Associative freedom and asymmetric globalization

5D3_5836_e_1140.jpgThe Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room at the UN Palace of Nations in Geneva. The chamber’s extraordinary dome was created by Spanish artist Miquel Barceló.

In the international relations courses I took at Capilano, we talked a lot about asymmetric globalization — some economic sectors liberalizing while others remain protected or tightly regulated, the permeability of borders for capital relative to labour, members of a bloc of countries increasing interaction and integration between themselves while erecting barriers to outsiders, etc. This factsheet from the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association alerted me to a dimension of asymmetry I wasn’t aware of:

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The Special Rapporteur’s full report on differential enabling environments for associations and businesses includes more examples of restrictions to freedom of association across borders increasing in tandem with international capital flows:

The Russian Federation requires associations receiving foreign funds and engaging in vaguely defined “political activity” to register as “foreign agents”, which carries the connotation that they are spies. Yet as recently as 2013, one United Nations study ranked the Russian Federation as the world’s third most successful country in attracting foreign capital.

Egypt has also severely limited associations’ ability to accept foreign funding, banning its receipt without government permission. The failure to secure prior approval may lead to dissolution and criminal penalties, including imprisonment. In 2012 alone, the Government brought charges against more than 40 Egyptian and foreign NGO employees for the use of foreign funds in NGOs without prior approval. By contrast, Egypt recently instituted a wave of reforms aimed at increasing commercial foreign investment, for example by signing bilateral conventions with more than one hundred countries to provide protection and privileges for foreign investors.

Asymmetries in globalization can be harmful or benign. Examples of benign asymmetry would include protection for state control of key public services like health care and education; common examples of harmful asymmetry include agricultural subsidies and tariffs in rich countries and draconian restrictions on economic migrants. The asymmetry between freedom of association across borders for commercial and noncommercial purposes is deeply harmful; it both reflects and feeds back on existing political and economic inequalities within countries by strangling political parties and civil society organizations (including trade unions) through which the poor can advance their legitimate interests and work for an equitable distribution of the gains from trade, while groups with diametrically opposed interests enjoy unprecedented wealth and power. Ironically, this power imbalance can end up entrenching certain barriers to trade, because the segments of the business class may have both the incentive and the means to resist further liberalization measures that would be detrimental to their own interests (a familiar enough phenomenon in the rich countries) even if such measures would be beneficial to the poor majority.

Asymmetry of associative freedom presents a special problems, but it may also present a special opportunity for the political left. Left-wing intervention in the politics of actually existing globalization (as distinct from the ideal) often focuses on the need for internal reform among trading partners, especially measures to protect and enable meaningful exercise of workers’ right to freedom association. While these are certainly appropriate demands, compliance is difficult to monitor and harder to enforce. Domestic action is by far the more reliable means against human rights violations by domestic actors. A more productive avenue for the left may be to take up the call to turn free trade agreements into free association agreements, making increased freedom of association for commercial purposes conditional on increased freedom of association for noncommercial purposes. Improving poor people’s organizations’ access to resources and reducing the government scrutiny to which they are subject would, in the long run, improve their ability to assert and demand enforcement of human rights on their own behalf, and, by extension, effectively pursue their legitimate economic and political interests.

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