My new book is out …

Sustainable Production Consumption Systems: Knowledge, Engagement and Practice
Edited By Lebel Louis, Sylvia Lorek, Rajesh Daniel
Publisher: Springer Netherlands
Subject: Earth and Environmental Science, Sustainable Development and Social Sciences, general

It has my chapter: Agrofuels in Thailand: Policies, Practices and Prospects (co-authored with Louis Lebel and Shabbir H. Gheewala)

Book overview
Sustainable Production Consumption Systems brings together a set of designed case studies intended to provide a more in-depth understanding of challenges and opportunities in bringing knowledge and actions closer together for the sustainable management of specific production and consumption systems. The case study approach enabled researchers to engage directly with some of the actors involved in the production, consumption or regulation of specific goods or services and other stakeholders affected by those processes. Such engagement was particularly worthwhile when it helped mobilize actors to pursue linking knowledge with action in ways that improve the prospects for sustainability.

Copes can be ordered from:

Rawin in Chiang Mai

In November, we took Rawin on a flight for the first time in his life. He was just 5 months old. The trip to Chiang Mai was mainly to get his tourist visa to India at the friendly Indian consul in Chiang Mai. And it was also a test run for us to check out and prepare Rawin for our slightly longer flight to India in January 2010.

Rawin … from Tagore

We started looking for a name for our baby when Tuk was about six months pregnant. In Thailand (and unlike India where it is actually illegal), doctors are free to tell the parents the sex of the baby upon request. Actually we had preferred to not know and did not plan to formally request our doctor. But once while doing the ultrasound scan, he casually asked us if we wanted to know; as we paused and looked at each other in some confusion, he told us that it was a boy, and that he was very healthy. It wasn’t a big deal after that. It also meant we could start searching for a name.
Our search for names extended to Thai, Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu and even Persian. With just one scoping condition: that it should begin with the sound of “ra” – thus similar to our names Rajesh and Ratchaneewan. A month before our son was born, we had whittled our selection down to a “top 3”. But we were still not totally satisfied with any of them. Until one day Tuk and I were chatting and she asked me “why not Rawin?”. We both liked it at once. It struck me as being inspired by, and also sounding like, the first part of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the famous poet, writer and philosopher of India whom we both liked and who was also well-known in Thailand for his song “Gitanjali” (which is translated into Thai).
Rabindranath (or also sometimes Ravindranath) is most well-known as a poet but he was much much more. He was an extraordinarily creative and versatile person bringing out sublime prose and poetry and plays as well as songs, music and painting. He was also active in the politics of his time being a reformer and critic of colonialism. His writings reflected his critical perspectives on topics ranging from Indian nationalism and identity, to caste, ethnic and religious conflicts and violence. In the early 1930s, he lectured and wrote poems and dramas criticizing India’s “abnormal caste consciousness” and the practice of untouchability. An important aspect of his life was his contribution to religious and philosophical literature through his collection of essays like “The Religion of Man” and the very beautiful and touching “Sadhana: The Realization of Life” (see excerpt below). The essays in “Toward Universal Man” also show him as a social and political theorist.
Tagore was a musician, a vocal performer as well as composer. Apart from writing eight novels and four novellas, he composed more than 2,000 songs. He developed a new style of vocal music which is called, after him, Rabindra-sangit. His “Gitanjali” or “songs offering” about divine and human love is his best-known collection for which he won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature (becoming Asia’s first Nobel laureate). Two of his songs are the national anthems of Bangladesh and India: Amar Shonar Bangla and Jana Gana Mana (Thou Art the Ruler of All Minds) respectively.
In 1922, Santiniketan (abode of peace), the school he had founded at Bolpur in 1901, was expanded into the Visva-Bharati University with a curriculum that emphasized social reform, international unity, and rural reconstruction.
Tagore traveled widely across Europe, North and South America and Southeast Asia including Japan and Indonesia. His writings after his travels in Southeast Asia were compiled in “Jatri”. He visited Bangkok on his way home to India from Java and Bali in 1927. Following that visit, he wrote poems on the “Buddhist spirit of Siam” and the maitri or fraternity of the Borobudur of Java. In Bangkok, Tagore was received by the King and Queen of Thailand along with two other members of the royal family: Prince Damrong (a collector of Siamese art) and Prince Chantabun (publisher of the Siamese Tripitaka). Tagore gave lectures in Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

The man whose acquaintance with the world does not lead
him deeper than science leads him, will never understand what it
is that the man with the spiritual vision finds in these natural
phenomena. The water does not merely cleanse his limbs, but it
purifies his heart; for it touches his soul. The earth does not
merely hold his body, but it gladdens his mind; for its contact
is more than a physical contact–it is a living presence. When a
man does not realise his kinship with the world, he lives in a
prison-house whose walls are alien to him. When he meets the
eternal spirit in all objects, then is he emancipated, for then
he discovers the fullest significance of the world into which he
is born; then he finds himself in perfect truth, and his harmony
with the all is established …
When man’s consciousness is restricted only to the immediate
vicinity of his human self, the deeper roots of his nature do not
find their permanent soil, his spirit is ever on the brink of
starvation, and in the place of healthful strength he substitutes
rounds of stimulation. Then it is that man misses his inner
perspective and measures his greatness by its bulk and
not by its vital link with the infinite, judges his activity
by its movement and not by the repose of perfection–the repose
which is in the starry heavens, in the ever-flowing
rhythmic dance of creation.

From Tagore’s “Sadhana: The Realization of Life”,
Ch 1: The Relation of the Individual to the Universe.


The sleep that flits on baby’s eyes — does anybody know from where it comes? Yes, there is a rumour that it has its dwelling where, in the fairy village among shadows of the forest dimly lit with glow-worms, there hang two timid buds of enchantment. From there it comes to kiss baby’s eyes. The smile that flickers on baby’s lips when he sleeps — does anybody know where it was born? Yes, there is a rumour that a young pale beam of a crescent moon touched the edge of a vanishing autumn cloud, and there the smile was first born in the dream of a dew-washed morning—the smile that flickers on baby’s lips when he sleeps. The sweet, soft freshness that blooms on baby’s limbs — does anybody know where it was hidden so long? Yes, when the mother was a young girl it lay pervading her heart in tender and silent mystery of love—the sweet, soft freshness that has bloomed on baby’s limbs.
From “Gitanjali” by Rabindranath Tagore (p.61).

Mr. Daniel

Burma/Myanmar. Rangoon/Yangon. My father’s birthplace in  Burma/India where he lived, worked and then died. Thailand my home now and where my son was born/India my home always and where I was born and the rest of my own family lives. The slashes we bear, the dichotomies we carry around, as identities slash labels slash etc.

Today is 22nd July, my father’s birthday – Rayar Doraisamy Daniel, or R.D. Daniel as he liked to be known.

Last year on this same day I was standing on the former premises of the Post Office building in Thingangyun district (pronounced Thenga’jun) in Rangoon, Burma. Thingangyun district was where my father was born. The post office building was where his father worked as a post master general. Then when my father was about 14 (around 1930s), he left Burma along with his younger brother Raju and his parents.
I still don’t the exact place where he was born, or the year or date when they left Burma, or even why and, even more importantly, exactly how.

I tried finding the house he lived in when I was in Burma last year but did not succeed. The closest I came to was that when I visited the church (St Joseph’s Catholic Church) which sits opposite the old post office, an old man who worked there perked up at the mention of my father’s name. He said that a “Jun uncle” in a Tamil family  who lived nearby used to often mention his childhood friend “Daniel” who had gone back to India. When I eagerly asked if I could go visit Jun uncle, the man said he’d passed away about 10 years ago. I was visiting the place at least ten years too late. The Catholic church folks were Tamil but offered scant help. When I asked about looking at birth records, the young strapping looking parish priest took me aside and waved at a rubble of bricks and stones on the grounds. “We’re building this enclosure and we need money”, he  smiled slyly and said. What an oily Tamilian weasel for a priest, I thought.
Conjecture about the reasons for  my dad’s  family leaving Burma draws clues from the period that they left, ca 1930. At that period, there were anti-colonial fused with anti-Indian riots in Rangoon.  Rangoon during that particular period was not a particularly favorable place for Indian migrants to live and make a living in.
How then did they leave? Back in Madras, when I was young, my father used to talk about how he and his family and relatives  “walked” all the way back to India: from Rangoon all the way up  the north of Burma then crossing across to  Calcutta and then down to the south of India. They walked. Thousands of stories certainly lie hidden behind that deceptively simple description: “we walked”. With the backdrop of an incipient civil war,  anti-Indian riots in a city they had come to call home, and the beginnings of the British withdrawal to fight a larger world war that was fast looming, my dad’s family left Burma with whatever clothes and bags they could carry … and walked back to their  homes and relatives in South India.
More of course needs to be discovered so that one day Rawin Daniel can get ot know more about his Indian grandfather who was born not that far from Thailand this day.

Rayar Doraisamy Daniel. Born: 22 July 1914. Passed away: 29 January 1986.

Power and Prejudice in Forest Conservation

Book review published in the Bangkok Post, 8 June 2002

By Noel Rajesh

The upland forests of north Thailand have become an arena for intensely contested perspectives on forest protection as state forestry officials and some nature conservation groups attempt, in the name of forest conservation, to remove local communities, particularly hilltribe people living in and using these forest areas.

Overtly, the explanation (and subsequent solution) that is proposed by these nature conservationists seems simple and forceful: upland forests act as watersheds for lowland rivers and must therefore be kept free of human interaction.

On closer examination, however, this conservationist ideology crumbles, revealing a remarkable combination of pseudo-science, hidden falsehoods, power agendas, racial and anti-rural prejudices and, ultimately, unasked questions about who defines nature conservation and makes decisions about the use and protection of forests in Thailand.

Redefining Nature: Karen Ecological Knowledge and the Challenge to the Modern Conservation Paradigm explores the conservationist ideology and the themes surrounding it: the racial and anti-rural character of nature conservation imposed by the state, the power and politics involved in defining what counts as knowledge of nature conservation, and the struggle of the Karen ethnic people to protect their homes and fields as they engage and resist the politically powerful: the state foresters, policy-makers and nature conservationists. Author Pinkaew Laungaramsri, an anthropologist at Chiang Mai University, begins the book with the tragic story of the suicide in March 1997 of a Karen elder, Pati Punu Dokjimu (to whom the book is dedicated), from Huai Hoi village in Chiang Mai province.

About five years ago, the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) declared a national park that enclosed Pati Punu’s village. Ever since, Pati Punu lived in fear and uncertainty over his future and that of his children. Forestry officials randomly stomped over the swidden rice fields, not considering that their deliberate destruction of crops could mean starvation for many families; threats of arrest and resettlement became a daily nightmare; and people were often jailed when they cut down trees for house building or rice growing.

In March 1997, Pati Punu travelled to Bangkok to join in the demonstrations of hundreds of other ethnic people from the northern mountains whose homes and swiddens were taken over by the state in the name of nature conservation.

Pati Punu hoped that dialogue with the phu yai, the powerful state authorities, would make them sympathise and understand that the Karen people had lived and protected the forests for hundreds of years even before the phrase protected area” had come into existence, and there was nowhere else for the Karen to go if they were deprived of their land.

But the negotiations between the hill people’s representatives and the phu yai collapsed. The Deputy Minister of Agriculture declared that all the people living in upland watershed areas must opphayop ( resettle”), a word dreaded by forest-dwelling communities. On the way back to his homeland in the northern mountains, his heart heavy with grief, Pati Punu threw himself out of the train and died.

As Pinkaew movingly describes it, in a world in which freedom of choice is not granted to powerless hill people, Pati Punu had chosen the only path he had in his struggle for autonomy; the path that took away his life, but allowed him to remain Karen in soul and spirit.

Why are Pati Punu and hundreds of other villagers like him denied this freedom of choice over their forests and homelands? Why is it not possible for them to participate in making decisions over how to use and protect the forests, especially when their communities have sometimes been protecting these forests for hundreds of years? How did these powerful ideologies of protected areas or nationalparks come to be built? And who in fact makes these decisions?

Redefining Nature looks into these questions by unravelling the complex processes of power relations by which the modern concept of nature conservation has historically come into being in Thailand.

As Pinkaew states, the book searches for radical questions rather than tacit answers, and hidden falsehoods rather than unquestioned truth.

Within this process of building a nature conservation ideology, she explains how the Thai political establishment has deliberately constructed certain definitions and discourses that discriminate against ethnic hill peoples and their local knowledge.

However, this politics of nature conservation by the political establishment comprising foresters and nature conservationists is not going unchallenged. Pinkaew describes how the Karen ethnic people in Mae Ning Nai village in north Thailand respond in numerous creative and self-confident ways to reassert their political space, their Karen identity and their intimate knowledge of the forest ecosystem.

At one end, the book traces the origin and development of the state’s anti-peasant nature conservation ideas, introducing the reader to the thinking of foresters and nature conservationists and the emergence of forest conservation as representing the desire for the modernisation of the country.

A key feature of this development is how the modern Thai state adopted the concepts of nature conservation that can be termed as North American wilderness thinking, and the history of pa (forest) in Thai society and its changing meanings.

Within this narration runs one clear strand, what the author describes as a major stumbling block preventing foresters from considering the idea of co-management of forests with local people: An obstacle which, I came to realise later on, was a racial prejudice against ethnic-minority hill people.

This prejudice among foresters is so strong, definite, and decisive that it obviated the necessity of further truth finding about forest problems.”

Many social scientists and anthropologists have long pointed out that racial prejudice is inherent to, and actually forms a basic core of, the nature conservationist ideology.

Pinkaew states: In fact, what is repeatedly portrayed by the international conservationist idea of human/nature division is a human/human boundary which tends to reinforce or conceal class, ethnic, anti-agricultural, anti-commons or other discrimination in the allocation and permitted uses of land.”

Pinkaew cites the example of the Dhammanat Foundation (DM) in the Mae Soi Valley in Chiang Mai province, one of Thailand’s nature conservation groups, to illustrate how their forest conservation practice is closely allied to the politics of ethnic discrimination.

In advocating forest conservation in the Mae Soi area, DM states that the physical causes of forest destruction are community farming by slashing and burning headwater forests. For DM, part of the solution to this problem is in the relocation of the hill people.

As Pinkaew writes, this bio-centric ideology espoused by DM is not simply a celebration of nature rights, as is often claimed. In fact, what has been advocated is a type of conservation that counters the attempt by any non-Tai culture to contaminate the Tai nature:a new form of cultural racism which has developed and manifested in the movement to protect untouched head waters by DM.

But this hegemonic representation of poor ethnic minorities, however, is never constructed without contestation. Local contestation begins when forest authorities attempt to assert their power over local livelihoods.

The reader then enters one of the most compelling sections in the book where Pinkaew weaves an absorbing narrative about the Karen people of Mae Ning Nai village. Pinkaew takes us to their swidden rice fields, forests and their homes, relates their stories of the struggles to protect their livelihoods.

In the evenings after dinner, sitting around the fireplace, she engages the Karen in often tense yet lively dialogues where the Karen enter into and learn to encounter the debates about deforestation, and respond with wit and humour to the foresters’ views of hill tribes, the causes of forest destruction and the efforts of nature conservationists to resettle the hill people.

She writes: For them, the discussion was not simply a series of entertaining intellectual riddles, but a wager on a future of their own as well as of the generations to come. Through these difficult conversations, the multiple voices of concern especially those of women, often hidden in the shadows where the glimmering light of the lamp did not reach, began to speak loud in defending their swidden territory.”

These debates and dialogues produce another strategically very important outcome for the Karen: discussing government forestry maps, the Karen then decide to build their own map, a topographic model based on Karen perceptions, to prove their customary land use practices, and as a tool to defend their rights and to communicate effectively with forest authorities.

The author writes with an obvious enjoyment of and a deep empathy for the Karen communities and the rhythms of their daily lives based on forests, swidden fields, and fallows. Equally, she writes with a firm intellectual understanding about the main theme of the dominant nature conservationist ideology and its protagonists, the politics of racialisation, the conflicts that it engenders and the far-reaching impacts on local communities, particularly ethnic minorities living in the upland areas who are being targeted by the state for resettlement.

The book compels us to look afresh and question the power, ideology and prejudices behind the politics of nature conservation, if for nothing else because, by the end of the book, we realise that the survival of hundreds of communities dwelling in forest areas not just in Thailand but elsewhere in the Mekong Region is being threatened by it.


On 10th June 2009 at 1.43 pm our son was born weighing 3.1 kgs. I still relive that early morning when we drove to the Ramathibodhi hospital in the Bangkok traffic trying to be calm, chatting of this and that while trying desperately to not think of the worst – that all may be lost. Tuk had complained of pain the previous night but we both became anxious when she found herself bleeding in the morning.

We rushed to our respective pregnancy books and decided to immediately leave for the hospital. My anxieties were soothed by the fact that things went so smoothly from the minute we landed at the hospital entrance. And I cannot thank enough the government hospital and its wonderful nurses and doctors. Entering the hospital, Tuk walked to the wheelchair stand where a staff came over with a wheelchair and then we all three went to the sixth floor maternity ward. Tuk was asked to get to a bed behind a green curtain while they left the filling of forms to me and another nurse.

The nurses and doctors went about their work calmly and professionally. By now my heart was beating loud enough for them to admit me into the cardiac seizure ward. Our doctor walked in after a few minutes and chatted with the others. Then he went and checked Tuk. I had one eye and ear on the closed green curtain with Tuk on the other side while helping the nurse fill in our forms, now even more openly thinking of the worst, asking whether our son was going to make it, praying, weeping inside for everything to be alright.

A few minutes later our doctor (a cool dude) walked by and, as I waited to see if he would explain anything, he cheerily spoke to me as if wishing me good morning: “oh for sure, the delivery is today, … for sure”.

So. It was going to happen. Almost 11 days in advance of the scheduled date. I hung around hoping to see Tuk. After a while, she walked out clothed in the hospital green robe. I was still trying to figure out what was going to happen when we were told that Tuk would be taken inside to the delivery room and I wasn’t allowed there. Tuk wondered aloud to me if she should just ask for a c-section and get it over with. I was almost going to say yes just so we could get this unbearable suspense and waiting over with, but I then asked her to wait on a bit. She nodded and then walked down to corridor into the rooms.

The nurse told me that it was only the beginning of labour and it could take more than ten hours sometimes before they could tell me anything. They told me to go home and rest and gave me the ward telephone number to call and find out the status. Since men were not allowed to hang around there, I had to leave but of course I couldn’t go home really not while Tuk was there waiting and god knows what was going to happen. Tuk’s friends called by now and they told me a place to have coffee and a bite to eat.

I wandered off downstairs totally lost, surrounded by the hospital buzz of people and announcements trying to find somewhere to sit and collect myself. A small park and a coffee shop. Thank god. I tried breathing calmly and medidating, thinking of our life together which already seemed to have been filled with so much of everything, pain and joy and anguish and anxiety.

I called my close friend Sunil who advised me to go to his place and eat and rest rather than wait around. I couldn’t decide at first, waiting around near Tuk seemed the best thing to do. But then there was nothing to do there and so I took a taxi to his place. Suddenly while inside the taxi I had the urge to fling myself out and rush back to the hospital. What was I doing? Why wasn’t I near Tuk? What if she needed me? I had to grip the seat and eventually made it to Sunil’s place without completely losing my mind. A shower and food and some conversation greatly helped. We checked with the hospital every hour. They told us to check later in the afternoon.

But by 1 pm I was feeling refreshed but also anxious at waiting around so far away, and left Sunil’s place and come back to the hospital. I went straight to the 6th floor ward to check. I wasn’t sure what would have happened, probably nothing although it had been more than five hours. When I went to check, the nurse looked up the screen.

Yes, Tuk had brought us a baby son to this world at 1.43 pm, the boy and mother are well. Gosh. I couldnt believe it, and kept peering at the screen dumbfounded. Deo gratias as my father used to say. So this is how it feels. We have completed one part of our journey together, Tuk and I. I was wondering what to do next, hanging around trying to be inconspicuous in case they asked me to leave again.

Then I turned round and suddenly Tuk was wheeled out in the bed and was near me. We held hands and she looked up and I smiled at her and said “congratulations mum”. Tears immediately welled in her eyes. I’ll never forget that moment as she smiled at me, lying there in her green robe, tired and a bit dazed, but her eyes tender and brimming with tears. I wiped her eyes and cheeks and we then smiled and held hands.

I started telling everyone starting with Metta her older sister and our closest friend and companion. I still hadn’t seen the baby our son. But that could wait. He was fine they said and had been taken to be checked and would be brought back in a few hours. For now, we were relieved and happy and together again.

Common Property, Knowledge Systems and Contestation of Social Spaces

When examining the processes of disempowerment and marginalisation of communities and their resources, we find that at the centre of these processes lie the control and curtailment of knowledge production in particular by state institutions or corporate entities.  This book uses case studies from the Mekong region to explore how, in numerous ways,  indigenous or informal knowledge systems are produced and conserved and used to support their struggle over the contestation of social spaces and common property systems.

A matter of right

file:///Users/rajesh/Documents/articles/The%20Hindu%20-%20A%20matter%20of%20right.webarchiveA matter of right

The Hindu

Sunday, September 02, 2011

Human rights activism has often ignored social and economic issues in its emphasis on civil and political rights.

NOEL RAJESH reviews a book that highlights conceptual tools and strategies and encourages expansion of activism.

THE issue of human rights in relation to social and economic issues is explored in Circle of Rights. In the view of the authors,

comprising people from countries in both the North and South with a rich and varied experience in the field of human rights, international human rights activism has often sidelined social or economic justice issues because of its predominant concern with civil and political rights issues.

Therefore, those involved in human rights work still have many questions when dealing with the economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights such as food, housing, health and similar matters. Even those supporting the idea of social rights may often ask “What is the ‘right to housing’ and the ‘right to work’? Should everyone be provided with education even up to the university level? Is the state responsible for providing all of this?” and so on.

At the same time, many vested economic interests, for instance multinational corporations, consider ESC rights to be unacceptable constraints or limitations on their own freedom to make profits. In this process, in many countries of the world, the plight of individuals and groups who have little or no access to food, shelter and education is largely forgotten.

Circle of Rights attempts to answer some of the many questions that are asked about ESC rights as well as “encourage an expansion of activism that has as its goal the promotion and protection of ESC rights and fill the absence of conceptual tools to deal with the social and economic issues”.

According to the authors, Circle of Rights is about regaining the dignity of all those who have lost it due to a lack of food, health and a healthy environment, education, housing, social security, work or a quality of life that embodies and perpetuates their culture. It is designed to enable social activists and other groups to ensure that the poor and other disadvantaged groups are able to claim their economic, social and cultural entitlements as a matter of right.

Despite its daunting size, the book is elegantly assembled with 10 sections (interspersed with illustrations, poems and country case studies) that range through the history and overview of ESC rights, explore specific ESC rights, and examine strategies and tools for national and international activism. The publication successfully brings together in one place information about concepts and tools that are central to developing and applying a rights-based perspective on ESC issues.

But what is a rights-based perspective? According to the book, the dignity and well-being of human beings is the foundation on which a rights-based approach is built. Each and every human being, by virtue of being a human being, is a holder of rights, and this entails an obligation on the part of the government to respect, promote, protect and fulfil it.

So individuals and communities cannot be asked to wait for “economic development,” or to “sacrifice their livelhoods or natural resources for national benefits,” before their dignity is respected. Violations of human rights are therefore defined as breaches of the related state obligations.

In fact, this is one of the more interesting sections of the book dealing with the “obligations of states and nonstate actors.” The central international treaty on ESC rights – the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – as well as related treaties provide the individual and community with a range of guarantees related to economic, social and cultural issues. The section clarifies how each of these rights carries with it corresponding obligations by the state.

First of all, states must not destroy the standard recognised by a human right that describes a quality of life such as access to education, the opportunity for a fair trial and freedom from torture. Therefore, state authorities must not keep people from educating themselves, they must not tolerate unfair trials, they must not torture. An obligation of this type is called “the obligation to respect”. Such obligations are sometimes also called negative obligations, since they tell states what they must not do – torture people, undermine educational opportunities or conduct unfair trials.

On the other hand, the state also has positive obligations that are called “the obligation to protect”. Thus states have to prevent third parties from destroying this quality of life. For instance, states have to ensure that children are not prevented from attending school, for example by their parents; states have to prevent children and wives being tortured by their fathers and husbands.

Another positive obligation is the state’s “obligation to fulfill” the human rights standards by taking appropriate measures to ensure that human rights standard is attained. Therefore, states have to provide remedies to address a faulty trial, or guarantee access to education, or intervene in situations of torture.

The authors also stress the importance of recognising that there is a dialectical relationship between the obligations placed on the state and the claims of those who feel their rights have been violated. So the claimants of rights are not simply “beneficiaries” but have often engaged in a struggle for, and won recognition of, specific rights – a struggle that remains central to ESC rights.

The history of human rights law indicates that human rights were intended to protect the individual against excessive use of state power, and the key conventions make explicit that only states hold human rights obligations.

But what about “nonstate” actors? As the book notes, in the changing environment at both the national and international levels, nonstate actors such as corporations, fundamentalist groups and armed opposition groups are having an increasing impact on the enjoyment of ESC rights. International human rights law does not oblige private actors (whether corporations or others) to act in particular ways, and therefore they cannot be brought to account directly through human rights law.

However, human rights obligations can be imposed on nonstate actors such as corporations by national constitutions or laws. For example, courts in some countries, such as the Supreme Court in India, have placed human rights obligations directly on nonstate actors such as corporations dumping poisonous effluents into rivers and threatening the fishing livelihoods of local communities.

Moreover, human rights law does oblige states to regulate the conduct of nonstate actors, including corporations, to ensure that they do not commit human rights abuses. For example, in 1997, a United States district court judge ruled that victims of forced labour and other gross human rights violations could bring suit against the Unocal Corporation, for its joint participation in a petroleum pipeline project with the Burmese military junta in which Burmese people were used as forced labour and atrocities committed against them.

Needs as rights

Human rights language has emerged out of struggles to protect the rights of the politically marginalised peoples, particularly of individuals and communities displaced or dispossessed of cultures and livelihoods, of their homes, fields, farms and commons by conventional economic development. The human rights-based approach offers tools so that states or corporations are forced to respect the inviolability of humans, based on the belief that if we all have the same needs, we have the same rights.

Yet, we also recognise our mutual humanity in our differences, in our individuality, in our history, in the faithful discharge of our particular culture of obligations. In his powerful book about human rights and social needs, The Needs of Strangers, Michael Ignatieff notes that beneath the duties that tie us to individuals, there ought to be a duty that ties us to all men and women whatever their relation to us.

However, he states, beneath the social and the historical, there is nothing at all: “The abstract subjects created by our century of tyranny and terror cannot be protected by abstract doctrines of universal human needs and universal human rights, and not merely because these doctrines are words, and whips are things. The problem is not to defend universality, but to give these abstract individuals the chance to become real, historical individuals again, with the social relations and the power to protect themselves”.

Cirlcle of Rights goes some way towards enabling social activists and other groups to support the struggles of the poor and other disadvantaged groups to ensure they are able to claim their economic, social and cultural entitlements as a matter of right.

Circle of Rights. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Activism: A Training Resource, International Human Rights Internship Program, USA and Asian Forum of Human Rights and Development, Thailand, 2000, p.660.