Human Rights Protection Within a Holistic World System

Glen T. Martin


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Since the formal discourse concerning human rights first emerged in the 18th century, the concept of human rights has evolved through at least three distinct generations.  The first generation focused on political rights such as freedom of speech, assembly, the right to privacy, and the right to habeas corpus.  The second generation of rights that emerged in the 19th century focused on economic rights such as the rights to social security, a minimum wage, to healthcare, food, and housing. People in the 19th century began to understand that you cannot have genuine political democracy without a substantial, complementary system of economic democracy that provides the matrix by which real equality before the law and real protection of human rights can be ensured.

By the end of the 20th century, a number of thinkers were speaking of the rights to peace and to a protected, healthy environment. These so-called third generation rights do not function as a mere icing on the cake of traditional human rights as formulated in the 18th and 19th centuries. Rather, they represent an insight that emerged from 20th century science that has become the foundation for an entirely new way of looking at human rights.  They are thrusting upon the world the realization human rights are not only individual rights but are also systemic rights.

The right to peace and the right to a decent environment are in a category by themselves that now looks back and embraces the first two generations of rights. They are unique because these third generation rights are system rights, not simply inhering in individual persons.  While the Preamble of the UN Universal Declaration is correct when it states that “whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all member of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” the conceptual framework here is not complete without its complementary Article 28: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration and be fully realized.”

The moral and political demand for this new “international order” shows up in the third generation rights to peace and a decent planetary environment.  If we want to protect human rights, we must examine the global institutions that make up our world system and evaluate the ways that these institutions systematically enhance or violate human rights.  The two dominant institutions that together structure our current world system are global capitalism and the system of so-called sovereign nation-states. As the World Systems Theory of Immanuel Wallerstein and others has demonstrated, the system of global capital and sovereign nation-states fits together hand in glove.  Nearly every major event that has happened in the world for the past three centuries can be explained in relation to these two planetary structural phenomena.

The demands for world peace and a protected environment arose in the 20th century with the deeper realization that we live on a tiny, fragile planet with an integrated biosphere in which everything, from air to water to land, is fundamentally interdependent and interrelated with everything else. This insight has been complemented by the realization that we are all part of one single race of human beings who have colonized the entire planet with a global civilization that is, similarly, interdependent and interrelated. For the first time, the 20th century began to see that we are facing not only national problems on this planet but global crises: the crisis of climate collapse, the crisis of ever-increasing global poverty and misery, the crisis of depletion of basic resources such as clean water, forests, and agricultural lands, the crisis of militarism and the threat of nuclear holocaust, and the crisis of systemic worldwide human rights violations.

The sciences of the 20th century have experienced a paradigm shift across the board—from biology to ecology to sociology to psychology to microphysics to astrophysics. The early-modern paradigm that culminated in the 18th century work of Sir Isaac Newton was mechanistic, atomistic, deterministic, and dualistic.  But the sciences of the 20th century have discovered the profound holism of the universe itself and all the phenomena within it, from the structure of galaxies to the biosphere of planets to the constitution of living organisms. Nothing in the universe is mechanistic, atomistic, deterministic, or dualistic in Newton’s sense. Everything is interrelated and interdependent, and the fundamental structural principle of all things is holism. This holism is demonstrated, for example, by Ervin Laszlo in his 2007 book Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything or by Errol E. Harris in his book Restitution of Metaphysics (2000).

This insight is often assumed by people who defend human rights today, since their recognition and defense requires affirmation of the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings and hence the unity (the oneness) of the human family. However, our thinking has not entirely converted to the holism that can liberate human rights doctrine to really transform our world as “the foundation for freedom, justice and peace” as the UN Declaration asserts. For we still operate in terms of those dominant global institutions that originated out of the fragmented and mechanistic early-modern paradigm, centuries old institutions that are clearly responsible both for the global crises that we are threatened with on this planet and for our failure to effectively deal with these global crises. We still somehow imagine that human rights can be effectively promoted and protected within the context of global capitalism and the system of sovereign nation-states.  But this is simply an illusion.

Capitalism assumes that individuals and corporations are atomistic entities engaged in a rational process of self-interest maximization and that, within a free competitive market, the greatest economic good of the greatest number of people will emerge. We understand today, that this assumption about the atomism of people and corporations and the nature of their rationality is dead wrong.  Both people and institutions are embedded in a holism that is invisible to the ideologues of capitalism. And the consequences of this dead-wrong assumption in today’s endangered world are the continued destruction of human beings and the natural environment that supports life on this planet.  Arundhati Roy, in her recent book Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014) details the terrible destruction of people and nature that capitalism has wrought in India since 1980 and its relation with the imperialistic forces of U.S. capitalism. Garry Leech, in his book Capitalism: A Structural Genocide (2012) shows the mass murderous impact on the world’s poor as they are used as just another exploitable commodity, and used up, and cast aside to die under capitalism’s relentless drive for ever-more profits.

         Similarly, the system of territorial, militarized, sovereign nation-states, that was first embodied in international legal form in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, today threatens to destroy our planet through limitless conventional and ever-possible nuclear wars, wasting well over one trillion US dollars per year on militarism. This competition among sovereign nation-states ensures that the nations of Earth are incapable of diverting their resources invested in this militarism to the problem of climate collapse. It makes the nations incapable of the kind of universal cooperation necessary to effectively deal with such problems and induces them to largely ignore human rights protection outside their borders and minimize the need for human rights protection within their borders, sacrificing everything for national security, militarism, economic growth, etc. These bizarre machinations of the nation-state system are chronicled, for example, in Pepe Escobar’s recent book Globalistan: How the Globalized World Is Dissolving into Liquid War (2006) and by the many authors in the collection of essays edited by Stephen Lendman entitled Flashpoint In Ukraine: How the US Drive for Hegemony Risks World War III (2014).

         The world system is inherently (structurally) constructed in such ways so as to defeat human dignity and human rights protection across the board. Without a holistic set of global institutions that are premised on the holism of humanity and the inviolability of human dignity, our activism on behalf of human rights will remain ultimately self-defeating and futile.  The nations by and large continue to operate out of the principles of so-called “political realism” formulated, for example, by Hans Morgenthau in his 1948 book Politics among Nations. The premise of “realism” is that nations operate according to “power” principles, not according to moral principles, which therefore rejects human rights as an effective basis for foreign policy. And human rights are understood by many today as existing at the very heart of viable moral principles.

         The obvious realities of globalization have led to a popular discourse regarding “global governance” in which leading ideologues of the current world system speak of the emerging new forces of global governance, in addition to nation-states, such as the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organization, international NGOs, global civil society, preserve the early-modern paradigm and obviate recognition of the emerging holistic paradigm. For none of these newly recognized forces of “governance” that I have mentioned is democratic, none is holistic. All are representatives, in one way or another, of early-modern atomism and fragmentation. Even the UN, as excellent as some of its agencies are, is premised on “the sovereign integrity of its member states” and has been demonstrably incapable of creating a world of peace with justice for all humanity.

         Today’s globalized world system is the very opposite of holism.  Each of these forces I have named is concerned with its own interests (or those of some fragment of humanity) and is itself merely a fragment apart from any unity in the whole: because no genuine unity is recognized nor envisioned, only disparate economic, political, cultural, and power interests. There can be no future for our planet if genuine holism is not recognized: that we are one species, one integral humanity, living on one finite planet within a fragile interdependent biosphere.  The fragmentation of forces called “global governance” is rapidly destroying any viable future for our planet, for it denies the reality of holism.  This holism must first and foremost be actualized in a democratic world government.

         Within those nations where human rights have been most respected in today’s world, these rights are nearly always associated with citizenship.  That is, human rights protection is directly linked to the rule of enforceable law. Within lawful democratic nations, citizens are legal persons which means that their rights are not merely some ideal mysterious “dignity” said to inhere in their humanity but rather their rights are specifiable, actionable entitlements and responsibilities that are part of their legal status as citizens.  Human rights are best protected, promoted, and enforced through the rule of enforceable, democratically legislate laws within the framework of a democratic constitution.

         However, the world here faces an inherent contradiction—because there is no enforceable rule of law worldwide. So-called “international law” is merely a set of treaties voluntarily agreed to by sovereign nation-states. It is unenforceable and unworkable. Even though human rights are said to be holistic and universal for all persons everywhere, the world continues to be divided into some 193 “sovereign” nation-states, each of which is supposed to protect the rights of its citizens while engaging in capitalist competition and power politics with all other states.  This is, of course, impossible. The dominant institutional structures of today’s fragmented world system defeat human rights at every turn.

         This is why the third generation rights of the right to peace and the right to a decent planetary environment are so important.  They make clear that human rights are not simply a matter of the way we treat individuals, whether legally or personally. Human rights are to a great extent functions of the systems and institutions in which we participate.  Economics should be predicated on human dignity and the economic rights of all persons, not upon systemic, amoral exploitation and domination. Law should be universal and democratic and afford legal personhood to every citizen of the planet regardless of nationality, race, gender, culture, or beliefs.  We need economic and political systems premised on this holism if we want a world where human rights really serve as “the foundation for freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

         In my view the best and most practical blueprint for establishing a holistic political and economic system for the Earth is found in the Earth Constitution. As global citizens going to the UN with proposals for protecting human rights, we need to be advocating that the UN replace its unworkable and undemocratic Charter, premised on the “sovereignty” of nations, with the Constitution for the Federation of Earth, which federates all the nations into a democratic union premised on freedom, justice, and peace. In the face of the ever-worsening planetary crises that threaten the future of human civilization on the Earth, our best option is to ratify the Earth Constitution. The many valuable agencies of the UN are explicitly integrated into the Earth Federation government, and empowered with adequate funding and staff to really do their jobs.

         The Constitution, therefore, will only substitute for the UN Charter, not the UN. The Charter, as is well-known, is undemocratic and unworkable, and structurally denies the holism of the Earth and humanity, even though certain other UN documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirm this holism. Article 28 of the UN Universal Declaration declares that “everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” The Earth Constitution is the living blueprint for that social and international order.

         The Constitution was written with the participation of hundreds of world citizens meeting in four international constituent assemblies between 1968 and 1991. It can be found on-line in many places, including at  Since 1991, it has been considered a finished document, ready for ratification by the people and nations of the Earth. Its conditions for ratification are divided into three distinct stages, making universal ratification both practical and possible, and its Article 19 allows the people of Earth to begin Provisional World Government in anticipation of, and preparation for, its final ratification. Indeed, the Provisional World Parliament has been meeting since 1983, with its 14th session scheduled for Kolkata, India, in December 2015. It has passed more than 50 provisional world legislative acts that spell out, and empower, the kind of holistic world system that will be actualized under the Earth Constitution.

               Under the Earth Constitution, there is a place for everyone and every nonviolent organization. NGOs, UN agencies, global citizens, nation-states, cultures, and the diverse races of the Earth will all be empowered through its fundamental principle of holism, with the human rights of all fully protected. The people of Earth will soon begin thinking holistically, and the economic and social institutions of the Earth will immediately begin to gravitate toward holism. Under the Constitution there are two bills of rights (Articles 12 and 13) that encompass all three generations of rights, including the right to peace and a protected environment.  If we really want success in our life-commitments to human rights, we need to simultaneously advocate ratification of the Earth Constitution. The UN should be encouraged to study and discuss the Constitution. People in every nation on Earth must be made aware that this is our best option for establishing a world-order of freedom, justice, and peace. It is our best hope for actualizing not only human rights but a decent future for all humanity and our precious planet Earth.