In What Ways do the Processes of Globalisation Pose a Direct Challenge to our Understanding and Application of Universal Human Rights?

In the 21st century it is almost impossible to talk about any international issue without discussing the impact of globalisation, defined as ‘a package of transnational flows of people, production, investment, information, ideas, and authority’ (Brysk, 2002). The same is true for human rights and in particular the popular but somewhat potholed universalist perspective on human rights. With neo-liberalist ideals and capitalist markets constantly finding themselves on the constant search for better margins, more efficiency and faster product, it is almost inevitable that some of the largest businesses and brands look to the developing world for their work. The impact of this on the understanding of universal human rights is split, with one side believing this causes abuse and exploitation while the other feels it increases exposure to practices and encourages better standards in human rights through liberal ideals. Having said this, the arguments are clearly not that simple much like the concept of globalisation itself. This is primarily due to the fact that ‘all the dynamics are extraordinarily complex and require considerable nuance to consider their deeper implications and widespread consequences’, a critical fact to be appreciated when writing an essay on such a topic (Rosenau, 2003). This piece will look to explore the main factors in globalisations challenge to universal human rights as concisely as is possible both in terms of policy and theory.

Before exploring the impact of globalisation, the classic definition of universal human rights must be explored in order to create a base upon which the globalisation arguments will be established. The core ideal of Universalism in is, put simply, the belief that every human being is entitled to certain rights and protection for no other reason other than the fact that they are human. Further than this, universalism sees human rights largely as ‘priority norms’ that are ‘not absolute but are strong enough to win most of the time when they compete with other considerations’ and must therefore have ‘strong justifications all over the world’ (Nickel, 2007). Moreover, universal human rights ensure rights are inalienable, meaning ‘the rightholder’s attempts to repudiate that right permanently, or attempts by others to take that right away, will be without normative effect’, essentially protecting citizens from their individual governments and/or cultural norms (Nickel, 2007). At a policy level, universalism in human rights is popularly attributed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which was drafted by the United Nations General Assembly and officially implemented on the 10th December 1948 (UN, n.d). René Cassin famously compared this modern iteration of universal human rights to the ‘portico of a temple’, identifying the four pillars of the declaration as ‘dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood’ (Ishay, 2004). However, as Ishay notes, the advent of the modern nation state meant decidedly particularistic perspectives became ‘an integral part’ of the UDHR and ‘subsequent human rights covenants, and a continuing source of division within the human rights community’ (Ishay, 2004). This in many ways comes to represent the importance of differentiating between theoretical understanding and practical application of universalism in human rights as the abstract will of a theory does not always translate into the real world policy it inspires. Mark Kielsgard believes that ‘at its heart, human rights are a legal construct’, continuing to explain that ‘law in practice may not scale the rigorous heights of philosophy or meta-ethics because it must serve at once aspiration and function’, suggesting a need for compromise, something that it seems the advent of globalisation further perpetuates (Kielsgard, 2011). This understanding of universal human rights as two-pronged is important as globalisation, will impact to varying degrees depending upon how limited the theoretical conception of universalism is.

The first aspect of globalisation that has an effect on universal human rights is the issue of wealth distribution. Ishay believes the first main trend globalisation is associated with is the fact that ‘it has been accompanied by a growing gap between rich and poor countries’ (Ishay 2004, pp.247). As Michael Freeman rightly outlines, human rights have huge economic implications ‘since implementing them requires resources, and economic policies can have massive impacts on human rights’ (Freeman, 2011). Unfortunately, in the profit-driven culture that globalisation breeds, the correct universal human rights appear in many to be too expensive. One only has to observe the working conditions of Foxconn, one of the world’s largest manufacturing companies and infamous supplier to Apple and Microsoft among many others, to understand the issue at hand. From the influx of suicides in 2010 including the near-death and resulting testimony of worker Tian Yu, to the subsequent installation of suicide nets and constant indifference on the part of owners and partners for basic wages for workers ‘it’s clear who gets the lion’s share of this relationship’ (Heffernan, 2013; Chakraborrty 2013).  On a policy level, both article 23 and 25 of the UDHR are affected, with the former outlining the right to proper remuneration that would ensure an ‘existence worthy of human dignity’ and the latter calling for a ‘standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family’ or indeed herself in the case of many deprived countries (UN, n.d.). The fact that corporations ‘got rid of their unionized labour force and moved their operations to low wage and depressed areas to avail themselves of the large supply of unorganized and unprotected, mainly female labour’ directly violates article 25 and demonstrates the distinct contradiction that globalisation poses to universal human rights (Arfat, 2013) Not only this but the effect lack of fair pay has on Cassin’s first universal pillar of dignity is huge, especially in Asian countries that see dignity underpinning their community-based society (Lee, 2008). Alan Sykes among others characterises this as a ‘race to the bottom’ in which ‘governments will use lax regulatory policies as a means to attract capital to their jurisdiction’, creating a scenario where human rights are ultimately sacrificed (Sykes, 2003). It seems then that universal human rights are being challenged not only by the corporate entities themselves but by the hosting nations keen to sell their labour at the cheapest price in order to bring crucial business.

The effective ‘selling off’ of power from ‘states to private economic actors’ with the goal of economic development is a key aspect of globalisation and something that is to be strived for in a free market system (Freeman, 2011). However, Upendra Baxi believes the effect of this discourse of developmentalism and its intense tradition of competition ‘manifests most fully its inherent violence’ (Baxi, 2001).  Ana Natsvlishvili supports this, saying ‘what we are facing now is the democratization of violence’ in which ‘threats to the enjoyment of human rights come from non-state actors rather than directly from state agents’. This is significant as the ‘transfer of powers and functions from states to private actors was not accompanied by a transfer of responsibilities’, leading to a largely unregulated and unmonitored abuse of basic human rights across borders (Natsvlishvili, 2007). While it may seem an aspiration of universal human rights to have this largely borderless jurisdiction away from state actors, the reality appears to be a scenario in which transnational corporations (TNCs) ‘have gained the power to violate human rights in unforeseen ways’ (Arfat, 2013). Lack of legal regulation on TNC’s ‘passionate pursuit of profit’ has arguably ‘opened a minefield for HR’ worse than ever before, presenting a paradox for the application of universal human rights (Natsylishvili, 2007). Not only this, but it has opened up somewhat of a loophole in international human rights law whose primary goal is to ‘protect individuals and groups from abusive action by states and state agents’, not corporations (Arfat, 2013). Bryan Turner looks to Max Weber’s Nietzsche-inspired outlook on rights and law for theoretical explanation, finding that Weber too ‘saw modern society as an arena for violence in which organised social classes and status groups compete with each other for a monopoly of resources’ (Turner, 1993). In the twenty-first century with the advent of Globalisation, there is arguably only more opportunity for violence and exploitation as the dominant classes can now look to the other side of the world instead of on their doorstep for cheap, atomised labour. Universalism is thereby challenged again as profit and margins once more take precedent over the rights of workers and families in the developing world. Ishay somewhat flips this inherent violence of globalisation by noting that ‘it has inspired backlashes in the name of various purportedly threatened beliefs and ways of life’; with September 11th being a prime example. She believes this is interlinked to issues with wealth as ‘despair over economic prospects could presumably feed rage against the countries and elites that benefit most from an integrated world economy’ (Ishay, 2004 pp.247). This demonstrates how violence in many cases begets violence, leading to the abuses of the universal human rights not only of the ‘developees’ as Baxi would describe it, but also of the regular citizens in which the western ‘developers’ operate (Baxi, 2001). In a modern political and legal climate that requires states to be responsible for their inhabitants, globalisation poses a fundamental threat to the application of universal human rights especially by way of the UDHR as corporations simply do not have to answer to the democratically elected and internationally regulated arena that states do.

Possibly the most prominent challenge globalisation poses to universal human rights is centred around the debate between universalism and particularism that was covered to an extent earlier in the essay. This debate also runs throughout almost every point covered so far and is part of the wider argument that accuses human rights of being a western construct. Indeed, one of the primary arguments supporting the effects of globalisation on human rights is typically the view that it spreads the progressive liberal traditions of the west. However, as Wiktor Osiatynski notes, for non-western typically developing countries ‘human rights were often presented as the ideology of the west, as a secular ‘western religion’, as a tool of western imperialism, or as a western neo-colonial “ideology”’ that would be grossly unfavourable to them. Osiatynski explains this has been rife ever since the ratification of the UDHR, causing ‘the very universality of human rights’ to be ‘fiercely challenged’ (Osiatynski, 2004). How can universal human rights truly exist in practice if they lie in the hands of those western bodies that stand for the very neo-liberal ideals that directly contradicts universalism? Turner in this instance looks to Karl Marx for the theoretical basis of such scepticism, highlighting that ‘within Marx’s account of capitalist civil society ‘human rights’ are merely a façade to hide or mask fundamental economic and social inequalities’ (Turner, 1993).  When looking at the complexity of universalism Makau Mutua somewhat argues against Marx by saying ‘this is not to suggest that universality is always wrong-headed, or devious, but it is rather to assume that universality is not a natural phenomenon’ and is therefore ‘always constructed by an interest for a specific purpose, with a definite intent’; or in other words a particularistic motive (Mutua, 2004). It would at first appear that this issue of local values is directly opposite to that of globalisation, but this is not the case while the west largely dictates the terms of the free market and world economics. Mutua sees this posing a fundamental question of ‘how local truths are legitimately transformed into universal creeds’ (Mutua, 2004). If it is to be accepted that even universalist perspectives do in practice contain particularistic motives, the true challenge globalisation poses to universal human rights is surely how both can co-exist and incorporate the particularistic motives not only of the west but of every other culture and need.

While this essay may appear to be somewhat biased on the side of the negative effects, it must be said that these are truly the issues that challenge universal human rights. If Rosenau’s view that globalisation spreads liberalism and therefore positive human rights practice was analysed, for example, it would appear that universalism and globalisation are remarkably homogenous (Rosenau, 2003). As Baxi notes, ‘there is no inherent reason why markets may not be human rights friendly’ but it is the fact that in many cases they are not that causes the issue (Baxi, 2001). It is however important to stress that these challenges are only that, and do not represent an unsolvable issue. Although both concepts of globalisation and universal human rights are considerably nuanced and complex, the primary issues highlighted in this essay of wealth inequality, dignity of labour, violence of developmentalism and particularism are resolvable with the up-to-date laws that keep up with contemporary economic systems. Perhaps fewer challenges would be encountered if globalisation and the impact of non-state actors were accepted and incorporated more into universal human rights law. This way there would be a significantly larger check upon the corporations that in many ways run the world economies. András Sajó points out that ‘human rights in their present form represent a culturally limited experience of dubious political aspirations’ and this must change, starting with the west (Sajó, 2004). After all, while the current issues persist ‘the production lines will keep humming, leaving barely a scratch or a smudge on our touch-screens.’ (Perlin, 2013).


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