Global governance and human rights

Cristina Lafont*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Globalization has brought to the fore a peculiar mismatch between the concept of human rights and the allocation of human rights obligations which has been taken for granted throughout the twentieth century. On the one hand, human rights are supposed to be universal. It is often said that human rights are possessed by all human beings simply in virtue of their humanity. The universality inherent in the concept of human rights expresses a cosmopolitan ideal of equal moral concern for all human beings. On the other hand, according to the standard interpretation of human rights obligations, states bear the primary responsibility for protecting the human rights of their own members.1 This state-centric interpretation of responsibilities for human rights protections leaves a gap with respect to any responsibility that states might have in their treatment of members of other states either through direct action (for example, through their foreign policy) or indirectly through their actions as participants in global governance institutions. It suggests that states must protect the human rights of their own people, but are off the hook with regard to their treatment of those who are outside their jurisdiction. The current situation of the prisoners at Guantanamo is perhaps an obvious example of how a state can exploit the existence of this gap in the state-centric interpretation of human rights obligations for its own (often questionable) goals. But perhaps a better illustration of the morally unacceptable consequences of the state-centric distribution of responsibilities is former President Clinton’s recent apology for pushing for dramatic tariff cuts on US rice imports to Haiti at the expense of Haitian farmers2. Testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 2010 Clinton declared that As made crystal clear by this example, in defending the economic interests of farmers in Arkansas, President Clinton took himself to be discharging his obligation to protect and promote the rights of citizens in his own country. But in light of the humanitarian catastrophe following the collapse of rice production in Haiti, he came to recognize his direct responsibility in hampering the human right to food of Haitian citizens. However, according to the current distribution of human rights obligations, it is hard to accommodate Clinton’s claim of responsibility which is at the core of his apology. From the perspective of international human rights law, there is no specific legal obligation that Clinton failed to discharge. Since he is not a representative of Haitian citizens, he is not responsible for protecting their interests and rights. From a political perspective, his apology is even more puzzling, since Clinton certainly discharged his obligation to defend the interests and rights of those to whom he is politically accountable, namely, the citizens of his own country. Had he failed to do so in international negotiations, he would have faced adverse political consequences at home. Moreover, he was exercising this obligation within the legal parameters of the principles of free trade established by the WTO-principles which call for the elimination of tariffs on imports and other similar trade barriers. With his apology, Clinton is clearly suggesting that he did something wrong and that he is the one responsible for it, but neither of these claims make sense within the standard state-centric ascription of responsibilities for human rights protections currently recognized by the international community. According to this state-centric interpretation neither the US government nor the WTO has a legal obligation to protect the human rights of Haitian citizens. Officials from Haiti are the only ones responsible for their protection. But wait! If this is the case, then there is actually no gap in the distribution of human rights obligations after all. Shouldn’t Haitian officials be held accountable by the international community for their failure to discharge their obligation to protect their citizens’ human right to food? Didn’t they fail to protect and promote the human rights of their own citizens in allowing such a humanitarian catastrophe to happen? Actually, it is hard to argue that they did. For if they had refused to bring Haiti’s trade policies in line with the WTO agreements and accept the recommendations of the IMF and the World Bank then the economic consequences would have been even more devastating for Haitian citizens. It does not take a former head of State like Clinton to see what is wrong with this picture. Precisely the fact that none of the actors involved failed to discharge their respective obligations indicates that, for cases like this one, the current distribution of human rights obligations impairs the effective protection of human rights. For the actors who have the legal obligation to protect the human rights of their citizens-individual states-may not have the effective capacity to do so and the actors who do have the effective capacity-the WTO, IMF or the World Bank-do not have the obligation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHuman Rights, Human Dignity, and Cosmopolitan Ideals
Subtitle of host publicationEssays on Critical Theory and Human Rights
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages29
ISBN (Electronic)9781317119715
ISBN (Print)9781409442950
StatePublished - May 13 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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