Guest blogger Rolf Künnemann reports on new directions for cross-border governance and the challenge of realising Extraterritorial Obligations (ETOs) for human rights.


Human rights and states’ obligations are two sides of the same coin. While states are based on their territories, many of their human rights obligations go beyond borders. These “extraterritorial obligations” are increasingly recognised as essential for human rights to provide the foundations of an international people-based political and legal order.

The ETO movement argues that a focus on human rights beyond borders is key to effectively addressing burning issues like the globalized destruction of ecosystems and the climate, the depletion of resources to the detriment of future generations, the dysfunctional international financie and trade system, the oppression of rural communities, ethnocide, the impunity of transnational corporations, and the human rights accountability of intergovernmental organisations.

Consequently, over the past two decades, extraterritorial human rights obligations have increasingly entered into discussions around international law. In 2011, these developments were summarized by the Maastricht Principles on States Obligations in the area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, an international expert opinion restating human rights law on ETOs. Subsequently, in 2012 an “ETO Consortium” of civil society organisations and academics was set up to promote the application of ETOs. This growing network has been using the Maastricht ETO Principles to support organisations in their work for human rights beyond borders.

Financialisation, Ecodestruction and Human Rights beyond Borders was the title of the European Conference of the ETO Consortium held at Maastricht University’s campus in Brussels on September 28-29, 2017, to connect ETOs with contemporary debates and struggles around austerity, the climate, degrowth, monetary reform, land grabbing, the power of transnational corporations, and the international investment and trade regime. Some 45 participants hailing from 11 European countries , cutting across academia, civil society organisations, and activist networks, tackled how human rights beyond borders (could) impact these policy fields.

Financialisation was chosen as a core theme because of how has transformed the global political economy, with the erosion of democracy and the increasing power of financial institutions over elected governments (including in foreign countries). What is increasingly at stake are human rights themselves as a force for establishing, obligating and controlling the powers of states and ensuring that the people are the ultimate political sovereign. Consequently, it ran almost like a red thread through the human rights issues discussed at the ETO conference. In Europe, the context of sovereign debt and imposed austerity were seen as highly problematic, but also open to challenge, under an ETO lens.

Different ways to address the global environmental crisis were also discussed in relation to human rights and ETOs. Since national and global GDP is a rough predictor of the level of greenhouse gas emissions and eco-destruction – and the depletion of resources –,  does this imply a rights imperative for economic de-growth? Given how government debt and the push for GDP growth are also driven by banks and the way money is created, is there a need for monetary reform? Predatory credit has even reached the very poor via microfinance – supported by the home states of financial power.

Not least thanks to the conference’s setting in Brussels, it became very clear that while finance and the environment are issues of global importance and scale, they intimately relate to the European project and its current impasse. For the concept of human rights extending beyond borders and the related ETOs to become more practical, participants argued that Europeans would have to rediscover the political meaning of human rights beyond borders in relation to their own sovereignty as citizens and communities.

Rolf Künnemann is Human Rights Director of FIAN International. The full Brussels ETOs conference report can be found here.