Civilising the global economy

03 March 2012 By Lawyers Weekly

The global economy and human rights are two of the most influential features in international relations, writes David Kinley, but as each continues to jostle for attention, the best bet for…

The global economy and human rights are two of the most influential features in international relations, writes David Kinley, but as each continues to jostle for attention, the best bet for success lies in ensuring the success of each other.

In the late 19th century, when faced with difficulties in establishing trading relations with the tiny island states of the South Pacific that were effectively self-sufficient, early German trading magnates had a neat solution. They simply created demand. They set up so-called "smoking schools" to teach the locals how to smoke tobacco and, thereby, to inculcate in them the habit. One company dispensed free pipes and tobacco and manufactured an aura that cigarette smoking was not only pleasurable, but sophisticated and a symbol of status. The ploy worked and trade began to flourish as the islanders imported tobacco products paid for by exports of copra, exotic fruits, timber, herbs and spices and phosphate.

This discomforting tale - with echoes seen in today's socialisation through mass marketing - casts light on two fundamental features of international trade and its relationship with human rights. First it shows that it is corporations and not states that do the trading, even if it is states that must construct the rules of international trade and police their observance. This guardianship role of states - individually and multilaterally (through the WTO, EU, and NAFTA) - is key to understanding how international trade laws work and what legitimate expectations might be made of such trading bodies in support of human rights.


Second, it shows that the wave of economic globalisation which swept the globe in the late 1800s and early 1900s - just as is the case with the wave that sweeps over us today - was powered by exponential advances in the technologies of production, communication, travel and trade. In both waves, mega-corporations deepened and widened their commercial empires along - and often ahead - of the lines drawn by the great economic powers of their time.

New trading routes have been opened and old ones revitalised, as the ripple of global trade leaves few countries and communities unaffected. Economies, social and religious mores, political philosophies and environmental circumstances have all been affected to some degree or other. Human rights are evidently no exception.

The phenomena of human rights and the global economy are two of the most prominent and influential features of international relations. As with Hollywood stars sharing the same scene, they jostle for attention, try to pull rank and sometimes undermine each other, all the while knowing - if they are wise - that their best prospects for individual success lie with ensuring that the other succeeds too.

Certainly, human rights and the global economy might appear at first to be a rather odd couple, destined to disagree and diverge, with one concerned with human wellbeing, the other with economic wellbeing. But the two intersect often and increasingly so in terms of their goals, their operations and their institutions. Crucial to this intersection are the twin questions of how the global economy supports and assists human rights, and how human rights instruct the global economy.

Certainly globalisation can be a "civilising" force for human rights (providing the means for individuals to live better lives), but, equally, as the Global Financial Crisis graphically illustrates, globalisation itself requires civilising through reinvestment in the processes and objects of human rights.

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Despite their necessary intimacy, their respective rationales fundamentally differ. Human rights represent more ends than means, whereas for the economy it is the other way around. At their barest minimum, human rights are the features of an individual's life lived with irreducible levels of safety, comfort, freedom, dignity and respect.

And beyond the individual, collectively, they constitute integral components of the health, order and good governance of whole communities and states, and, indeed, of the entire globe - being "the foundation" as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it, "of freedom, justice and peace in the world".

The various goals of the global economy on the other hand are not pursued for their own ends, but rather as means - almost invariably, essential means - to achieve broad social and personal ends, including the protection of human rights. Even Adam Smith (him especially) was adamant about that.

The provision of economic aid, the expansion of global trade and establishment and the development of commercially robust economics are, or can be, mechanisms for stimulating chain reactions that increase individual and aggregate wealth, alleviate poverty, promote opportunities and freedoms, and strengthen governance.

That said, clashes still occur to the predictable detriment of human rights goals. Instances of corporate human rights skulduggery (spurred as much by ignorance and carelessness, as by mendacity) are readily apparent - whether James Hardie at home, the Australian Wheat Board in Iraq, or BHP in PNG.

Many international trading rules remain inherently prejudiced against poorer states, despite their avowed intention, to ensure (in the words of the WTO) that developing countries "secure a share in the growth in international trade commensurate with the needs of their economic development". The sclerotic progress of the Doha Round of trade talks bears testimony to how hard it is to counter that prejudice.

And the inefficacy of so much economic aid is also a running sore on the hide of the global economy. To be sure, the West's $100 billion annual aid budget is inadequate for the task (and is far below that which the West has long promised to deliver), but it is as much the manner of its delivery that is the problem. Human rights "conditionality" can be counter-productive, and, in any case, is now faced with rising levels of so-called "authoritarian aid" from the likes of China and Saudi Arabia delivered to the likes of Sudan and Myanmar.

The global economy's current vulnerability provides an opportunity for its moral compass to be reset so as to place human rights at the heart of the reasons we strive so vigorously for economic growth and prosperity. Risk, and how to manage it, is all the rage. Fiscal, reputational, environmental and social risks are all intertwined.

"Whatever the problems of globalisation, they are dwarfed by the penalties of being untouched by it", the Economist rightly notes. The trick is, however, to make sure the problems are minimised and the benefits exploited. That is the responsibility of our leaders, policy-makers and regulators. And it is our challenge to make them pay heed.

David Kinley holds the inaugural chair in Human Rights Law at Sydney University

This article draws on extracts from Civilising Globalisation: Human Rights and the Global Economy, by David Kinley, published by Cambridge University Press and soon to be released in Australia. It is currently available from good online bookstores. See

Civilising the global economy
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