Tackling the challenges of globalisation: Why human rights should be central to G20 decision-making

Joshua Rosenzweig, Business & Human Rights Strategy Advisor/Analyst, Amnesty International

"Hypnoart" licensed under CC0.

To ensure trade and investment promote justice and well-being for all, we need human rights to be part of discussions about how to shape our interconnected world.

It’s easy to overlook just how interconnected our world has become. Some connections are effectively hidden from view, from global supply chains linking products used every day to mines, farms and factories around the globe, to networks and servers that carry and store our digital communications, commercial transactions and personal data. More visible, but often taken for granted, are the links made possible by roads, ports and power grids featuring prominently in the physical landscape.

By enabling economic and social activity, these far-reaching connections bring all kinds of benefits to people’s lives. But those opportunities come with numerous risks and challenges that, if not properly managed, can perpetuate and deepen poverty, marginalisation and inequality.

Tackling the challenges of globalisation is on the agenda of the next G20 Summit, to be held in Hamburg on 7–8 July. There, leaders from the world’s largest industrialised and emerging economies have an opportunity to set an example by making human rights central to decisions about globalisation - especially in relation to transnational supply chains, digital technology and infrastructure development.

Strengthening corporate supply chain due diligence

Consumer products we use daily can make our lives more convenient and enjoyable, but Amnesty International’s research shows how their manufacture can sometimes bring serious harm to others. Palm oil used in foods or cosmetics, for instance, is sometimes sourced from plantations where workers are routinely exploited and exposed to hazardous pesticides. The cobalt used to produce the rechargeable battery in your mobile phone most likely came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where lax regulation means it may have been handled by children as young as seven, or mined under unsafe conditions.

Some of the world’s biggest companies earn handsome profits selling products that contain raw materials like palm oil or cobalt. Many will even tout their “green” or “sustainable” credentials to the public even when there are serious problems connected with their products - all because they haven’t taken basic steps to investigate the risk of human rights impacts in their supply chains.

These aren’t the sort of global connections we should be promoting. Companies can demonstrate respect for human rights by performing due diligence to prevent and mitigate human rights risks in their supply chains, but few make that effort unless required to by law. Members of the G20, together accounting for roughly three quarters of global trade, should lead by promoting measures that require companies to perform human rights due diligence and hold companies accountable for corporate human rights abuses, including those occurring in cross-border cases.

Respecting rights in digital networks

The speed and reach of digital technologies have radically transformed what it means to communicate in the 21st century. By making it possible to send information instantaneously and provide services across borders, digital technologies create opportunities for innovation, growth and employment.

But as we connect with each other digitally, we're also transmitting enormous amounts of personal data about ourselves through platforms and networks controlled by corporations and subject to regulation and monitoring by governments. This data is extremely valuable, both to the private companies that collect, store and analyse it and to governments and their contractors that, since 9/11, see every act of digital communication as a potential key to a complex security puzzle whose completion is necessary to keep citizens safe. Fearing the spread of certain kinds of information through digital networks, some governments take draconian censorship measures - and get companies to enforce them.

The G20 needs to develop common policies and regulations to address the opportunities and risks associated with our growing digital connectedness. This means ensuring that both states and corporations respect internationally recognised human rights standards on rights to privacy, free expression and access to information. Member states should stop placing undue restrictions on individuals’ access to encryption technologies and end indiscriminate mass surveillance, including bulk data collection and storage by private companies.

Putting affected communities first

The physical infrastructure of transportation, trade and energy can seem old-fashioned compared to digital networks, but these connections are no less essential to global economic activity. Recently, there’s been a lot of emphasis on mobilising private investment and development financing to extend this infrastructure to parts of the world historically isolated and neglected.

One current G20 initiative, for example, seeks to strengthen investments in infrastructure and renewable energies in Africa to help contribute to growth and stability there. Here again, there are opportunities to enhance lives. But we’ve seen time and again how major infrastructure projects can also tear communities apart and do other damage if proper safeguards are not there to prevent abuses such as forced evictions, labour exploitation and environmental damage that threatens the rights to health, food and water.

One way to minimise human rights risks associated with infrastructure development is to give communities that stand to be most affected a say in how those projects are designed and implemented. This means being transparent about plans, risk assessments and seeking meaningful input from a variety of stakeholders. It also means building trust by demonstrating to people that their concerns will be taken seriously and that when issues are exposed they will be resolved fairly and effectively through a rigorous accountability process.

Human rights should be central to G20 decision-making

In their approach to the global economy, G20 members need to do much more than ensure financial stability and boost trade and investment. These leading economies can and should use the G20 as a platform for promoting fair and sustainable economic development by recognising the centrality of human rights in all aspects of human activity.

 This means incorporating human rights laws and standards into G20 outcomes on trade, investment and development, and advancing the respective obligations and responsibilities that states and business enterprises have regarding human rights. To ensure that trade and investment promote justice and well-being for all, we need protection and respect for human rights to be part of discussions about how to shape our interconnected world.

This blog is part of an ongoing series encouraging dialogue on, and raising the visibility of the G20 Summit as a business and human rights opportunity.