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Guns, Rights and People

HUMANITY A Moral History of the 20th Century By Jonathan Glover; Yale University Press: 480 pp., $27.95

THE GUILT OF NATIONS Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices By Elazar Barkan; W.W. Norton: 464 pp., $29.95

LEVI'S CHILDREN Coming to Terms With Human Rights in the Global Marketplace By Karl Schoenberger; Atlantic Monthly Press: 288 pp., $25

HUMAN RIGHTS IN POLITICAL TRANSITIONS Gettysburg to Bosnia Edited by Carla Alison Hesse and Robert Post; Zone Books: 332 pp., $19

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH WORLD REPORT 2000 Human Rights Watch: 514pp., price not stated

September 17, 2000|SHASHI THAROOR | Shashi Tharoor is the author of five books of fiction and nonfiction, including, most recently, "India: From Midnight to the Millennium." He is a senior adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan

Given such lofty considerations, Karl Schoenberger's analysis of the human rights policies of Levi Strauss & Co., the classic maker of blue jeans, might seem out of place. But in fact the role of corporations in the global human rights debate has never been more central, and the forces of globalization will ensure that it will matter more to more human beings whether Levi's has moral standards than, say, whether the Government of Singapore does. The protestors who brought the World Trade Organization's December 1999 meeting in Seattle to a messy halt were exercised, among other things, by their outrage over sweatshop conditions in Third World factories owned by First World multinationals. Levi's, long considered a model of American corporate responsibility, was slower than many of its competitors to abandon its American roots for foreign shores, and it adopted a pioneering global code of conduct for its employment practices in 1991. But the challenge of reconciling sound business practice with high moral standards continues, and has been brought into sharp relief on the issue of Levi's production sources in China. Schoenberger--who, unlike the other writers discussed here, is a journalist, not a scholar--is thorough, well-informed and chatty in his treatment of these issues. His conclusion is intriguing: "In the absence of some kind of moral compass redefining the values of multinational corporations from within," he writes, "American business risks the real possibility that society will impose its values from the outside. . . . When enough American consumers wake up to the fact that they are as much to blame for the social injustices of globalization as the multinationals that pander to their demand for cheap goods, then things might begin to happen."

Like Glover, Schoenberger sees hope in the evolution of United Nations policies in this area. "If finding a solution to the injustices of globalization is stalled on account of the infallibility of multilateralism," he suggests, "then it follows that the solution itself must be multilateral." U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call at Davos last year for a "global compact" between international business and the United Nations system meets with Schoenberger's approval. Annan's invitation to corporations to adhere voluntarily to a number of international standards already established by governments--the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ILO's workplace standards, the Rio Principles on the environment--does not strike Schoenberger as radical, and it is devoid of any compliance-monitoring mechanism, but "as an exercise in moral suasion, it could help turn the tide against stragglers in the international business community who still hope that the human rights challenge is going to go away and leave them in peace to concentrate solely on profit maximization." Schoenberger would like Annan "to sell his vision of converging values of commercial and corporate social accountability to the WTO," but this is not on the anvil. Nonetheless, the Global Compact is a start; a recent meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York, after Schoenberger's book was published, attracted the CEOs of a significant number of major multinational corporations, from Nike to Volvo.

IV

So, in the end, who or what can bring us closer to an "ideal world"? In his portrayal of our "global village," Jonathan Glover pictures an international community in which "feuds and vendettas . . . often break into violence. All the inhabitants are armed. The part-time police force is amateurish and weak. It is run by a committee of villagers who rarely agree on what it should do. Powerful neighbors sometimes suppress violence by force. Peace will only come to such a village when the rule of law is imposed. . . . It needs the authority to intervene when the law is broken, even without the support of the great powers. This requires something along the lines of a strong and properly funded permanent UN force, together with clear criteria for intervention and an international court to authorize it."

Such a vision is not close to realization: Indeed, it is anathema to the majority on Capitol Hill, who refuse even to pay the United States' United Nations dues in order to curb what they risibly see as the world body's sovereignty-threatening overstretch. Even so, Glover sees "a political machinery of intervention to prevent atrocities and wars" emerging from international peace conferences, U.N. peace-keeping forces, and international war crimes tribunals. "The international machinery needs to be developed much further," he goes on, "but it is only part of what is needed. A change in the climate of opinion is also important. International intervention could be stronger if the attitude that war and persecution are utterly intolerable was more deeply rooted. And the atrocities themselves do not just happen: people commit them. In a different moral climate, it could be harder to take part."

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