Chapter 6: Globalization; A Human Rights Perspective

Globalization and Human Solidarity
by Tissa Balasuriya

Chapter 6: Globalization; A Human Rights Perspective

The situation of human right has improved in general in the modem world compared to previous centuries. Slavery has been abolished. Democratic forms of government are in place in most countries of the world. The rights of women and children are better recognized and safeguarded than in earlier times. Freedom of expression and freedom of religious belief and worship are considered universal human rights. The constitutions and legal systems of many countries recognize human rights and provide for their enforcement.

All these are advances of the human race during recent centuries. The modem means of communications help in the realization of persons and peoples rights. Thus it is argued, for instance by Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, that where there is a free press there will be no large scale famines as the rest of the world would become aware of it and help remedy such situations.

It is in the context of a general improvement of the situation that we reflect on the impact of globalization on human rights. In this we can again distinguish the scientific and technological changes brought about in modern times, alongside a humanistic culture and the unification of the world under capitalistic globalization. The advance of science and its application to life can advance the opportunities of persons for a fuller human life. In this century the possibilities have expanded for meeting the basic need of a much a greater global population. Education, travel and communications have improved understanding among people and spread the acknowledgment of human rights as everyone’s due throughout the world.

1. Globalization

Despite the potential and actual contribution of capitalistic globalization to improve human life, the safeguarding of human rights or the care of nature are not among its specific objectives. Its prime objective is private profit for the investors of capital, and now for speculators in global finance. The conception of human welfare according to its ideologues is to be brought about by the increase in material goods and wealth and not by the fostering of human happiness. Its concept of human welfare is materialistic and individualistic. Its faith is in the trickle down process of material benefits through the free market system. Human rights are expected to be looked after by the general growth process in the economy, without a direct effort to bring about a better redistribution of incomes and wealth.

There is in a sense a basic contradiction between globalization and the realization of human rights. For human rights to be respected there should be a primacy of the dignity of the human person, particularly of others, over material realities such as profits and selfish individualism. Neo-liberal globalization is based on the search for (unlimited) profit and the motivation of greed raised to a supreme value. Hence in principle itself it is not likely that human rights would improve with such globalization.

In its present neo-liberal capitalistic form globalization operates in the background of the inequalities within and among countries. It further aggravates inequalities. Theoretical equality of rights in a context of such grave economic inequality is illusory. The bad consequences of globalization, referred to earlier, reduce the actual realization of human rights in many areas of the world.

Globalization hinders human rights due to its consequences such as:

-   TNC domination of global economy; production, trade and  services.

-   link to electronically mobile finance capital that can rapidly destabilize economies of countries and regions.

-   increase in the poverty of many poor people, diminishing their means of livelihood and economic self-reliance such as through domestic agriculture and industrial production.

-   increasing inequality of incomes and wealth within and among countries.

-   increase in the indebtedness of poor peoples and countries. long-term endemic unemployment.

-   creation of wants through advertising and the demonstration effect of the wealthy life styles.

-   spread of a culture of heartless competition and consumerism.

-   the control of global mass media by a few persons and companies.

-   its political impact of reducing the countervailing power of the state in poor countries, and fostering a reduction of subsidies for the needy in society.

-   spreading the causes of social frustration, crime and violence.

it attack on nature and the exhaustion of the earth’s non-renewable natural resources.


Thus both in principle and in reality the situation of human rights is likely to worsen with capitalistic globalization.

2. Human Rights

Historically there has been no agreement on the basis and content of human rights among the worlds peoples. The presently discussed theory and practice of human rights are very much as evolved in and by Western society during the past few centuries. The human rights thinking and constitutional expression were advanced through the course of the centuries from the Magna Carta of 1215, the Bill of Rights of 1689 in England, the American Constitution of 1782, and the French and Russian Revolutions.

In this process there were differences as to

a)         source of foundation of human rights,

b)         the content of rights, and their inter-relation,

c)         the enforceability of rights.


Concerning the source there were some who claimed human rights on the basis of religion and revelation in the Bible. In medieval and modern Europe there was

a)         the claim of the divine right of monarchs as a counter to papal absolutism affirming supreme authority as given by God,

b)         the natural rights theories that based rights on reason and natural law, linked to the concept of the supreme dignity of the human person as a creature of God, who alone had sovereign right over all,

c)         theories that based rights on a social contract as expounded by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau,

d)         socialist theories stressing the right to equality.


During the years of colonialism the peoples of the colonies in Asia, Africa and the Americas were not considered as subjects with fundamental rights to be respected by the European colonizers. The values on which these societies were based were not seen by the colonizers, as meaningful for human living. In evolving current concepts of human rights it is often their own rights that the colonizers defended. The voiceless victims were neglected and expendable, Thus while the European people were endeavouring to safeguard their rights in their countries, they did not generally think of the rights of the people of other parts of the world. On the contrary, their thinking justified the world system built during the centuries after 1492 by the forcible expansion of European peoples to the rest of the world. The American War of independence was the struggle of a colonial people who fought to enjoy the rights of English people. Subsequently they too became a colonial power over other peoples.

The discussions on rights were within the framework of Western European Capitalism and the liberal democratic tradition. This tradition stressed civil and political rights and generally neglected the social and economic and cultural rights required for these civil and political rights to be realized even in Europe. A nominal or even legal declaration of rights, though valuable, is not effective in itself, if the conditions for their actual realization are absent. The realization of human rights requires certain minimum conditions such as a measure of equality. As is commonly said, there is no value in the right to freedom of going to the Ritz hotel if one does not have the means to foot the bill there.

Socialist Tradition

A socialist understanding of human rights was evolved in Europe due to the oppression of the European working class under mercantile and industrial capitalism. The socialist schools of thought, including Marxists, stressed the need of social equality as a condition for even the right to freedom to be meaningful. They wanted structural changes in society to be carried out by the State in which hopefully the proletariat would take over power. Civil liberties, especially the right to property, had to be restricted for the sake of equality and justice. This tradition while accentuating the need of equality, suffered from the practical neglect of the value of freedom necessary to ensure equality. In Western Europe the socialist parties still have a considerable popular support as against the capitalistic conservatives.

Much of the second half of the 20th century was a period of cold war between the countries organized on these two differing ideologies and social systems. The collapse of the USSR had made for the triumph of capitalistic globalization and the Western individualistic concept of human rights. Human beings rejected the Soviet Communist social order due to its oppressive nature and abuse of power. Now ten years after the break up of the socialist order, many in Eastern Europe see better the advantages they had earlier, even though without political freedom.

It is noteworthy that the Chinese experience of a socialist order has been differently received and has had different results. China does not have same democratic freedoms as understood in the Western tradition, but the one fifth of the human race in China have realized a considerable improvement of their overall human condition during the past few decades, with changes within their “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Despite its serious limitations, the Chinese experience and experiment deserves attention as a significant effort to deal with the problems of modernization with certain restraints that do not open the country fully to capitalistic globalization. The Chinese economy has remained one of the fastest growing economies in the world during the past decade that has seen many changes such as the fall of Soviet Communism, the East Asian financial crisis since July 1997, and some disenchantment with neo-liberal capitalism. The Chinese people have recovered a sense of identity and dignity in the modern world, though there is much room for the ensuring of human rights within China especially in the civil and political spheres.

Christianity and Human Rights

Christianity has contributed much to the intellectual and moral basis of human rights, due to all humans being regarded as children of God, and hence endowed with inalienable rights. In Genesis the Creator entrusts to the first human family the entire earth to be developed and cared for. Cain is held accountable for the life of his brother Abel. These are the foundation for moral responsibility and obligations towards others and nature.

Though the early Church was quite concerned with social justice as a sign and fruit of the teaching of Jesus, over the centuries Churches have had different perceptions on rights, according to their social alliances and theological elaborations. Historically the Churches have generally been rather on the side of the wealthy and powerful due to the common interests of the Churches and of the affluent in society. The colonial enterprise too linked the Western peoples and the Churches in their economic interests and convictions about the goal of the Church to save souls. The human rights of the colonized peoples were subordinated to the interests of their salvation which was said to come from Christ through the Christian mission.

The socialist thinking on human rights was very much outside the perspective of the Christian religion which then did not approve of socialism, for fear that it would destroy freedoms including the right to religious freedom.

During the past century, the Christian churches have been able to evolve a balance between the rights of the individual and social justice with the common destination of eradicating all poverty. Hence the more articulate Christian thinkers, including the Pope Leo XIII, Pius XI and popes since the world war, have been critical of both capitalism and totalitarian socialism. They have contributed the idea of subsidiary of the state and public authorities to the other smaller agencies in society, and the solidarity of the human race. These two concepts have helped in the articulation of human rights theory in the Western countries.

Christian liberation theologians have been clear in their emphasis on human rights of the peoples oppressed due to racism, colonialism or gender. Their argument for human rights was biblical and theological based on the view that God has opted in favour of the liberation of the oppressed as the path towards the realization of the kingdom of God on earth. Human rights were to be realized by a struggle against the values and structures of oppression that dominate most of the world. More than right as such, the Bible from Genesis onwards emphasizes the obligations of humans, as responsible persons, to care for one’s neighbour as a child of God, and also for nature.