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Human Rights Education
as a Tool to Democratize the World Trading System
Shulamith Koenig and Susannah Friedman

The Challenge for Business and Commerce - Adopting a Human Rights Framework
Human Rights Education - The Logical Next Step
The Responsibility of Decisionmakers to Deliver on Human Rights

Imagine a world truly based on human rights. A world where human rights form the banks of the river where the lives of all people flow freely. A world where all people would live in dignity with one another, free of humiliation, participating in the decisions that determine their lives in a creative and productive way. Unfortunately, it is a world one can only imagine. Instead, the world we know lacks many of these human rights standards; it is a world where people struggle to merely survive, searching desperately for housing, food, health care, education, work and security for one's family and community. Today most people live without basic human rights and fight each day in a futile attempt to secure them. How can we combat that looming deprivation? The answer to all who make commitments and sign agreements to "do good" in the world, is to join with humanity in a common vision to develop a holistic vision of human rights to guide one's actions.

The strategy we propose for developing this common vision is to learn about human rights in a comprehensive way and at all levels of society. This is something to which UN member states have already made a commitment by declaring a Decade of Human Rights Education (1995-2004). We believe that Human Rights Education (HRE) for and with all economic actors, from multinational corporations to civil society, is a tool to democratize the world trading system, a way to move more bravely and consistently to that world we can so far only imagine.

The Challenge for Business and Commerce - Adopting a Human Rights Framework

We believe that if large multinationals were aware and mindful of their obligations towards communities through responsible investment and trade, and if communities were aware and would claim their human rights, the world trade system would move more quickly toward adopting the insurance of human rights as a vital part of trade and investment, as vital as obtaining sustainable economic growth and profit. Business practices that incorporate a respect for, and full adherence to, human rights create a symbiotic relationship between workers and industry and contribute to economic growth. Indeed, they improve one of the most important conditions investors seek as they weigh risking money in developing countries: stability. Current international investment practices and agreements encourage, and often leave governments without much choice, but to violate human rights. We must all be very clear about the fact that governments by the act of ratifying international treaties make a commitment to make human rights norms and standards the law of the land. Therefore, it is particularly important in a globalized world that member states of the World Trade Organization learn about the human rights commitments their governments have made and make the human rights framework their guide for good trade practice. International trade organizations owe it to the citizens of member nations to safeguard their human rights.

Globalization is proceeding at an astonishing speed. Moreover, it is doing so greatly unchecked as to the human suffering it brings with it. Therefore, the status of all of our global neighbors, regardless of culture, class, gender, religion, etc., is ultimately of great concern. Not only is it important to uphold human rights norms and standards because of the morality involved; other people's human rights are increasingly an issue which effect us quite intimately. For both of these reasons, and countless others, we should, as a global society, express more concern over the manner in which international investment and trade are conducted. This dialogue can be more fruitful if we all learn the language of human rights and discover the ways by which we can carry out our tasks without violating human rights.

If we allow globalization and development to persist unchecked and unmitigated by the human rights framework, we only encourage more chaos. Wherever development, investment and trade take place, we must insist on a program of HRE at all levels. From government officials to ordinary people, from large multinational corporations to the abject poor, everyone must be aware of their own human rights and those of others. Without such action, our participation in the cycle of economic brutality and prejudice will continue.

Many arguments have been made about the necessity for responsible investment and good conduct. While such attributes are a necessary precondition for the success of a plan of action such as the one proposed in this chapter, they will not be discussed at length here. Suffice it to say that the last fifty years have demonstrated that such behavior is necessary to ensure sustainable development and investment, and that respect for human rights is the only choice we have left. It is time that we began to view investor responsibility and good conduct as requirements rather than options. It is time to move on to human rights.

However, human rights must be viewed holistically. They comprise a body of theories and laws which include, but are not limited to, social and political rights. Economics is also a human rights issue. In the half century that has passed since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the attention which has been paid to human rights issues has involved mostly political and social issues. Economics as a human rights issue is only now beginning to be addressed seriously. As such, our discussion of international investment and trade is not only pertinent, but also crucial, to the dialogue on human rights.

The next step towards a holistic human rights perspective, necessary for any forward movement, is the recognition of the five major economic facets of human rights: food, education, housing, health care, and work at living wages . The ability to pursue, procure and protect these matters is a fundamental human right as well as an issue of dignity. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:

"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing , housing and medical care and necessary social services... The groundwork has been laid for the holistic understanding of human rights. It is up to individuals, communities, NGOs, corporations, and governments to be proactive in the push towards that understanding for the good of all."

Bodies such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) have willfully neglected to understand economic issues as human rights issues by saying these are not our issues! It is the responsibility of intergovernmental organizations like the WTO, one of the only such organizations with strong enforcement mechanisms already in place, to begin framing trade and investment as a human rights issue, as almost all governments have, by ratifying human rights covenants and conventions. For example, every government in the world with the exception of the USA and Somalia - has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child; more than 150 UN member states have ratified the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and 163 UN member states have ratified CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). In so doing, these countries undertook responsibilities for which they must be held accountable and pressed to incorporate human rights standards in political and economic agreements as at the WTO.

Human Rights Education - The Logical Next Step

Our next step to ensure respect of our common human rights is to empower each community through a program of Human Rights Education (HRE). Such a methodology can help us to promote and protect human rights for all individuals and communities from the smallest and most abject to the largest and most powerful. History has proved that, lest we condemn ourselves to repeat the most awful and brutal mistakes, we have no other options left to us. We believe that HRE, as detailed in the plan of action of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education, is the most promising strategy for sustainable development. It is also one of the most exciting because it provides a concrete plan to empower all communities and to encourage them through that empowerment to be treated and treat others in a human rights framework.

In a world where globalization has further divided the "haves" from the "have-nots", learning about human rights and how it relates to our daily lives and well-being promises to instill in society a new set of ethics and a new brand of respect. The benefits of this approach are several: HRE takes place as a dialogue within and between communities; it provides individuals with a new language with which to discuss basic human dignity and human rights. It is a tool by which every community is empowered and necessarily democratized. It therefore has the power, if enacted correctly, to democratize the entire world trading system. Democracy can thus become a delivery system for human rights! This is the crux of the argument presented in this chapter.

As noted in previous work, the holistic learning about human rights poses more questions than answers because each community is unique and many economic solutions are different. HRE cannot ignore the diversity of interests, concerns, struggles and self-definition by actors and movements. This plurality is both a source of strength and a weakness. Therefore, specific answers must be found in each particular time and place. Hence, the understanding of the meaning of human rights is also a continuing dialogue; it is a process and a journey, not a single destination. In this way, it has the power to speak to and for the community it represents and is malleable enough to be shaped for the needs of specific communities at specific times. (Bearing in mind that Article 30 of the UDHR basically states that no one human rights can violate another human right and all conflicting rights must be solved in a human rights way.)

Several examples of successful HRE are beginning to emerge. One shining example of how well HRE can serve a community is the model human rights community of Thies in Senegal. Thies is the second largest city of Senegal and faces many of the problems of rapid urbanization: poor health services, poor hygiene, unemployment, illiteracy and poverty. In 1998, a local NGO, TOSTAN, in cooperation with the Peoples' Decade of Human Rights Education (PDHRE) an international NGO, the Senegalese National Human Rights Organization, UNICEF and UNIFEM, set out to create human rights education programs in ten communities in the Thies region. As a model HRE program, the Thies human rights curriculum has proven how effective HRE can be. The results demonstrate that those individuals participating in the program became more aware of their human rights, the instruments of human rights available to them and the usefulness of those rights in daily life. The residents of Thies have used those human rights instruments to analyze their communities and develop concrete and plausible solutions to what they viewed as the most potent community problems. (More Human Rights Communities are now being developed in Rosario, Argentina, population 1,200,000 and Nagpur, India, population 1,000,000.)

Imagine if the empowerment that HRE brought the people of Thies could be repeated on a larger scale so that wherever development and investment took place, a human rights framework would also exist. On those bones, an entire body could be built upon human rights standards. Communities and their governments would have viable methods by which to improve lives and evaluate the positive and negative effects of trade and investment.

HRE needs to take place at every level to make human rights the accepted framework. Integral to HRE is the training and participation of investors and government officials in this dialogue for the benefit of all. In this way, investors would become more familiar with the notion and instruments of human rights, and government officials would be supplied with the tools by which to develop effective ways to attract foreign investment without sacrificing the human rights of their citizens. Through such action, individuals and communities at every level of the development and investment structures would be aware of their own human rights and those of others. Moreover, they would be equipped with the tools to help them analyze if events lived up to expectations and goals. Additionally, HRE would have guided communities to set up a procedure for hearing grievances fairly. Therefore, should things start to go awry, a system to ameliorate those problems would be in place. This brief sketch is an example of the potential HRE has to democratize trade and development and also to empower diverse communities.

Clearly, then, the crucial aspect of HRE as a means to democratize trade is to elucidate to all men, women, youth and children that they are full owners of human rights and that their neighbors too are full owners of human rights, regardless of their wealth, gender, race, or religion. Should everyone adopt the human rights framework in their struggle for economic and social justice, a new economic political system might emerge.

The WTO has within its power the ability to make a great impact upon the process of trade and development. The failure to take advantage of that power to agitate for real and good changes is a betrayal of the human rights cause and thus a betrayal of the people. Moreover, the WTO's failure to champion human rights encourages irresponsible and harmful trade practices, causing a further widening of the gap between the winners and losers. The WTO's disregard of human rights standards invites violations of international human rights laws set out in the International Bill of Human Rights. Therefore, we cannot view as valid those trade agreements not framed upon human rights.

The ill-fated draft Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), negotiated at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) until the collapse of talks in October 1998, presents a case in point of the failure of international economic agreements to use human rights as a starting point, thereby engendering a business atmosphere which not only ignores human rights standards, but also sanctions their disavowal. During the negotiations, and despite protestations from NGOs, OECD governments refused to consider human rights considerations as legitimate reasons for the draft MAI to be considerably reformed. There is no doubt that foreign direct investment has great potential to contribute substantially to development. But the past has demonstrated that inappropriate and unregulated investment may result in systematic human rights violations, the destruction of families, communities and societies. Governments must pay heed to this and ensure that any future international investment agreements (and those at the bilateral level) adhere to accepted human rights provisions. Similar cautions apply to international trade agreements such as those negotiated by the WTO.

HRE has the power to unlock the doors to these changes. HRE at every level may encourage business and government to seek to unite international investment interests and human rights laws. Only by this process may sustainable human development take place, thereby enhancing more democratic control of capital and eliciting mutually beneficial investment. As individuals and communities grow to be more aware of their human rights and the instruments at their disposal, grassroots changes can begin to occur. The cooperation of government and trade officials is integral to a successful HRE program. The challenge to them is to aid the widespread legitimacy of community HRE programs, while simultaneously safeguarding the rights of those who are beginning to speak up against political, social, and economic injustices.

From a trade perspective, the attempt to increase economic growth without regard for human rights will fail in the end. After exploitation and systematic violations of human rights, violent uprisings are likely to occur, at which point investments would be lost. Is it not safer to invest in a manner consistent with human rights interests, thus simultaneously ensuring the safety of the investment and the security of the people? Investment and development have for far too long focused on quick-fixes and these strategies have failed. Rather, we must focus on developing long-term solutions. HRE will play an invaluable role in sustainable development and the development of good business practices.

The Responsibility of Decisionmakers to Deliver on Human Rights

Global decision-makers must begin to recognize the potential they have to change the face of international trade and investment for the better. They must also recognize the power they have to degrade the status of human rights the world over. It has hopefully become clear that HRE is one of the most significant mechanisms by which to metamorphose international trade and investment to a system which advocates for human rights around the world. This process has the potential to engender symbiotic and advantageous relationships between government, business and communities in both developing nations and developed ones. While they are also important to developed nations, business practices based upon trade agreements framed in human rights terms are particularly crucial to developing nations. The role that international investment and trade play in development demand that human rights become the central premise. Without such change, sustainable development will remain a dream perpetually made impossible by unchecked and exploitative globalization.

Furthermore, a worldwide grassroots campaign of HRE has the potential to make such transformations possible, from the bottom up. These changes, however, will remain impossible without the cooperation of business. In particular, the commitment of international trade organizations, such as the WTO, to a human rights philosophy on international investment and trade would encourage governments to devote themselves to human rights to attract foreign investment. Moreover, the perspective that trade organizations take on human rights needs to be a holistic one.

At a meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 1998, the point was made that: to ensure the sustainable participation of developing countries, international investment agreements need to strike a balance between providing stable and predictable conditions for investors and allowing host countries the flexibility and opportunity to pursue their development objectives in the context of their own national situations.5 The "development objectives" referred to must include a holistic understanding and support for human rights standards. The importance of international investment to developing nations indicates the influence trade organizations have on the success of human rights programs. The championing of human rights by trade organizations would be a great step towards the fulfillment of promises made by governments who have ratified human rights instruments by which their laws need to be scrutinized.

Foreign Ministries and Justice Departments of every country are aware, at least formally, of their obligations under human rights treaties. They often make pronouncements at international fora in the language of human rights and sign Plans of Action at international summits that include various commitments to human rights. Their representatives participate yearly in the meetings of the Human Rights Commission and join in signing resolutions to avoid human rights violations of all sorts, recognizing the indivisibility and interconnectedness of human rights. However, the trade and finance ministries of these very same governments close their eyes to, and are possibly not even aware of, these commitments and obligations so loudly proclaimed by their colleagues elsewhere. These government officials go on to negotiate agreements that violate human rights which at the end of the day will effect their own. Similarly, many NGOs who do excellent advocacy and take actions to alleviate social and economic justice violations, barely know the human rights framework and use it even less. Many of them hardly recognize the power it contains to further their own public interest agendas. This situation must be attended to and HRE has the power to start the changes that need to be made. HRE is relevant to all organizational and community concerns and could help weave, in the words of Nelson Mandela, "A new political, economic culture based on human rights!"

Shulamith Koenig is the Founder and Executive Director People's decade of Human Rights Education. Susannah Friedman is a graduate of the University of Michigan.


For more information, please contact PDHRE:

The People's Movement for Human Rights Education (PDHRE) / NY Office
Shulamith Koenig / Executive Director
526 West 111th Street, New York, NY 10025, USA
tel: +1 212.749-3156; fax: +1 212.666-6325
e-mail: pdhre@igc.org