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21 Jan 2019

Ana Zbona, Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders Project Manager, BHRRC

Civic society and human rights defenders are key to making Globalization 4.0 work for everyone

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In an article last November, Klaus Schwab, chief executive of the World Economic Forum (WEF), laid the ground for the theme of this year’s event, ‘Globalisation 4.0’. “After World War II”, he wrote, “the international community came together to build a shared future. Now, it must do so again.” He continued: 

“Owing to the slow and uneven recovery in the decade since the global financial crisis, a substantial part of society has become disaffected and embittered, not only with politics and politicians, but also with globalization and the entire economic system it underpins.”

The WEF should also bear in mind that some people have been raising the alarm about our unstable and unequal economic system all along: human rights defenders. These journalists, lawyers, NGO workers, unionists, and community and indigenous leaders, have been working tirelessly to protect their land, the environment, and labour rights. For this critical work to protect our fundamental freedoms, they are consistently – and in some countries increasingly – under attack.

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Forging a new social compact is undoubtedly necessary in the face of the enormous changes that are coming. But this is only possible when all people can speak up, participate and help define what security and progress looks like - especially those who have not emerged as winners in our system of open markets and competition. 

Klaus Schwab warns that if we don’t involve people who have become disaffected we will see the collapse of democracy. The reality is that we are already seeing it, with the most vocal campaigners against the ills of the current economic system being silenced for sharing their opinions and standing up for our universal rights.

In March 2018, Poipynhun Majaw, a prominent activist and youth leader in India, was killed in the Nagaland’s coal belt in the Jaintia Hills district. Earlier that year, Majaw had used India’s Right to Information Act to expose the misuse of public funds by the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council. 

He also exposed its leniency towards more than a dozen cement companies that were allegedly operating against the interests of local people, and harming the fragile ecology of the area. Civil society groups believe that Majaw’s killing was linked to his advocacy.

This was not an isolated case. Our database shows that there were at least 438 attacks against human rights defenders in 2018 - a rise of seven per cent on the previous year. Community leaders and indigenous people defending their land and the environment continued to be the groups most under attack. 

Most cases in 2018 were related to agribusiness and agriculture, followed by mining and renewable energy projects. Latin America continued to be the most dangerous region, with almost half of all the attacks recorded, but attacks in Asia and the Pacific grew by 74 per cent on the previous year. 

Attacks in Africa stayed roughly at the same level, but the region experienced serious attacks on civic freedoms related to business, including the second highest number of internet shutdowns of any region. 

The ‘public-private’ cooperation model that has been prevalent in the era of postwar liberalism aims to harness the power of corporations for the public good. But it is often a model in which transparency is more an exception than a rule.

Human rights defenders are seeking answers and inclusive, sustainable solutions to address the two main drivers of abuse in relation to business: inequality and climate change. Both of these have to be addressed through open, participatory processes, to create a future of shared prosperity and security. Luckily, some progressive businesses are already recognizing this and are standing up for a future in which all voices are heard. But we need more businesses to take similar leadership.  

As the WEF’s Klaus Schwab also writes: “Globalization 4.0 has only just begun, but we are already vastly underprepared for it. Clinging to an outdated mindset and tinkering with our existing processes and institutions will not do. Rather, we need to redesign them from the ground up, so that we can capitalize on the new opportunities that await us, while avoiding the kind of disruptions that we are witnessing today.”

Ensuring that civic freedoms are protected and that civil society and marginalized groups are safe when they speak out – this is the best way to have truly grassroots alternatives and to make sure ‘Globalization 4.0’ results in an equitable future for everyone. 

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