Jake Lynch

“Globalisation, like the idea of God, is known to us all, even if we do not believe in it or understand it”.  So says David Kinley, Professor of Human Rights Law at Sydney University. Readers of his book will certainly emerge with a deeper understanding of the processes shaping our interdependent world; whether they believe in them, in the sense of thinking they’re actually doing us any good, will depend on how they define ‘us’ and how they define ‘good’.

Wise advocates of a global economy based on private property acknowledge, Kinley suggests, that its success is enhanced by respecting, cultivating, even championing an idea that belongs, at once, to both everybody and nobody: human rights. It’s a subtle argument, worthy of the serious scholarly endeavour brought to bear on it, and an important one for the general reader as well. Kinley’s lucid prose, store of anecdotes and gift for synecdoche combine to make him an agreeable guide as well as a learned one.

Something of the zeitgeist can be discerned, he suggests, in ‘splash and dash’: a scam by biofuel merchants to ferry huge quantities of biodiesel from Europe to the US, add a bottle of American fuel – qualifying, in the process, for a hefty subsidy on the whole cargo – and thereupon ship it straight back. Such are the hazards of attempting to regulate global trade in pursuit of environmental or social benison, an undertaking that foregrounds distinctions between economic and human rights law. The latter, Kinley says, insists on individual welfare as a presupposition, whereas the former assumes it will naturally arise, providing markets “function properly”.

There is plenty of evidence, impressively marshalled here, that globalisation has spread prosperity, in terms of measurable income. However, Kinley tends to neglect the argument that, as the supply of an ever-increasing range of goods and services has been monetised, allowing them to be marketised, many even in rich countries have seen the real value of disposable wages decline; more so when the resulting wealth splurge gets sucked into asset values, pushing up the price of accommodation.

He does allow that the jury is still out on a controversial report by the UN Commission on Trade and Development, arguing that opening up developing countries to global trade does not spread much if any benefit to their people, in human rights or proof against the cycle of poverty. Much economic activity in such places is “informal and subsistence” Kinley says, so it is impossible to measure, and any answer must be regarded as inconclusive. That is, however, just the kind of activity likely to be compromised by, for instance, hiving off large tranches of land to plantations and mining companies: the form in which globalisation tends to arrive in the lives of many of the world’s poor.

If the civilising influence of trade remains contested, what about aid? Kinley contrasts the two international financial institutions, the World Bank – where he himself has consulted – and the International Monetary Fund. The IMF is notorious for allowing no human rights concerns to ‘pollute’ its lending decisions, as witness the outrage over its $2.5 billion loan package to Sri Lanka, granted despite war crimes allegations and the unlawful imprisonment of thousands of Tamils. The Bank, on the other hand, acknowledges the “intimacy”, Kinley notes, of human rights as a factor in development and promulgating good governance, at least in “rhetoric, if not in practice”.

Globalisation, to most of us, started off as an exciting foretaste of the new millennium, borne on a wave of progress both political – the end of the Cold War – and technological, as world-shrinking communication systems assumed a rapidly growing importance in our lives. It soon receded from view, however, to become one of those unremarked factors in the background of our daily dramas.

Kinley’s argument is valuable in enabling us to excavate a sense that things are the way they are for a reason, and they could be different. With a Prime Minister in Canberra prepared to make an intellectual case, at least, against neo-liberalism, and a President in Washington apparently reining in the influence of the health insurance industry, new openings to legislate for human rights will hopefully present themselves: so the contribution is timely, as well.


Associate Professor Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

Civilising Globalisation, by David Kinley, is published Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

This review first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 30, 2010.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Feb 2010.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: CAPITALISM AND HUMAN RIGHTS: A REVIEW OF CIVILISING GLOBALISATION, is included. Thank you.

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