People are the single greatest resource for overcoming poverty. But if they live in a country that denies them the right to vote, or to speak freely, even to assemble, then they’re effectively prevented from organizing for social change.
The abuse of human rights is an enormous impediment to ending poverty. That’s why fighting to uphold fundamental human rights is so important. People who can organize themselves without fear of persecution are far more likely to insist that transnational corporations and domestic elites share with them, the workers, the returns of economic growth.
Progress has been made. Imagine: As recently as the ’40s, there was no Amnesty International, no network of non-governmental watchdog groups to monitor human rights abuses.
But in 1948, the world came together to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, an ever-expanding community of nations has built on this declaration. Covenants and declarations have been adopted, committing the world to a new respect for human rights.
Today, there are non-governmental groups that conscientiously monitor human rights abuses. They spotlight everything from the indiscriminate use of torture to the persecution of citizens attempting to organize for better working and living conditions.
Canadian international cooperation organizations are particularly concerned that the protection of internationally recognized labour rights be central to the trade and investment practices of multilateral organizations. Improving living standards is a fundamental part of what development is all about.
Yet one of Canada’s most important Pacific trading partner, Indonesia, is also one of the world’s most consistent violators of human rights. President Suharto’s government unabashedly admits that its official minimum wage fails to meet even “minimum human needs.” The majority of companies refuse to pay even that meagre amount ostensibly because of fierce competition in export markets.
Such abuses, logically, should be dealt with by workers and their organizations. Workers, after all, were given the right to organize and bargain collectively when Indonesia freed itself from Dutch colonialism in 1945.
Improving quality of life will only be achieved if people have the right to participate in decisions that affect their lives.
But a 1996 investigation by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development revealed that Indonesia was one of only two APEC countries where freedom of association is “practically nonexistent.” The other human rights abuser, China, is another key trading partner of Canada.
The circumstances facing Muchtar Pakpahan are one example of the severity of the situation. In 1994, Mr. Pakpahan, leader of Indonesia’s largest independent trade union, was jailed for three years and branded a criminal. Why? He had, allegedly, “disrupted stability and triggered a hemorrhaging of foreign investment.”
What he’d actually done was demand an increase in the official minimum wage.
In 1995, Mr. Pakpahan successfully appealed his sentences. But Indonesia’s Supreme Court ignored, then reversed, the appeal court decision. He was charged with subversion, an offense punishable by death.
Non-governmental and labour organizations launched an international campaign of protest. Improving quality of life will only be achieved, they believe, if people have the right to participate in decisions that affect their lives.
The Canadian government officially shares this position. In 1993, at the World Conference on Human Rights, Canada signed the Vienna Declaration. Article 25 states: “It is essential for States to foster participation by the poorest people in the decision making process [and in] the promotion of human rights and efforts to combat extreme poverty.”
Acting on this commitment is important, but more can be done. Some NGOs and labour organizations, for example, are trying to forge links between minimum labour rights and international trade. They want to see a “social clause” inserted in multilateral and regional trade agreements. Such a clause would make it easier to enforce International Labour Organization core conventions on freedom of association, child labour, forced labour, equality, and non-discrimination.
A social clause within trade agreements that brought with it the threat of economic sanctions would force repressive governments to ensure that workers have the right to organize.
While an important step, it’s only a beginning. It’s also essential that organizations within their own countries have the capacity to monitor and enforce the implementation of basic human and labour rights. This form of “aid” to government and NGOs has the benefit of being both cheap and effective.
Yet the idea of a “social clause” is proving to be controversial. Many Southern NGOs and labour groups worry that it’s supported by countries like the United States that have a vested interest in tying their economies into the global economy and into an unfair world trading system. How, they ask, can an organization like the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is committed to maximum freedom for transnational business and trade, possibly police the rights of labour?
If freedom is a fundamental human value, then why not apply it equally to all? Freedom ostensibly underpins the shift to a globalized world where corporations can move at will, unburdened by excessive regulations. This is what the “free trade” of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization are all about.
But the same notion of freedom must apply to workers, who have the right to the freedom to organize, as well as the freedom to escape forced labour and discrimination. This is what the social clause is all about.
A “rights way to development” isn’t, of course, the only route to go. While promoting a social clause in trade agreements is one avenue, it won’t singlehandedly bring about a more just world. A social clause is a top-down tactic that’s part of a broader strategy of on-the-ground organizing.
Women Working Worldwide, a Non Government Organization based in the United Kingdom, is worried about the effects of globalization on women workers. It sums things up this way: “Social clauses can only be seen as one possible strategy to protect the rights of women workers throughout the world. They are legalistic instruments. They can only have real effects if they are backed up by strong action at a local level (and) international campaigning…”
Certainly, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948, few could have imagined the scope and impact of globalization. As Herbert de Souza, former leader of Brazil’s Citizens’ Action Against Hunger and for Life put it: “What people have to grasp is that powerful transnational corporations have established a new way to produce things globally which simultaneously produces misery.”
Nor could the signatories of the declaration have understood how crucial, in this new era, the intent of that document is to creating a social order based on fundamental respect for human rights.
We can build on it by strengthening regular, in-depth consultations between Canadian Non Government Organizations and the Canadian government on human rights issues. We can insist that our trade and development assistance polices be increasingly informed by human rights considerations, with a particular emphasis on building the means to promote civil and labour rights.
We can also support those NGOs that assert that basic human rights include: enough to eat, clean water, a home, health care, education, work that pays a living wage, a safe environment, protection from violence, equal opportunity, and a voice in one’s future.
And we can do it in the name of development, justice, equality or for people like Muchtar Pakpahan.