Abstract: In this essay I analyze some conceptual difficulties associated with the demand that global institutions be made more democratically accountable. In the absence of a world state, it may seem inconsistent to insist that global institutions be accountable to all those subject to their decisions while also insisting that the members of these institutions, as representatives of states, simultaneously remain accountable to the citizens of their own countries for the special responsibilities they have towards them. This difficulty seems insurmountable in light of the widespread acceptance of a state-centric conception of human rights, according to which states and only states bear primary responsibility for the protection of their citizens’ rights. Against this conception, I argue that in light of the current structures of global governance the monistic ascription of human rights obligations to states is no longer plausible. Under current conditions, states are bound to fail in their ability to protect the human rights of their citizens whenever potential violations either stem from transnational regulations or are perpetrated by non-state actors. In order to show the plausibility of an alternative, pluralist conception of human rights obligations I turn to the current debate among scholars of international law regarding the human rights obligations of non-state actors. I document the various ways in which these obligations could be legally entrenched in global financial institutions such as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank. These examples indicate feasible methods for strengthening the democratic accountability of these institutions while also respecting the accountability that participating member states owe to their own citizens. I conclude that, once the distinctions between the obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights are taken into account, no conceptual difficulty remains in holding states and non-state actors accountable for their respective human rights obligations.
Comment: This journal article would fit well within a course that considers the political and legal aspects of human rights. It would also be useful in a course on global justice or global democracy. It will be of particular interest to advanced undergraduates and graduate students interested in non-state actors and human rights.