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A Better World Is a World with Universal Human Rights

by Judith Blau, University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill and U.S. Chapter of Sociologists without Borders

The World Social Forum (WSF), having convened in January at its “Seventh Edition” in Nairobi, Kenya, has unique significance for American sociologists participating in the 2007 ASA Annual Meeting in New York City. The theme of the ASA meeting is “Is a Better World Possible?,” which is related to the WSF motto, “A Better World Is Possible.” Some sociologists will also attend the U.S. Social Forum, held in Atlanta, June 27-30, one of the Forum’s regional meetings.

This is a personal account, as all must be, since—according to the 2002 Charter of the World Social Forum—none can speak for the Forum.1 First, though, I will sketch a brief history of the Forum, mention some of the ways that U.S. sociologists participated in the Nairobi Forum, and detail how the Forum is likely to interest sociologists. My own account is based on my participation in sessions and as an audience member of about a dozen sessions. With books now pouring out of presses and the abundance of material on the web, interested individuals can easily find information.

A Little Bit of History

The WSF is not unitary; it takes a variety of forums—world, thematic, regional, national, municipal. The first World Forum was in Porto Alegre in 2001, then again in 2002 and 2003, in Mumbai in 2004, and in Porto Alegre in 2005. It convened as a polycentric in 2006 in Bamako, Caracas, and Karachi. The WSF began as an alternative to the World Economic Forum (WEF), held annually in Davos, Switzerland, each January. While the WEF adheres formally to an economic agenda, the WSF continues to grow its agenda. That is, everything from the automista (the worker recovered factories in Argentina) to the World Peace Party’s Rave Parties can be found at the WSF. It is open to everything serious and everything fun so long as it has to do with promoting progressive transformation. It is hard to think of any sociologist who would not find something of interest as the sessions run the gamut from migration, trade, economics, and politics to youth, gender, sexual preference, feminism, and on and on.

Described as the global alternative, a space, a movement, the global left, a peoples’ democracy, it is useful to mention that the main substantive theme of the Forum is human rights. Of the 1,153 individual sessions held in the first three days (the fourth brings sessions and participants together), virtually all sessions had to do with human rights.

Concern for Human Rights

The best working definition of human rights I have seen is by Louise Arbour, High Commissioner of Human Rights, United Nations. She refers to human rights as being the “birthright of all human beings” and “the focus on the inherent dignity and equal worth of all humans.”2 Elaborating, this includes security, right to an identity and group membership, and rights to culture, language, decent work, adequate food, housing, education, and to the highest attainable standard of health. Possible human rights also encompasses what the Western tradition has historically stressed: right to liberty; equal protection of the law; freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention or interference with privacy; and prohibition of slavery, torture, and inhuman or degrading treatment.

The main difference between the United Nations’ approach and that of Forum participants is that the U.N. works with and through its state members, while Forum participants are securing rights on the ground. To give one example, one of the sessions I attended was given by Ethiopian farmers. In an amazing presentation, they described their experiences with an IMF and World Bank program that not only nearly ruined them but threatened Ethiopia’s entire agricultural sector. They went on to explain why genetically modi-fied seeds and patented seeds threaten the rights and livelihoods of all peasant farmers. Using the language of “food sovereignty and rights to seeds,” they said that they and others in their village had returned to indigenous cropping techniques, and had established a seed bank to share seeds with other farmers throughout Africa. Monsanto, one peasant farmer said, had no right to patent indigenous seeds.

The Global South

As a side note, language diversity poses challenges at the Forum. I was impressed that this session had Amharic translators (into French, English, and Spanish). Aside from the time this takes, it symbolically privileges the colonial languages. Nevertheless, the dominant voices at the Forum are from the Global South. This is as it should be; the peoples from the Global South are, at this historic moment, the most threatened by globalization and environmental catastrophes.

Much will be written about the significance of the WSF, especially for global politics, but what might be missed is the substance of what is being said. What the WSF provides is a venue for the swapping and sharing of information on securing and expanding human rights and mechanisms for networks that will operate to promote human rights throughout the year, from one Forum to the next.

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1 World Social Forum Charter of Principles: php?id_menu=4&cd_language=2:

2 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Frequently Asked Questions on a Human Rights-Based Approach to Development Cooperation (New York and Geneva: United Nations, 2006): p. 1: docs/FAQ_en.pdf.