Thursday, 4 December 2008


"Stateless Actors" and Human Rights

While reacting to the allegation of the Indian government of the involvement of Pakistani elements in recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the President of Pakistan Mr Asif Ali Zardari said that “stateless actors” rather than the Pakistan government might have been involved in these acts. This is an honest admission of the reality – the reality that terrorist organisations (TOs) might exist independent of states and have an identity different from states. Although TOs operate from the territorial boundaries of a state, they are stateless entities in that they do operate at a transnational level without being inhibited by artificial boundaries of states. TOs are stateless also because they generally do not have affinity to states: neither are they registered as a legal entity not do they pay taxes to governments. In addition, even if certain TOs have “state linkages”, such links are not permanent and their actions could not always be controlled by, or driven to suit the national interest of, such states.

Here one issue that we should consider is: how do TOs as non-state actors compare with other non-state actors? As I wrote (in a piece entitled “From 3/12 to 9/11”) more than four years ago, we should juxtapose TOs with MNCs because these two non-state actors represent an increasing threat to the realisation of human rights worldwide. This is so because not only the conventional human rights framework is predominantly state-centric but also because on occasions states itself start acting in connivance with MNCs and/or terrorists to suit their myopic interests.

Of course, there are many differences between TOs and MNCs. Nevertheless, they do share some common characteristics. An understanding of these commonalities between TOs and MNCs might be useful to gain insights into the kinds of regulatory challenges that these two non-state actors pose to both national and international regimes. Consider, for example, the following:

1) Both MNCs and TOs are driven by a dominant, often also sole, motive and they are not generally tuned to balance other considerations with that motive. With a few possible exceptions, MNCs and terrorists are primarily motivated by ‘just profit’ (not just profit) and ‘violence for a cause’ (irrespective of whether the given cause is right, just, moral, legitimate or not), respectively.

2) As mentioned above, both MNCs and TOs hardly feel inhibited by geographical boundaries; they operate at a transnational level and could move from one state to another with ease.

3) Like MNCs, TOs also have a structure and line of command seen between the parent corporation and subsidiaries of a corporate group.

4) Both TOs and MNCs can change their names and appearances in order to bypass the legal process. They could also disappear (including by merger or acquisition) and then take rebirth, if necessary.

5) TOs and MNCs employ latest/innovative technology to their advantage. Various technologies, in fact, enable them to operate globally.

6) Both these non-state actors operate with the active or tacit support of states. In fact, on occasions states might use them to fulfill their foreign policy or national goals.

7) Last but not least, TOs as well as MNCs could leave victims of human rights abuses without an effective remedy because often alleged violators are outside the territory/jurisdiction of the victims’ state.

So, how should we regulate TOs and MNCs? Experience to date has shown that neither states nor state-focal institutions alone can effectively regulate the activities of non-state actors such as TOs and MNCs, for the simple reason that these are stateless entities. Moreover, states do not always respond to instances of violations of human rights by TOs and MNCs in the same way – for instance, it usually matters who were the victims of such violations. Therefore, the sooner the international community realises the limitations of a state-centric regulatory model, the better it would be for the realisation of human rights in the times to come.

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