from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Dignity as Global Institutions’ Mission: A New Consensus?

August 06, 2014

Children of Dalits—also known as "untouchables"—are seen in the outskirts of the northern Indian city of Lucknow.
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Human Rights

In global governance, there are a couple of nettlesome questions of scope. First, how broadly should universal human rights norms be defined? For instance, one could focus on political and civil rights, or one could also include socioeconomic rights and prosperity. Second, how widely should the world look for actors and partners to implement those norms? Beyond looking at public institutions—whether national or multilateral—global solutions may require contributions from nongovernmental and corporate actors. These are the two basic questions that my colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations and Georgetown University, Mark P. Lagon, addresses in his book forthcoming in October, Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions, co-edited with Anthony Clark Arend. Lagon has written the following guest post on these important questions on which we work together in CFR’s International Institutions and Global Governance program.

When examining the future of global governance, it is worth asking what we mean by “global institutions” and what normative frameworks should guide their work.

As former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and his canny lieutenant Marc Malloch Brown appreciated (seen in the latter’s book, The Unfinished Global Revolution), the UN and other intergovernmental organizations are not the sum total of global institutions. Other actors are equally important. They include companies like Yahoo!, grappling with their human rights responsibilities in working on Internet platforms in China; nongovernmental organizations like Apne Aap (meaning “on one’s own initiative” in Hindi) in India, advancing women’s leadership to combat sex trafficking; and philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has a greater impact on global health than most major aid-donating countries.

Partnerships between traditional international organizations, businesses, and nonprofits are essential for solving global problems. The UN Democracy Fund, largely devoted to assisting civil society organizations, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, are two leading examples.

Fully thirty-seven years ago, Hedley Bull posited in The Anarchical Society that we might be moving into a “neomedieval world,” in which states and state-based institutions would no longer be the prevalent actors. He turns out to have been right. Solving today’s complex problems requires looking beyond formal intergovernmental bodies—whether the UN, the World Bank, or regional organizations—to leverage the competencies of private actors and public-private partnerships.

So if global governance depends on both traditional intergovernmental bodies and new hybrid institutions, what criteria and principles should guide their work? Human rights? Despite advances in on-the-ground work of global institutions, arid debates on the primacy of political and civil liberties versus economic and social rights persist in the United Nations, as if trapped in a 1970s time warp. The debate over whether the rule of law should be included among the precepts of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals in the United Nations is a case in point.

My colleague Anthony Clark Arend and I suggest that the touchstone for the work of global institutions should be human dignity—a more encompassing concept justifying the need for human rights, based on all human beings’ equal inherent value. This idea was embraced by the Judeo-Christian scripture, by Kant, and even by the modern jurisprudential school of Yale scholar Myres McDougal. Yet it also has reach across cultures and religions, as reflected in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which invokes human dignity as a core principle.

Dignity may sound very nice as an umbrella concept, but what fundamentally does it mean? It rests on two pillars. The first is human agency. Informed by the thinking of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, dignity consists of peoples’ ability to freely choose how to apply their capacities to the fullest.

Yet individuals cannot enjoy freedom in a vacuum. The second pillar of dignity is social recognition. An individual must be recognized in a societal context as having equal value to fellow human beings. When a particular group is in practice denied that recognition, dignity is denied. Dalits in bonded labor in India; women denied property rights in many Middle Eastern countries; and non-Arab Darfurians subject to murder, displacement, and targeted rape are all examples. As Francis Fukuyama observed in a rich follow-on book to his provocative 1989 essay, The End of History and the Last Man, all human beings seek, indeed crave, recognition.

Global governance is a slippery term. It can mean many things. It requires mobilizing global institutions and incorporating other players than merely states. And to guide their work, the concept of human dignity is a promising North Star to follow. One can appraise how well global institutions are doing in this respect by observing whether they are tangibly advancing agency and social recognition for all groups.

Multilateral, academic, political, cultural, and interfaith fora should take up a dialogue to construct a consensus on human dignity as the mission of global institutions. As a result, some of the stalled debates on multilateral institutions might break lose. And more importantly, we might close the gap between the ideals set forth on paper in laws, resolutions, and treaties, and access to justice and opportunity in reality.