The rights of capital above the rights of humans

It is not just governments of nation-states that violate human rights. The mammoth global business corporations of today, which are ruling us illegitimately, are responsible for serious assaults on life, liberty and property

by Ward Morehouse and Richard Grossman

On December 10, 1998, the 50th birthday of a potent instrument in the fight against corporate power was celebrated around the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, sets forth critical goals or normative standards in pursuit of "universal social justice" or "the right to be human".

"A moral document of first importance", the UDHR asserts that everyone has the right to work at compensation sufficient to live in human dignity with a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself or herself and his or her family, including food, clothing, housing and healthcare (Articles 23 and 25). The Declaration also sets forth basic political rights such as the right to recognition as a person before the law (Article 6), equal protection of the law (Article 7), the right to an effective remedy against acts violating fundamental rights of natural persons (Article 8), and, most importantly, in the struggle against corporate power, the right to self-governance in Article 21 which states that "the rule of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government."

For the past half-century, people have generally regarded governments of nation-states as the principal violators of human rights. Hence, struggles have been focused on getting governments to correct harms and to protect people's basic rights. But all too often, when there has been a conflict between the rights of the rich and powerful vs the poor and downtrodden, the rights of capital vs the rights of natural persons, priority has been given to the former.

Notwithstanding these perversions, the centrepiece of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- the right of human persons to live with basic necessities and with justice -- remains today, as it did 50 years ago, the "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations".  But we now have another group of key players to consider -- giant global corporations with gross incomes greater than the gross domestic products (GDPs) of most nation-states. When the Declaration was promulgated, we lived in a state-centred world. Since then these new players have been growing at an awesome rate. The increase in capital assets by the top 200 corporations, measured as a share of world GDP, is stunning: from 17 per cent in the mid-1960s to 24 per cent in 1982 to over 32 per cent in 1995.

While the massive presence of these giant corporations may be a relatively recent phenomenon, their impact on the world scene is not new. Since the 17th century, colonial trading corporations such as the East India Company and the Africa Company have mounted major attacks on the rights of human persons. Creations of government, these corporations have systematically used the special privileges and legitimacy bestowed by government to assault people and places under cover of law, backed by force and violence of the state.

Global business corporations today also govern -- illegitimately. But they are much greater in size and in their capacity to overwhelm those who would proclaim the "moral authority" of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These corporations, like their predecessors in previous centuries, are creations of governments. But because of their vast aggregations of capital, of property both tangible and intangible, they wield enormous political power and are beyond meaningful control by the very governments that created them.

Most of the assaults by global corporations on life, liberty and property are considered legal, even necessary and essential, and so are rarely defined as grievous assaults on human rights. These corporations have propagated systems of values, thought, and law which favour the rights of property and capital over the rights of humans, including the rights of people to own property and their own work, to be in charge of themselves. A century of legal precedent in the United States, essentially unchallenged, is now being spread around the world through corporate control of information, penetration of education and codification of law in international trade and investment agreements such as the World Trade Organization, North American Free Trade Agreement, and the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

Fashioning responses to these assaults on human rights requires a clear understanding of the extent to which giant business corporations violate human rights, not just by visible pollution, sweatshops, use of child and prison labour, and destruction of the livelihoods of indigenous peoples, but more subtly by infiltrating and subverting governments. We must help people to see that their human rights have been violated when corporations conspire with governments to write rules, to define values, to propagandise people's minds, and to deny people their fundamental right to self-governance.

From such clarity of understanding will flow effective strategies for global mass action to contest corporations' authority to govern. The first task is redefining people's struggles for human rights as struggles for self-governance. From that critical vantage point, we can go on to defining human rights as superior to the rights of capital, to defining the corporation as subordinate in democratic societies and to eliminating special privileges usurped by corporations over the last century -- from perpetual existence to limited liability.

This quotation from a "right-wing" corporate US think-tank underscores the urgency of the task of not only resisting harmful corporate assaults but also asserting the people's right to govern themselves.

"What is the right to vote compared with the right to start a business, draw wages...keep the fruits of our labour safe for the future. These are all components of capitalism, which the Chinese people are discovering is the only system compatible with the first and most important of human rights: the right to own and control what is yours."

It has been said that "the historic mission of `contemporary' human rights is to give voice to human suffering, to make it visible, and to ameliorate it." This mission will be achieved as larger numbers of people, in country after country, mobilize to assert the people's right to self-government. Such work will require a different kind of human rights discourse and action, one which exposes and strips corporations of the unconstitutionalised governing functions which they have seized from governments and ultimately from us -- we, the people. In doing so, people can reclaim their hopes, dreams, aspirations, sense of history and destiny, as well as control over their communities, their work, and their lives.

A good place to begin is by reaching out to and engaging human rights "communities" around the globe in reflection, dialogue and action on the nature of global corporations, on their role in frustrating the quest for universal justice, and on strategies needed to move us steadily towards that goal in the next half-century.

Ward Morehouse is president of the Council on International and Public Affairs. He and Richard Grossman are co-directors of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD). This article, which they contributed to Humanscape, is based on the one they wrote for Corporate Watch, a website of the Transnational Resource and Action Centre, San Francisco.