 20
[2] Lopez Burgos v Uruguay HRC (Communication No. 52/79), [1981] at Para 12.3; Here State forces detained and tortured people situated in another territory.
[3] David Weissbrodt and Muria KrugerSource ‘Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights’,: The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 97, No. 4 [2003], Pg 901
[4] John Ruggie, SRSG, ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ framework, [2011] UN Doc. A/AHRC/17/31
[5]Christian Aid, “Behind the Mask: The Real Face of Corporate Social Responsibility” [2004].


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any other organization with which she might be associated.

Author: Sara Gul Abbasi

The writer is an Advocate of the High Courts, legal researcher and teacher who holds a Masters of Laws in Human Rights Law from the UK.