State & Human Rights
Downsizing the State in Human Rights Discourse
Philip Alston
Professor, European University Institute, Department of Law, Florence, Italy and Global Law Faculty, New York University School of Law

The leitmotif of the international human rights regime is accountability. But while the regime purports to be universal and comprehensive, it deals only at arms length with various actors which it classifies solely by reference to the fact that they are not states and are thus not within its direct purview. Transnational corporations, liberation movements, the World Bank and the IMF, and major groupings within civil society, are all non-somethings: non-governmental organizations, non-state actors, or non-state entities. None is as full a partner in the human rights enterprise as they should be. Theories of state sovereignty are often invoked to defend this situation but there is no necessary incompatibility between the maintenance of the state-based system and the introduction of various arrangements and procedures by which these groups can participate in appropriate ways in, and be held more directly accountable by, the human rights regime.

Developments such as privatisation, deregulation and decentralisation all have the capacity to reduce accountability unless new means are devised for ensuring that the central government, as the traditional interlocutor with the human rights community, does not remain the only interlocutor. The growing centrality of transnational corporations within the global economy makes it imperative to develop more innovative approaches by which existing international arrangements designed to achieve human rights accountability can be adapted to enhance significantly their capacity to monitor violations attributable to corporations but for which state accountability is altogether lacking or inadequate.

Similarly, especially in view of recent developments, a regime of human rights accountability which is worthy of the name can no longer settle for the old orthodoxy according to which neither the IMF nor the World Bank are bound by human rights standards. Both the Fund and the Bank should be directed to produce detailed studies examining the means by which they could give full effect to human rights standards in their activities. This paper also argues that the notion of governance should be put into a human rights perspective and not vice-versa. At present, it is often used in a way which excludes any human rights dimensions.