Neoliberalism undermines human rights

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The advent of economic reforms in the hitherto socialist and communist countries including India, China, Russia and several countries of the former Soviet bloc has changed the face of the world economy. Free movement of capital across borders leading to acquisitions and mergers orchestrated by globalisation has seen the emergence of megacorps and larger number of high net worth individuals.

In almost all parts of the world, barring perhaps a few like North Korea and (to a lesser extent) Cuba, governments are leaning more towards a more liberal private sector than ever before. Policies and programmes nowadays encourage individuals and corporations to promote their entrepreneurial skills and investments. Political thinkers and economists favour restriction of the role of governments to security and safety and broad economic and monetary policies that would foster private sector wealth.

Neoliberalism is a concept that underscores the importance and efficiency of private enterprise, trade liberalisation and creation of private wealth for the common good. It elevates the private sector to a level of determining the political and economic priorities of the world.

But is this concept working? Has the world become more imbalanced with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer? Has it eroded the trade union movement, once considered to be sine quo non of employer-employee relations? Is the global financial crisis and the ongoing recession a direct result of neoliberalism?

Global impasse

Anthony George Ravlich, chairperson of the Human Rights Council Inc (New Zealand) deals with the subject of neoliberalism extensively in his book, ‘Freedom from Social Prisons: The Rise of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,’ saying that the increasing incidence of global demonstrations, global terrorism and global impasse are ‘ a backlash against neoliberalism.’

I found this book unputdownable as it convincingly argues about the erosion of human, social and cultural rights with ‘conservative forces gaining considerable dominance over the left-wing liberals at the domestic levels.’

In his Preface, the author says that while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been in existence for more than 60 years, more than half the world’s population live in poverty and powerlessness.

“Core minimum obligations are presently an integral part of economic, social and cultural rights, which are rising in the UN agenda. Under neo-liberalism, the human rights of the underclass have deteriorated. It is argued that human rights need to be achieved from the bottom-up rather than the top-down.”

Divided into five chapters, ‘Freedom from Social Prisons’ analyses the ‘Rise and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,’ ‘Political Tolerance and Core Minimum Obligations,’ ‘The Politics of Human Rights and the Liberal Oligarchy,’ ‘The History of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Most Disadvantaged’ and ‘Lack of Will for Social Justice for the Most Disadvantaged in the UN.’

The five appendices that form an integral part of the book are extensive, serving as good reference material and background information.

The New Deal

The historic reference to the Great Depression of the 1930s and the ‘New Deal’ enunciated by then US President Franklin Roosevelt in the chapter ‘Political Tolerance and Core Minimum Obligations’ was an interesting read.

“It is not often realised that economic, social and cultural rights first gained their most significant recognition, not in socialist countries but in America.”

“The social responsibility exhibited by the liberal democratic system in the Roosevelt era was a leading example of Modern Liberalism. However, it was not revolutionary because the liberal elite, whose ideology reflects the Constitution, was not challenged.”

Mr Ravlich has extensively dealt with the situation in New Zealand in his chapter on ‘The Politics of Human Rights and Liberal Oligarchy.’ His comments on the ‘terrorism scare’ in October 2007, followed a month later by the introduction of the ‘Electoral Finance Bill,’ invokes discussion on freedom of speech and the right to protest.

The concluding chapter makes compulsive reading. It indicates the direction towards which the world is moving, especially countries that seemingly have a ‘fair record of human rights.’

But has the end of socialism in most countries upset social equality?

The author says, “In the bipolar world of the Cold War, socialism provided a challenge not only at the international level but also a bottom-up at the domestic politics of liberal democracies. For example, the New Zealand Labour Party used to have strong socialist links during this period. However, today there is no credible challenge to neoliberalism; therefore, the human rights agenda is determined almost completely from ‘top-down.”

Freedom from Social Prisons

The Rise of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

By Anthony George Ravlich

Lexington Books 255 Pages

RRP: Paperback $53.69 (

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