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International Movements for Global Justice


[Translate to en:] WSF/Gay Pride, Montreal 2016
[Translate to en:] WSF/Gay Pride, Montreal 2016 (Foto: Stefanie Kron, RLS)

A collaboration between the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and the Berliner Entwicklungspolitischer Ratschlag (BER.

A discussion paper to accompany the opening event titled "Nachhaltig politisieren – Globale soziale Rechte als Alternative zur Agenda 2030" on 6 June 2018. By Stefanie Kron (Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung), Alexander Schudy and Sylvia Werther (Berliner Entwicklungspolitischer Ratschlag).

Today, transnational law has primarily evolved into an instrument of domination exploited by global corporations to secure their interests. It protects pharmaceutical companies’ patents and corporate investments, while HIV patients are deprived of access to affordable generic medication. Transnational companies undermine human rights, environmental conservation efforts and labour rights. In doing so, they can rely on international agreements which protect the rights of private investors and so-called free trade. But there also exists a body of social rights at the international level. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights already emphasises the indivisibility and interdependence of political and social human rights. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) sets down extensive legal standards, and its signatories are legally obliged to implement a set of minimum core obligations. [1] The International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions provide a frame of reference for the international realisation of core labour standards, as well as for the protection of migrant workers and indigenous groups. Social rights are also enshrined in the European Social Charter.

Collectively, these agreements are known as “Global Social Rights”. Over the past decades, these social rights have been undermined and eroded in favour of trade and investor rights. For this reason, Andreas Fischer-Lescano and Kolja Möller (2012) insist that we need Global Social Rights to be (re-)appreciated and strengthened. The sociologist Stephan Lessenich (2016) is even more explicit: In his critique of today’s “externalisation society” he accuses the countries of the Global North of maintaining an “imperial mode of living” (Brand/Wissen 2017). These societies, he says, externalise their social and environmental costs primarily to the Global South, while the European Union and the US continue to intensify their border lockdown policies. However, as a model, the imperial mode of living and its underlying economic doctrine, the capitalist dogma of perpetual economic growth, have reached their limits. Global social justice is no longer an issue discussed behind closed doors in the fields of ethics and politics; in fact, we are already beginning to feel the repercussions resulting from the externalised costs that unjust globalisation is accumulating – in the form of climate change, for instance. The long list of current global socio-ecological challenges and social conflicts has come to include environmental change, an increase in the number of refugees and migrants, resource scarcity and extreme exploitation along transnational value chains. As Lessenich puts it, these are all indicators that we urgently need a transnational legal framework to “effectively codify Global Social Rights” (Lessenich 2016: 195).

But instead, across Europe and the US, responses to these transnational social challenges and conflicts are increasingly defined by economic protectionism [2], and a narrowing down of social and environmental policies to the national levels. Along with the resurgence of far-right parties, we are currently witnessing a disturbing social normalisation of right-wing populist and xenophobic political attitudes. In this context, social rights are becoming tied to nationality or citizenship, and thus redefined as a privilege.

Against this background, it is not only critical intellectuals who are calling for a strengthening of Global Social Rights. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, anti-globalisation movements, trade unions and non-governmental organisations had already launched a debate on Global Social Rights. In a joint statement published in 2007, the actors behind the “Platform of the Initiative for Global Social Rights” demanded that “the globalisation of capital, markets and commodities be checked by the globalisation of social rights”.[3] However, the onset of the 2008 global financial crisis muted the debate, and the alleged “inherent necessities” of neoliberal austerity policies prevailed in its place.

The revolts that took place during the Arab Spring in 2011 strengthened the ongoing struggles of migrants fighting for a global right to freedom of movement and establishment. The Occupy movements across Southern Europe and the US stood up to oppose the “politics of neoliberal authoritarianism and dead-end financial cutbacks” (Candeias/Völpel 2014). International campaigns such as the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) began to make visible workers’ struggles for rights along the production chains of the global textile industry. Transnational social movements for climate justice and energy democracy also gained momentum, as did the long-standing global network of landless peoples’ movements, La Vía Campesina. These movements, networks and struggles similarly highlight that we must find transnational and rights-based responses to global social conflicts and the underlying asymmetry of North-South relations. 

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the UN member countries in 2015, might well provide a starting point for this undertaking. An important aim of the 2030 Agenda was to define the SDGs on the basis of human rights, and in fact, there are many ways in which the two are related. Both strive to combat inequalities, achieve food security, education and health for all and promote sustainable modes of production as well as decent work. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000, the SDGs no longer address the countries of the Global South as the sole target group for development policies. Instead, the SDGs now also call upon the countries of the Global North to minimise their deficits in the various fields of sustainable development. Thus, the SDGs might possibly spark debates on issues of distributive and global social justice. However, the 2030 Agenda fails to fundamentally question the doctrine of capitalist economic growth, and although human rights were once instrumental in formulating the SDGs, they are no longer reflected in the current indicators or action plans (see Martens 2016).

In addition, large parts of organised civil society in the North are still unaware that in its aim to bring about these vital transformations, the 2030 Agenda’s call for action also addresses the Global North. Most development organisations, including those based in Germany, continue to focus on the sustainable development deficits of countries in the Global South. Rather than unravelling the global dimensions of social injustice, they continue to push for better working conditions, access to education or health care in the target countries. This means that most German development NGOs do not address domestic educational inequality, i.e. the structural marginalisation of workers’ children and children from migrant families, let alone frame this marginalisation as part of a global system of exclusion and injustice that permeates the educational sector in general. Instead, German discussions of the SDGs are often narrowed down to questions of ethical consumerism, with a particular focus on technicalities that are based on a purely economic, indicator-based performance assessment of anti-poverty campaigns in the Global South.

Against this background, we therefore want to call for a revival of these debates and re-emphasise our solidarity with those fighting for Global Social Rights across the plural Left and organised civil society. We will therefore need to establish whether Global Social Rights are a suitable instrument for politicising the debate on SDGs and connecting it with an emancipatory perspective, ie. a perspective that is critical enough of the SDGs’ implicit focus on dogmatic economic growth to embrace a global economic and socio-ecological transformation that includes the aim to overcome the current asymmetry of North-South relations. And: Can the various existing struggles and actors making up the current social rights movements be brought together to build a joint, solidarity-based global political strategy for Social Rights, one that can “renew the promise of social justice on a global scale” (Fischer-Lescano/Möller 2012)?

Global Social Rights are political

As a concept, Global Social Rights do not designate a clearly defined programme. Rather, they constitute a discourse that can take on various shapes and forms across different political contexts and struggles. In this discourse, the realisation of social, economic and cultural rights (ESC rights) is considered a prerequisite for the realisation of civic and political human rights – freedom of speech, for instance – and vice versa. The conviction that social and political human rights are indivisible and interdependent is what distinguishes the discourse on Global Social Rights from liberal human rights discourses, which abstract civic and political rights from the social and societal conditions that they are embedded in. Global Social Rights, by contrast, tie in with more recent human rights discussions that have been held at the United Nations concerning the strengthening social human rights,[4] which gives them strong institutional legitimacy. A number of social, economic and cultural rights have already been codified into national legislations, constitutions or international agreements. They allow victims to take legal action against violations, and can serve as touchstones for future campaigns (see Fischer-Lescano/Möller 2012).

Yet Global Social Rights are a project that exceeds the scope defined by the “Platform of the Initiative for Global Social Rights” in 2007. It is more political and more controversial in nature because it makes visible and aims to overcome the power relations and social injustices that prevent the realisation of fundamental social rights for all: wage labour, for instance, and the profit principle underlying the capitalist mode of production, patriarchal power structures in the economic, political and social spheres, concepts of citizenship based on ethnic or national identities, racist exclusion as well as (neo)colonial structures and the border regimes that are currently in place. The Global Social Rights movement also demands equal rights for all people, irrespective of their nationality, background, place of residence, sex, colour or religious beliefs. These demands conceive the human being as an active political subject and an individual and collective bearer of rights. 

Critiques of capitalism and growth

The historical continuities of colonialism and imperialism as well as capitalism’s current expansion across the globe structure and shape global relations of power and domination. Multinational corporations have built a global regime of value chains based on transnational exploitation. The powerful industrial nations have established an international trade regime that organises the production of goods across the globe, and deregulated financial markets function as an instrument that supports them in imposing their economic interests. The capitalist exploitation of resources and greenhouse gas emissions are destroying ecosystems, and along with them, many people’s livelihoods – to date, primarily in the Global South.

The Global Social Rights movement throws into question this global, capitalist and growth-based model of development which, permeated with racism and patriarchal structures, creates and cements social inequalities. In this context, questions related to economic and socio-ecological transformation are of particular importance. Lessenich, for instance, not only calls for a transnationally binding legal framework for social rights, but also advocates a “global social contract to decelerate climate change and identify egalitarian measures to address its impacts”. He also stresses the need to transform national economies, especially those in the Global North, into post-growth economies that embrace socially accountable and environmentally sustainable modes of production and the protection of ecosystems (Lessenich 2016: 195). 

Social movements

The Global Social Rights movement draws its strength primarly from the struggles of trade unions, civil society organisations and protest movements. Throughout history, it has mainly been social movements that pushed for new social and democratic rights or achieved the inclusion of marginalised groups. Their initiatives highlight that individual and collective rights must first be fought for and adopted before they can become legally codified and institutionalised. The demands put forward by social movements are therefore crucial for ensuring that social rights are realised and recognised by parliaments and institutions. Parliamentary initiatives or negotiation processes in international forums can also mobilise extra-institutional movements, as shown by the UN climate conferences (see Kanzleiter 2017). 

The social movements for climate justice and energy democracy, however, merely reflect current social conflicts that have long surpassed the level of the nation-state and can only be grasped on a global scale. There are two further examples of successful transnational struggles for Global Social Rights that we would like to point out. The first is linked to the issue of labour rights in the maritime sector, the second concerns initiatives that promote the inclusion of migrants at the communal and municipal levels in North America and Europe.

Ahoy transnational labour rights

The debates and policies concerning fair trade and global corporate social responsibility (CSR) reflect the increasingly important role of social rights along transnational value chains. Decent work is defined as the 8th Sustainable Development Goal in the 2030 Agenda. The ILO recently also addressed the issue of “Decent work in global supply chains” at its annual International Labour Conference in 2016. As a project, however, Global Social Rights are especially suited to develop and implement Left perspectives on the debate on social and environmental standards in transnational value chains, beyond the concepts of fair trade, ethical consumerism and corporate responsibility. To this end, we need to turn our attention to labour struggles that are being fought in the transnational spaces of value chains. For years, there have been successful campaigns pushing for transnational labour rights in two sectors: port industries and merchant shipping. Examples are the bargaining agreeements negotiated by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) for over 12,000 merchant vessels and their crews. Observance of these agreements is monitored by a global network of ITF port inspectors, and port workers are prepared to organise strikes and blockades in order to back and re-negotiate their claims, should the need arise (see Boewe 2016, Stötzel 2016). 

The global right to movement and Cities of Solidarity

None of the Sustainable Development Goals within the 2030 Agenda explicitly addresses the transnational movement of refugees and migrants. Merely Goal 10, which is aimed at “reducing inequality within and among countries, contains a sub-target to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people”. However, there is no mention of the right to freedom of movement and establishment. This is an irritating omission given the social, political and humanitarian significance that the issue of migration has assumed at the global level. For more and more people, the right to freedom of movement and establishment is becoming a prerequisite for them to be able to secure their access to social rights, and it is, strictly speaking, not a social, but an individual freedom. In the field of migration policy, however, the debate on Global Social Rights still remains closely tied to the demand for freedom of movement and establishment put forward by migrant and pro-migrant networks. Concrete examples and experiences for the implementation of policies that connect the global right to freedom of movement with social rights have primarily emerged in the context of urban spaces and communities. The growing movement of Sanctuary Cities in North America and Solidarity Cities in Europe, which include Palermo, Barcelona, Berlin and Zurich, facilitate the right to global freedom of movement and establishment by detaching social rights from concepts of nationality, citizenship or residential status. Instead, these municipal governments consider all inhabitants of their cities as citizens endowed with rights, which are to be defended against national-level legislation if necessary. Cities such as New York and Zurich are working to introduce communal identity documents that all inhabitants can apply for – irrespective of their formal residential status – in order to receive access to education, health care, housing and the labour market. Other cities are testing the limits of municipal legislation in order to protect their inhabitants against deportation (Kron 2017, Lebuhn 2016). 

Conclusion: Global Social Rights as an alternative to the 2030 Agenda?

The SDGs contained in the 2030 Agenda “are neither a catalogue of demands compiled by protest movements, nor a programme drafted by non-governmental organisations” (Forum Menschenrechte 2016), but rather a catalogue of non-binding statements of intent put forward by the international community. Even though they were formulated in the spirit of internationally binding human rights, these rights are not included in national action plans. As a result, the SDGs are development targets which, unlike their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, open up a global perspective on sustainable development that also calls on the Global North to take action. However, the SDGs do not contain a fundamental critique of the doctrine of economic growth, nor are states legally bound to implement them. In addition, they also fail to strengthen the democratic and social rights of the people living in the targeted societies. 

Given the global social conflicts concerning decent work, freedom of movement, health care, education, decent housing and natural resources, along with the resurgence of right-wing populism and the rise in racially motivated crimes across Europe and North America, we urgently need a rights-based and legally binding revision of the SDGs. This is underlined by the shadow report on Germany’s National Sustainable Development Strategy, the most recent version of which was adopted in 2017. It lists various fields that are neglected in the Strategy, despite being specified in the 2030 Agenda. Goal 10, for instance, aims to reduce inequality within countries. States should therefore be undertaking efforts to realise human rights for all, for instance by promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities or fighting hate crimes. In Germany’s National Sustainability Strategy, however, these aspects are only included in the form of non-committal expectations that address relevant state and non-state actors and not – as demanded by the majority of organised civil society actors – by laying down legally binding obligations that are tied to sanctions in the event of non-compliance.

At the same time, the many social rights struggles and the urgent pleas voiced by critical intellectuals to politically (re-)appreciate and institutionally strengthen the status of social human rights mark attempts to dissolve and overcome global inequalities and global forms of exploitation. But a more effective legal status is not the only demand pursued by the Global Social Rights movement. Global Social Rights are also being articulated as a discourse of self-emancipation, for instance by workers, women, LGBTI people and migrants striving to ensure that their interests as political subjects are recognised by the state and international organisations. In addition, the struggle for Global Social Rights opens up the opportunity for various actors to consolidate their demands. This could help the isolated social rights struggles that are being waged throughout the world to articulate a united and solidarity-based political strategy for an egalitarian (world) society. This is what makes Global Social Rights so attractive for an emancipatory and internationalist Left perspective. 

Development policies, too, could draw on Global Social Rights as a global, rights-based framework that integrates the demands and interests of movements and moves beyond the state-negotiated intentions contained in the SDGs. In other words, the Global Social Rights movement can be seen as a potential civil-society-based response to the 2030 Agenda; after all, social rights are part of our indivisible human rights under international law. The discourses and struggles revolving around Global Social Rights also highlight the limitations of the dogma of economic growth and can thus help to politicise the SDGs in a critical manner. In this way, they forge a path for development NGOs to eliminate their dependency on state-defined technical indicators for assessing sustainable development targets. Instead, as an international movement, they, too, could push for transformation towards a just, and therefore truly sustainable, world.

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[1] The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights enshrines so-called social rights as economic, social and cultural rights (ESC rights). To date, this multilateral international agreement has been ratified by 160 countries

[2] The so-called trade war between the US and Europe, which came to a head in April this year, proves that even neoliberal free trade and investment agreements are going through a crisis, facing mounting pressure from neo-national protectionist policies. 

[3] Among the institutions and initiatives that joined the platform were the policy affairs department at IG Metall, medico international, Attac, Greenpeace and “Kein Mensch ist illegal” (No one is illegal).

[4] See the Vienna Declaration 1993 and Programme of Action.