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“The World Social Forum as a Space of Convergence and

Mobilization for Human Rights”



Peter (Jay) Smith, Phd.

Athabasca University
Athabasca, Alberta

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ISA's 50th Annual Convention, New York City,
February 15-18, 2009

Since its inception in 2001 human rights have become a key a part of the activities of
the World Social Forum (WSF). This, in turn, is reflective of a growing emphasis on human
rights discourse and politics as a dominant theme among civil society actors, social
movements and non-governmental organizations. Santos, for example, argues that “human
rights have become the language of progressive politics” filling the “void left by socialist
politics.” (2007:3) Elsewhere, Frezzo claims that “rights discourse serves as a master frame
insofar as it links diverse movements to one another.” 1 (2008:37) Today, many of these
social movements have found the WSF to be a convivial space of convergence in which to
share experiences, knowledge and strategies to advance human rights as a means of
reimbedding the economy in society and bringing it under democratic control.

This paper will examine the growing influence of human rights discourse and politics within
the WSF and their role, in particular, at the 2009 WSF in Belem, Brazil. It argues, among the

1) That the international human rights regime originally derivative of the 1948 Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the norms found in the various treaties and
covenants of that regime very much inform the conceptualizations of human rights articulated
at the WSF. Indeed, the Charter of Principles of the WSF claims “the alternatives proposed at
the World Social Forum… will respect universal human rights.” (2001).The limitations of
this emphasis on universal human rights will interrogated in the final section of the paper.

2) That whatever criticism the state has received as an enabler of neoliberal globalization, it
still is conceived by human rights proponents at the WSF to be the primary promoter and
guarantor of human rights.

3) The above notwithstanding there is clear recognition within the WSF that “the traditional
view of accountability focused on state responsibility for implementing legal reforms is not
enough.” (HDHRC Statement January 2008) That is, there is also recognition that
responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights also belongs to non-state actors –
corporations, NGOs, institutions of global governance and individuals. For other human
rights activists, however, norms and the state are of less significance than direct action by
civil society organizations. This will become particularly evident in a key debate at this
year’s forum on the issue of corporate social responsibility.

Prior to analyzing the WSF as a space of human rights discourse and politics the
paper provides some necessary context. It argues, in particular, that the discourse on, and
movement for, human rights have independent antecedents rooted in the international human
rights regime. While the contestation over neoliberal globalization has impacted the debate
on human rights there is, as Ibhawoh notes, a “universal human rights movement”
manifesting “the globalization of consciousness in itself rather than merely as a reaction to
economic globalization.” (2007:173) None-the-less the paper argues that this discourse and
consciousness have been drawn upon as an important element of a counter-movement to
resist neoliberal globalization and reimbed the economy in society. In this regard the WSF
has become an important focal point of the double or counter-movement.

Later sections of the paper will provide a brief overview of the increasing centrality of
human rights discourse and activities at the WSF. The paper will briefly offer four examples
on how civil society actors at this year’s forum advanced key debates on human rights and
globalization in terms of the following:

• Providing evidence on the negative impact of neoliberal globalization on human

rights, in particular, the right to food.
• Expanding and creating new rights, in particular, the right to livelihoods.
• The importance of accountability beyond the state in terms of corporate social
• The necessity of recognizing collective rights, in particular, indigenous rights.

Finally the paper will conclude by addressing a number of questions about universal human
rights and the future roles of the UN and the state. Methodologically, the paper relies upon
academic secondary literature, documents of NGOs present at the WSF, and participant
observation at a number of forums.

The United Nations, Universal Human Rights, International Human Rights –

Contributions and Controversies

The contribution of the United Nations to the growth of an international human rights
regime, discourse, and movement is a story often told. Less recognized, however, is the
relationship of the above to the WSF. This section will briefly sketch the evolution of this
human rights regime including some leading criticisms of this regime. It will then briefly
indicate how human rights have become intertwined in the globalization debate with some
rights ascribed to corporate globalization from above versus rights associated with
globalization from below. In 2001 the WSF became associated with rights and globalization
from below.

If today’s international human rights discourse and movement has a founding

document it would be the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the
General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. It is widely recognized as
the beginning of “any formal recognition of the human rights regime.” (Harrelson-Stephens
and Calloway, 2007:5) The first article of the UDHR states that “All human beings are born
free and equal in dignity and rights.” The UDHR contains iterations of what have become
known as first and second generation rights, that is, civil and political rights and economic,
social and cultural rights. During the Cold War of the 1950s ideologically civil and political
rights became identified with the West and economic, social and cultural rights with the East.
This divide provoked a great amount of debate about the meaning of human rights and
eventually lead in 1966 to two separate statements on human rights: the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights which went into effect in 1976. Together the UDHR and the two
covenants became known as the International Bill of Human Rights and became progenitors
of the subsequent creation of additional human rights norms of which the state was conceived
as the primary guarantor.

The rights conceptualized above were presented as universal and inalienable in nature
but it was not long before that this universality was called into question. While not breaking

with the concept of universality feminists argued that these rights as articulated reflected “a
masculine perspective” particularly in terms of the public/private divide. (Ball and Gready
2006:20) This resulted in calls to recognize the human rights of women which were formally
recognized by the UN adopting the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against
Women in 1979 and the subsequent statement by the 1993 Vienna World Conference on
Human Rights that “women’s rights are human rights.”

The universality of human rights was called into question most sharply in the 1990s
by those arguing that rights are culturally relative and socially defined. That is, human rights
are historically defined and can be expected to change over time. In addition, some argued
that human rights may not be compatible with certain cultures, an argument most strongly
made in defense of “Asian values.” (Callaway, 2007) The response to the cultural relativity
argument has been sharp. Amartya Sen, for example, contested the notion of uniform Asian
values and asserted that universal human rights can be distinguished from Western
hegemony. Moreover, he argued that democracy was a universal value. (1999) Micheline
Ishay argues that the claim for cultural relativity is based on a misunderstanding. According
to Ishay:

A key point is that cultural relativism is a recurrent product of a historical failure to

promote universal rights discourses in practice, rather than a legitimate alternative to
the comprehensive vision offered by a universal stand on justice. The invocation of
cultural rights tends to occur when a specific group feels deprived of political, social,
and economic rights. (2004:11)

Finally, it should be noted the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women strongly rejected
“cultural” justifications for the curtailing of women’s human rights.

That said, there is growing recognition of minority and cultural rights by the United
Nations. These are collective rights and were ignored or downplayed by the International Bill
of Human Rights. Yet, recently the UN has recognized the collective rights of peoples, most
importantly in September 2007 by the adoption of Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples negotiated with the participation of indigenous peoples. These rights have become
enveloped into what are known as “third generation” rights or solidarity rights which include
as well the right to self-determination, the right to economic and social development, the
right to a healthy environment, food, natural resources and to communicate all of which have
become salient issues at the WSF.

In the past two decades there has been increasingly recognition that the three
generations of rights, in particular the right to development, must be treated as a whole, as
indivisible and inseparable. The 1993 Vienna Declaration and Program of Action states, for
example, that “all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and
interrelated.” The unity of human rights in terms of development has been forcefully made by
Amartya Sen echoes of which are found in UN documents. In Development as Freedom
(1999) Sen argued that economic and social development should not be considered separately
from “the freedom of political participation and dissent” and these rights enrich the process
of development. (pp. 36-37)

The claim that rights are indivisible is politically contentious and plays an important
role in the dialectic known as globalization from above and globalization from below.

Richard Falk argues that in order “to enhance the legitimacy of globalization-from-above,
global corporations and banks are increasingly responsive to human rights narrowly
conceived.” (Falk, 2002:63) This can be described as “the market-friendly approach to
human rights” whereby civil and political rights become the only real human rights because
“they are the only real legal rights,” rights “beneficial to a market economy.” According to
this conception “companies do not have human rights obligations.” (Feyter 2005:28,29)
Juxtaposed to this is a call for an alternative discourse on human rights, a discourse premised
on a far broader conception of human rights, one that views human rights as indivisible and
encompassing all three generations of human rights. While there are some who, in defence of
globalization-from-below, prioritize economic, social and cultural rights, others argue that
“civil and political rights are important too in addressing the adverse consequences of
economic globalization.” Feyter 2005: 21)

Indirectly, the United Nations took up the above argument in its UNDP Human
Development Report 2000 where it recognized the impact of globalization on human rights
and called for the indivisibility of human rights particularly in relation to human
development. Speaking of globalization and human rights the Report stated: “Bold new
approaches are needed to achieve universal realization of human rights in the 21st century—
adapted to the opportunities and realities of the era of globalization.” (p. 25) In addition the
Report called for new ways of looking at human rights in an era of globalization.

Box 1 – Some Needed Changes in Human Rights Thinking

- Human rights—in an integrated world—require global justice. The state-centred model of

accountability must be extended to the obligations of non-state actors and to the state’s
obligations beyond national borders.
-The fulfilment of all human rights requires democracy that is inclusive—protecting the
rights of minorities, providing separation of powers and ensuring public accountability.
Elections alone are not enough.
- Human rights and human development cannot be realized universally without
stronger international action, especially to support disadvantaged people and countries
and to offset growing global inequalities and marginalization.
- Poverty eradication is not only a development goal—it is a central challenge
for human rights in the 21st century.
- Information and statistics are a powerful tool for creating a culture of accountability
and for realizing human rights.

Source: Human Development Report 2000

The above changes – global justice, new forms of accountability, inclusive democracy,
international action, poverty eradication, the need for information and statistics - along with
the need to place greater emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights were needed to
advance human rights thinking. In many respects these changes have become focal points of
debate and discussion at the WSF.

However, rather than view this discussion as occurring within the framework of the
dialectic of globalization-from-above versus globalization-from-below, this paper argues that
it is more fruitful to place the discussion within the theoretical framework of the great
political economist, Karl Polanyi, and his classic book, The Great Transformation, published

in 1944. This serves as a reminder that today’s resistance to neoliberal globalization typified
by the WSF has historical antecedents which assist us in analyzing what is happening in the
present conjuncture.

Polanyi argued that history moves forward through a series of “double movements.”
Beginning at the end of the eighteenth century a “great transformation” led to the expansion
of the free market as part of an attempt to disembed, or free, the market from social and
political regulations. The result was a radical transformation of the way people lived. At the
same time, however, a countermovement occurred. This countermovement consisting of
subaltern classes, workers, and unions reflected an impulse for social protection and
ultimately led to the creation of the welfare state. In both instances, the role of the state was
critical. First, the state acted to “disembed” the economy from society and to facilitate and
protect the expansion of the market. Then, the state itself came under great pressure to make
the “process of economic improvement…socially bearable” (2001:40). The result which
took generations to accomplish was greater social stability and a modus vivendi of societal
interests with the market. The first great transformation described above took place on the
level of the nation-state. Ronaldo Munck argues that what is occurring today is, in effect, the
second great transformation but with a difference. According to Munck, “What Polanyi
analysed for the national level – in terms of a separation of the economy from the social and
political domains of life – is now becoming realized and empowered on the global terrain.”

Today, Munck argues, “the World Social Forum … [is] the defining transnational
political forum for the counter-globalization movement.” (2007:75) Moreover, he claims,
“human rights in general, and women’s rights in particular, are now an integral part of that
project, at least rhetorically.” (2007:75) In brief, the concept of human rights has become an
integral element of the counter-movement to reimbed the economy in society. How did
human rights emerge as a key theme at the WSF? How widespread is the identification with
human rights at the Forum? To these questions the paper now turns.

The World Social Forum and the Human Rights Agenda – Pre 2009

Today, human rights have become a core theme of the World Social Forum. This,
however, was not the case for the first two forums. It was not until 2003 that human rights
emerged as a theme in its own right maintaining that status through subsequent World Social
Forums. This section will provide an overview of the human rights presence at the WSF
focusing in particular its emergence as a theme, its presence in the WSF program of panels
and activities, and the self-identification of participants with human rights themes measured
by the use of existing surveys.

As previously indicated above the first two fora did not have human rights as a core
theme. Nor were human rights activities much in evidence in the program until after it had
become a core theme. (Glasius and Timms, 2006) The emergence of human rights is due, in
large part, to the creation of the Human Dignity and Human Rights Caucus (HDHRC)
created by several NGOs in October 2001 with the mandate to “join forces and to ensure that
the area of human rights is coherently dealt with at World Social Forum” starting in 2002.
(Conference on Human Rights, 2002) While the HDHRC assisted in organizing a number of
panels and conferences in 2002 it was not until 2003 that human rights became one of five

major themes at the WSF under the heading, “Principles and values, human rights, diversity,
and equality.”

One of the primary purposes of the HDHRC is “the promotion of the primacy of
human rights, as to effectively overcome what is often presented in more negative terms as
the gap between economic globalisation and human rights,” (Conference on Human Rights,
2002) particularly economic, social and cultural rights. While critical of the impact of
globalization on human rights the Caucus was and remains dominated by mainstream human
rights organizations working within the universal international human rights regime. For
example, one of the primary actors within the HRHDC is FIDH, the Fédération internationale
des droits de l'homme or the International Federation of Human Rights composed of 155
organizations world wide. According to its website “FIDH’ s mandate is to contribute to the
respect of all the rights defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The documents produced by the HRHDC also indicate its intellectual grounding
within the UN international human rights regime. For example, in 2002 it called upon the
UN to create a “Permanent Forum on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, relating to the
broader context of a trade, finance and international justice.” (Conference on Human Rights
2002) While highly critical of the WTO and the impact of international trade on human rights
the HRHDC has continued to stress certain key themes, particularly in terms of
accountability for human rights emphasizing not only the state but also new actors in terms of
institutions of global governance, corporations, and NGOs. The HRHDC probably had its
greatest presence at the 2007 WSF in Nairobi where it helped organize 80 panels. That said,
HRHDC is, today, just one of many actors promoting human rights at the WSF although it
remains the most prominent.

Beyond the emergence of human rights as a theme one can measure its presence by
the programs of the WSF. While the measures used vary they tell a common story. According
to content analysis of WSF programs conducted by Glasius and Timms, the first year human
rights were recognized as a theme, 2003, only 1.7% of the 938 events could be identified as
human rights events. However, by 2004 they had emerged as the largest category of events,
5.9% of the 1407 events and in 2005 they shared the honour with democracy and governance
totaling 6.2% of 1047 events. If one added other events such as those pertaining to gender,
poverty and development, and indigenous people, race and ethnicity the total percentage of
events would probably be much higher.

Data from the 2007 WSF in Nairobi speaks to the overwhelming centrality of human rights in
program activities. The following table from the Narrative Report of the Organizing
Committee of WSF 2007 speaks volumes in this regard:

Table No. 3
Registration of Self Organized Activities according to their Objective for Action

OBJECTIVES FOR ACTION Number of Activities Percent

Building a world of peace,
justice, ethics and respect for 112 8.6
1 diverse spiritualities.
Liberating the world from the
domination of multinationals 95 7.3
2 and financial capital
Ensuring universal and
sustainable access to the
65 5.0
common goods of humanity
3 and nature
Democratization of
70 5.4
4 knowledge and information
Ensuring dignity, defending
diversity, guaranteeing
gender equality and 145 11.2
eliminating all forms of
5 discrimination.
Guaranteeing the right to
food, healthcare, housing, 334 25.8
6 education and decent work.
Building a world order based
on sovereignty, self
98 7.6
determination and rights of
7 peoples
Constructing a people
centered and sustainable 63 4.9
8 economy
Building real democratic
political structures and
institutions with full people’s
150 11.6
participation on decisions and
control of public affairs and
9 resources
Missing—did not choose an objective
164 12.7
for action
Total 1296 100.0

As the table indicates 25.8% or 334 of the 1296 events were registered under
objective number 6 which refers most clearly to human rights. However, if one adds in
activities from objectives five and seven the human rights focus at the 2007 the percentage of
activities with a human rights theme is probably closer to 40%. In part this emphasis may be
attributable to the fact that Nairobi is a centre for NGOs in Africa particularly those
associated with the UN and working in the area of human rights.

As the table above indicates place or where the forum is held may play a role in terms
of the extent to which forum activities and participants are identified with human rights. For
example, while human rights has become a major part of the forum there is some indication
that, at least initially, participants at the Brazilian social forums identified somewhat less

strongly with human rights than did participants at the WSFs held in other locations.
According to a survey by Ibase human rights were less preferred by social movements or
organizations in the 2003 and 2005 forums in Brazil but more highly preferred by those
social movements and organizations at the 2004 WSF in Mumbai. According to Ibase there
was a “tendency among the delegates … for Brazilians to be more sensitive to sectoral
questions such as education or public budget, while foreigners are sensitive to … rights.”
(Ibase 2003:4) At the WSF 2006 Polycentric forums in Venezuela and Mali there was little
doubt as to the centrality of human rights as a point of emphasis of participants. According to
the 2006 Ibase study, “Regarding the opinions on the strong points of the Forum as per the
origin of participants, we can see that Venezuelans and Malians as well highlighted most
‘defending human rights, democracy and diversity’ (57.3% and 55.6% respectively).” What
survey data exists for social forums below the world level also indicates that a primacy is put
on human rights. According to a recent paper by Christopher Chase-Dunn and Matheu
Kaneshiro human rights/anti-racism were just as central to social movements at the 2007
United States Social Forum as they were to social movements at the 2005 and 2007 World
Social Forums leading all other issues as matters of concern. (2008)

Advancing the Human Rights Agenda at the 2009 WSF - Belem

Suffice it to say survey evidence indicates that human rights discourse and politics have
become mainstream concerns at the World Social Forum. That said, in what ways has the
WSF been used by civil society actors to advance key debates on human rights and
globalization? This section will offer four examples from this year’s forum in this regard
focusing on the:

• Provision of evidence on the negative impact of neoliberal globalization on human

rights, in particular, the right to food.
• Expansion and creation of new rights, in particular, women’s right to livelihoods
• The importance of accountability beyond the state in terms of corporate social
• The necessity of recognizing and implementing collective rights, in particular,
indigenous rights.

Providing Evidence of Trade Liberalizations Negative Impact on the Right to Food

The 2000 UN Development Report cited previously argued that “Information and
statistics are a powerful tool for creating a culture of accountability and for realizing human
rights.” (p. 10) Information and evidence can, the Report claimed, can be used to “break
down barriers of disbelief and mobilize changes in policy and behaviour.” Or in the case to
be referred to shortly used to break down and de-legitimize the belief system of the benefits
of trade liberalization in the pursuit of alternative policy directions.

Critiquing the impact of neoliberal globalization on human rights has been part of
every WSF. However, few of these critiques are grounded in empirically rigorous reports that
soundly debunk the claims of trade liberalizers on the benefits of free trade. An exception to
this occurred in a panel on “Food, Peasant Farmers and Global Trade: a Human Rights

Approach to Global Free Trade” sponsored by the German based NGO, Bread for the World.
The panel provided a stinging indictment of trade liberalization’s impact on the right to food
in Ghana, Honduras, and Indonesia. What gave the panel its sting was that it was based on an
in depth comprehensive study commissioned by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and
conducted under the auspices of FIAN International, the Food First Information and Action
Network. The purposed of FIAN is to “to expose violations of people's right to food wherever
they may occur.” ( In this sense the panel focused
on one of the most important subjects of this year’s forum, food, the right to food, and food

As the report, Trade Policies and Hunger, noted “The Human Right to Food is a
basic human right for every human being,” a right “enshrined in Article 11 of the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.” (p. 9) More specifically
the General Comment No. 12 by the UN Committee on Social and Cultural Rights in 1999
indicated what the content of this right meant:

The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in
community with others, has physical and adequate food or means for its procurement.

Adequate food, moreover, cannot be viewed narrowly as a minimum intake of calories per
day. As the report notes states are the primary actors charged with implementing the right to
food. This obligation applied not only to states in terms of their domestic responsibilities but
also in terms of fulfilling this obligation “during international negotiations, including trade
negotiations.” (p. 13)

The purpose of the Report was to “find out whether the Right to Adequate Food of
specific rice producing communities in Ghana, Honduras, and Indonesia has been negatively
affected or violated through specific rice trade policies.” (p. 9) All three of these countries
had been pressured by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to open
markets and remove supports. The result, the Report found, was that trade liberalization has
been devastating to local rice producers. U.S. subsidized rice has been dumped on the market
in all three countries making it impossible for local producers to compete. In Ghana, for
example, local rice farmers saw “the demand for their rice drop 75 percent since 2000.”
(Executive Summary, p. 2) Elsewhere, in Honduras, “local rice production collapsed in the
early 1990s.” (Executive Summary, p. 2) The loss of farmer’s livelihood and incomes were
not offset by lower consumer rice costs for the population as a whole. In fact, as the panel
and Report made clear rice prices increased in all three countries “because of the high
concentration of the rice business” (Exec Summary, p. 3)

In conclusion the evidence indicates that trade liberalization, facilitated by external

actors such as the IMF, World Bank and other governments have “prevented governments
from fulfilling the rights of their citizens.” (Exec. Summary, p. 4) Moreover, as the Report
indicates, it is clear that trade liberalization in this instance was a policy failure de-stabilizing
and marginalizing small scale farming communities. The effects of this failure are being felt
across on three continents. As one African panelist stated, “People now come to expect that
more comes from the outside. It is what they know. The country no longer produces for itself.
People lose their rights.” (Authors Notes, 30 January 2009)

Expanding and Creating New Human Rights – Women’s Right to Livelihoods

The loss of rights, rights to livelihoods, was a key message of a series of three panels
on Women’s Rights to Livelihoods which culminated in the launch of the Global Network on
Women and the Right to Livelihoods. These panels represent a good example of how the
WSF takes existing international human rights norms and pushes them in new directions.
These panels were facilitated by the India based “Programme on Women’s Economic, Social
and Cultural Rights” (PWESCR). The purpose in creating the Network as panelists from
India, Brazil, the Philippines, and Vietnam made clear was “to expand the concept of
women’s economic, social and cultural rights so that having the means to achieve a decent
life becomes recognized as a basic human right” by the United Nations. (PWESCR)

In brief, the argument was made that women’s right to livelihoods must be viewed
holistically and should be based on key conditions necessary for livelihood such as the right
to land, water, forests, food, food security and income security. Underlying the call for a right
to livelihood are threats stemming from massive displacements of people from the land due
to development projects such as dams and extractive projects spurred on by trade and
investment liberalization. The consequence not unlike what was pointed out earlier in this
section is that sustainable forms of agriculture are disappearing along with traditional forms
of sustenance. (PWSECR) Climate change and natural disasters are making things worse.
Deforestation, for example, results in the “loss of water, fruits, and vegetables.” (Author’s
Notes 30-Jan. 09) When livelihoods are lost there is a breakdown of the socio-cultural fabric
of society of which “women are the worst sufferers.” (PWSECR)

The goals of the newly creating network of over forty organizations “are grounded in
the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.” The ICESR, in turn,
“provides that ‘The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the rights of everyone to
an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing
and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.’” (PWSECR) Too
often, however, this provision is interpreted as solely “the right to work.” Hence the Network
has expanded its conception to include the right to livelihoods, which focuses on the
“conditions that are necessary to support, sustain, and advance the lives of women and their
communities and families in dignity.” (PWSECR) The collective strategy of the includes not
only gaining recognition of this right but also forcing governments to cease supporting
corporations, for example by giving them land, and instead, support the people by “investing
in social security – education, health care, and protection of land rights and forests.”
(Author’s Notes 30-Jan.-09)

Corporate Social Responsibility – Means of Accountability, Norms or Direct Action?

Corporate social responsibility until recently could be dismissed as a nonsensical

expression. Nearly 40 years, on September 13, 1970 the neoconservative economist, Milton
Friedman, wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled "The Social
Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits." Friedman scoffed at the idea that
business should have a social conscience. Yet, beginning in the 1990s a world wide
movement has emerged arguing precisely the opposite. (Aguirre 2005) This year’s WSF
included a panel, “Corporate Social Responsibility” sponsored by FIDH centring on
strategies of holding corporations accountable for human rights violations. The panel
provided a good example of the tensions over how best to achieve corporate social

responsibility (CSR). On side there is a growing movement to create norms that become part
of the international human rights regime and directly applicable to corporations. On the other
side are those who espouse the use of direct action campaigns to pressure corporations to
respect human rights.

That corporations have violated human rights was not an issue in the panel. A
plethora of examples were offered, for example, the violations of rights of workers, forced
evictions of population from the land, and despoliation of water resources. The key
difference between the representative from FIDH and the representative from the
“International Campaign to Hold Coca-Cola Accountable” was on the best means of making
corporations accountable. The FIDH panelist put herself squarely in the transnational civil
society movement advocating the strengthening of human rights norms with the objective of
making them legally applicable to multinational corporations. At present the international
human rights regime does not apply directly to non-state actors but rather to states whose
obligation it is to prevent and punish human rights abuses. To date corporations have resisted
efforts to make them legally responsible for violations of human rights. As Aguirre notes “the
outcome has been a piecemeal attempt at accountability, with civil society calling for legal
liability, while governments and MNCs cling tightly to the voluntary nature of CSR.”
(2005:44) For the FIDH panelist it was necessary for NGOs work towards “mandatory and
enforceable norms.” (Author’s Notes, 31-Jan.-2009) The ultimate objective would be a
binding convention applicable to corporations. To get there, however, NGOs would have to
put pressure on states to adopt such a convention.

The panelist from the International Campaign to Hold Coca-Cola Accountable took
an entirely different approach. Somewhat uncharitably he responded by saying those who put
their faith in norms as a means of holding corporations accountable for human rights
violations were “living in la-la land.” (Author’s Notes 31-Jan.-09) He then outlined the harm
Coca-Cola had done to groundwater in India with water table in some areas falling by 10 feet
in five years. Moreover, for every one liter of product Coca-Cola produced eight liters of
waste water. Campaigns in India had yielded some positive results. For example, a village
council in the state of Kerala was able to shut down Coca-Cola’s largest plant four years ago.
Yet, putting pressure on governments was not working well overall. Indian governments, it
was noted, are very inefficient and existing laws are simply not enforced. Moreover, “Coca-
Cola does not take issues raised in India very seriously.” (Author’s Notes 31-Jan.-09)
Resorting to the use of international norms was not a fruitful approach the anti-Coke panelist
insisted. Cited as an example was the UN Global Compact.
( The Global Compact promoted strongly by at the time
UN Secretary General, Koffi Anan, was launched on July 26, 2000. In essence the Global
Compact is a set of ten principles designed to encourage MNCs to adopt sustainable and
socially responsible policies. Two of these principles refer to the obligations of corporations
to respect and support human rights. The Global Compact, however, was cited by the anti-
Coke panelist “as a lesson on how not to have norms.” The compact was purely voluntary
and even “Coca-Cola had joined and said they were part of the Global Compact.” (Author’s
Notes 31-Jan.-09)

Rather than rely on states and norms the International Campaign to Hold Coca-Cola
Accountable had taken a different tack. Reasoning that Coca-Cola only understood the power
of money the decision was made to take the campaign against Coke directly to its biggest
markets in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, and Italy where they make most of their

money. One tactic has been to work with university students to take Coca-Cola out of
universities. As a result it was claimed that Coca-Cola was now starting to pay attention to
their demands. That said it was admitted that there is a need to build up a legal regime by
which actions could be taken against corporate violators of human rights.

Recognizing and Implementing the Collective Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Since the WSF began, with the possible exception of the 2004 WSF in Mumbai,
indigenous peoples and their causes have not been a very visible part of the WSF program.
For example, in 2003 only 1.5% or 42 out of 938 events were devoted to indigenous issues.
In 2004 thanks to the marked presence of the Advivasis or tribal peoples of India that figure
rose to 2.6% or 110 events out of 1407 but fell back to 1.7% or 121 events out of 1047 in
2005. (Glasius and Timms 2006:212) To some extent this seems incongruous. After all, the
Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, the consequent influence of Zapatismo, and the holding of
encuentros in Mexico are commonly seen as an inspiration for the WSF. (Khasnabish 2005)
This year the International Council of the WSF attempted to rectify this deficiency by setting
aside one day as Pan-Amazon Day dedicated to discussing issues pertinent to the region and
the Afro-Indigenous peoples who reside there. Beyond this a number of other panels directed
towards indigenous issues were held over the course of the WSF.

For two reasons the timing was excellent. First, to a very significant degree the
natural and renewable resources that MNCs desire access to can be found in lands occupied
by indigenous peop;es in North and South America, Africa and Asia. Second, this was the
first WSF held after the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007 by a vote of 144 to 4. The four countries
opposed were countries with large tracts of land inhabited by indigenous peoples and with a
history of supporting civil and political rights over economic, social and cultural rights,
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.

The UNDRIP took twenty years to negotiate and included, after some contestation,
indigenous leaders as its negotiators. The emphasis of the Declaration is on collective rights.
Taken together the 46 articles of the Declaration give indigenous peoples important collective
rights, including that of self-determination, over their traditional lands, territories, resources,
and intellectual property and knowledge. The Declaration has been hailed as “a momentous
act, on a par with passage in 1948 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights” with “great
positive implications for all peoples and the planet.” (International Forum on Globalization,
21 January 2009) Whether this is the case or not remains to be seen.

However, as the panel “Indigenous Rights in Action” held on 29 January 2009

acknowledged much more work needs to be done to apply and implement the Declaration.
According to Trevor Stevenson of the Amazon Alliance, the network of NGOs that work in
the Amazon, the intent is to have the Declaration apply not only to states but also to non-state
actors including corporations and NGOs. As Stevenson pointed out, many “NGOs don’t even
follow their own internal codes on how to interact with Indigenous peoples.” (Author’s Notes
29-Jan.-2009) Despite this good intent NGOs were seen as deficient in other ways.
According to one Amazonian indigenous participant NGOs had done a poor job of letting
indigenous people know what the Declaration was and said. “Lawyers,” he said, “know.”
Moreover, “those [states, corporations] who know about the Declaration have the power.”
(Author’s Notes 29-Jan.-2009) People in the villages had to know and to know the

Declaration had to be translated into local languages. This observation met with the
concurrence of a Masai woman who argued that “what indigenous people need is more
information.” Implicitly understood was that information is necessary to educate and
education is a necessary element in mobilizing in defence of their rights. Until that occurs the
Declaration must be view in terms of potential with even the UN reluctant to push for its


As the paper has shown human rights discourse and human rights politics have
become mainstreamed in the WSF. They have, moreover, become part of the global effort to
reimbed the economy in society and bring it under democratic control. Importantly , this
discourse remains strongly rooted in the traditional of universal human rights espoused by the
UN and articulated in the UDHR and the international human rights regime. This dominant
discourse, it must be said, is independent of and precedes the WSF. In the remainder of this
paper I would like to briefly discuss some implications of linking the promotion of human
rights at the WSF to universality and the UN based human rights system. I will then discuss
some issues surrounding universality, the role of the state, the UN, and non-state actors in
articulating, promoting and protecting human rights.

This paper began by quoting Santos on human rights becoming the language of
progressive politics. Santos, however, is highly critical of the emphasis placed on the
universality of human rights. According to Santos, “the concept of human rights is based on a
well-known set of presuppositions, all of which are namely Western, namely: there is a
universal human nature that can be known by rational means.” (2007:13) Santos’s argument
is that “so long as human rights are conceived as universal human rights they will tend to
operate as a globalized localism, a form of globalization from above” serving dominant
capitalist and state interests. The notion of human rights, he argues, must be formed by a
cross-cultural dialogue with other cultures, in particular, Islamic and Hindu culture. Only
when the Western concept of human rights is transformed and re-conceptualized can it
become the leading edge of “an insurgent cosmopolitan project.” (2007: 11, 13)

To some extent, Santos is simply re-stating criticisms of the proponents of cultural

relativists albeit with some means of resolution. It is hard, however, to ignore Santos’s
criticisms. Human rights are socially and historically defined and the Western concept of
human rights is the most pervasive and can be used for purposes of domination. According
to Chase-Dunn and Kaneshiro, “many activists resent the use of human rights discourse by
the powers that be to justify the existing structures of global governance.” Chase-Dunn and
Kaneshiro argue that “those who want to democratize global governance should confront this
issue head on by sharply distinguishing genuine concern for individual and group civil rights
as well as issues of economic human rights and economic democracy, from the use of human
rights discourse to justify neoliberal policies.” (2008:8) To a great extent this is already being
done at the WSF. Yet, there is a need for a greater critical awareness for many social
movements and NGOs at the WSF of the dangers of so closely identifying their campaigns
for human rights with the UN human rights based framework, particularly this particular UN
which has moved closer to accommodating neoliberal globalization, dominant states and
corporations. Moreover, whether the WSF can be used as a space in which a broader inter-
cultural concept of human rights can emerge is doubtful. Most social movements and NGOs

converge at the WSF for instrumental purposes, to further their campaigns, using whatever
human rights tools are available and not to think on the scale Santos suggests is needed.

While Santos’s proposal is probably a long way from being realized there is no
reason why the UN should not be more sharply interrogated by the WSF, NGOs and social
movements. An excellent example of the need to question the changing orientation can be
found in its formulation of the Global Compact mentioned previously in the paper. According
to the website “Global Compact Critics” “the Compact has become a tool that
institutionalizes CSR mechanisms” in a way that evades “control by the public sector and
organized civil society.” ( In sharper terms, Ramesh
Singh, chief executive of the NGO ActionAid, states that the Global Compact "at the moment
is so voluntary that it really is a happy-go-lucky club.”
( Clearly the top down Compact needs to be
scrapped (Smith, 2008 ISA) in favour of an alternative, more democratic approach, one that
would include a different UN than exists at the moment.

This alternative approach, of necessity, must include states as the UN is an

international body of states. Yet, to accomplish this just as the UN must be contested so must
states. States, even with the need for a much greater emphasis on non-state actors, remain as
central players in promoting and protecting human rights. This means that a different state, a
state not pervaded by neoliberal ideology, is needed. This would require that the state be
recognized as a key area of contestation for civil society. For a human rights culture to
become meaningful in the lives of citizens the state must be democratized, empowered and
used as means of reimbedding the economy in society.

To a certain extent, there is a greater appreciation in the Global South than the Global
North of the need to contest the state and see it as means of reimbedding the economy.
Within the global justice movement there are differences in terms of how the
countermovement should occur along with its relationship to state power. In the Global North
(the richer and more powerful nations), particularly in Europe, there is a tendency within
many activists involved in the global justice movement to stress the autonomy of the
countermovement from the state, and to be highly critical of state power and representative
democracy (della Porta, et. al. 2006). Yet, as Santos (2006: 114) argues, “there are those
who think that the state is a social relation and, as such, it is contradictory and continues to be
an important arena of struggle.” This is particularly true in areas of the Global South. For
example, in Latin America populist anti-neoliberal movements stress the centrality of the
state as a site of resistance. Elsewhere, transnational feminist networks “criticize neoliberal
capitalism [and] call for the return of the welfare, developmentalist state … and an alternative
to capitalist globalization that is grounded in human rights” (Moghadam 2005:19). All this
requires taking power seriously if human rights are to be fully realized. The rise of Evo
Morales to power as president of Bolivia is emblematic of the change that may be needed.

Beyond the state, in a globalized era, it remains imperative to act on a global scale to
promote and protect human rights. Non-state actors, institutions of global governance, and
NGOs must be held accountable by a mandatory human rights regime whether enforced by a
revitalized UN or an independent body analogous to the International Criminal Court. All
these institutions must become more democratized, transparent and accountable and act

within a pervasive human rights culture. In this regard the WSF can and should play a critical

By frame I refer to the social construction of meaning or interpretation used by collective actors (social
movements) to convince people to take collective action.


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