Humanitarian Issues

Swiss Humanitarian Aid: Sharing Responsibility

Workshop on making metal silos for grain storage, Kenya. Image from cimmyt/Flickr.

Drought forces thousands of people to cross the border from Somalia to Kenya every day. Violence erupts in a refugee camp in Ethiopia due to insufficient shelter. Rebel groups evict people from their homes. Insufficient water supply causes death and illness. Children turn to painting to depict the trauma caused by the massacres which they have witnessed.

The Annual Conference of the Humanitarian Aid held in Basel on 23 March 2012 addressed these issues under the motto “sharing responsibility” and explored how Switzerland can help to relieve people from such suffering.

Business and Finance

Multinationals: Power and Responsibility

With power comes responsibility. Photo: RaghuP/flickr

Operating outside the legal jurisdiction of their home state, some multinationals violate human rights or damage the environment in ways that are illegal in their own countries: selling elsewhere what can’t be sold at home.

Swiss agribusiness firm Syngenta’s code of conduct commits it to acting in accordance with “the highest standards of ethics and integrity.” Yet it also sells the highly toxic herbicide Paraquat – forbidden in Switzerland for more than two decades – to developing countries. The consequences are grave: Plantation workers are suffering from skin diseases, poisoning or blindness, and are at greater risk of developing skin cancer or Parkinson’s disease.

Sadly, Syngenta is just one of many examples. The progression of globalization has led to an immense expansion of multinational corporations around the world. As our alternative map of South America highlighted, corporations these days are often bigger economic entities than states themselves. Multi- and trans-national corporations are on the winning side of globalization – but doesn’t power also bring responsibilities along with it? What about the environment and rights of unskilled workers in developing countries?

Business ethicists have tried to address these issues with the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR). CSR stresses corporate self-regulation and is a voluntary commitment on the part of companies to contribute to sustainable economic, environmental and social development. Such codes of conduct have added to an increased awareness about the responsibilities of firms in doing business – and helped broaden consumer understanding about the implications of their purchase choice.

International Human Rights Treaties- Curse or Blessing?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights inside the United Nations Head Quarters. Image: riacale/flickr

A couple of weeks ago the Russian Foreign Ministry released a report, criticizing human rights violations in the United States. By giving examples like the Guantánamo Bay prison, the ministry said that “the situation in the United States is a far cry from the ideals that Washington proclaims”. While the report wasn’t received too seriously by the international community, it nevertheless illustrates an interesting phenomenon in international relations: states using human rights rhetoric regardless of their own human rights record. Prior to Russia, China accused the US of undermining Internet freedom through its campaign against WikiLeaks. While Beijing may have a point, it is nevertheless provocative to hear such claims made by the likes of Russia and China. So are human rights nothing more than a rhetorical tool utilized by states?

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the aftermath of World War II human rights have experienced an institutional expansion at the international level. This resulted in a worldwide system of treaties and other sources of law (including international customary law) that seek to safeguard human rights. Over the last few decades, many countries have become increasingly democratic and free. For scholars of international law, this worldwide relative improvement of human rights is a sign of the success of the international human rights regime. Paradoxically though, results from studies that examine the impact of human rights treaties on state behavior show almost no significant effect. On the contrary, treaties are sometimes even used as a shield to hide worsening state practices.

Winds of Change Reaching Mexico’s Drug Policy?

Image: courtesy of Bulls Press

The ISN’s Editorial Plan coverage of increased global interdependence provides an opportunity to take a look at the Mexican drug cartels and their security threat beyond the country’s borders. Only last month, Mexican marines arrested five suspected members of Los Zetas, one of the two most powerful and dangerous cartels that dominate the Mexican drug war. However, enthusiasm about this remains dampened since success in capturing or killing high-ranked drug traffickers hasn’t had any effect on the level of violence in the country.

When President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, he announced an aggressive military–led strategy against the drug cartels, totally in line with the American declared “war on drugs”. The extensive use of military forces to support the weak police system has however caused a rise in the number of reported human rights violations committed by the army and led to an increasingly violent war, which has resulted in an estimated 45,000 of deaths since 2006.

Many Mexicans have come to believe that Calderon has lost the fight against the cartels. The consequences of this are tremendous for the Mexican society and state. But as we now, transnational organized crime has also broader effects across countries. The United State particularly suffers from the increased power of the drug cartels in Mexico. A weakened Mexican state facilitates not only the flow of drugs, but also of weapons, money and illegal immigrants, which makes it more difficult for the US to control the border.