Business and human rights: the next big thing

Annabel Short
The economic recession is imposing intense strains on people and communities worldwide. The growing power of business can intensify their problems. A human-rights perspective offers both a means of self-defence and a route-map to a fairer world, says Annabel Short.
“Business and human rights.” An oxymoron? Two recent events in New York have made a strong case that taking a human-rights approach to business is both right in principle and can deliver effective results that benefit citizens and communities. It is an approach that the international delegates gathering for a major summit in the same city on 24-26 June 2009 – the “United Nations Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and its Impact on Development” – should bear in mind.
The first event was the settlement on 9 June 2009 of a lawsuit brought against the multinational company Royal Dutch Shell, alleging that it had been complicit in the executions in November 1995 of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and five others by the then military regime of Sani Abacha in Nigeria. Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues (eight of whom were executed) had been campaigning against the despoliation of the Niger Delta region and in defence of the Ogoni people of the area. The suit  – filed by Earthrights International and the Center for Constitutional Rights – was concluded with Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary agreeing to pay $15.5 million to the families of the judicially-murdered civilians . This is a small sum in relation to the violations inflicted, and involved no admission of guilt by the company, but it sends a powerful message that companies as well as states and militaries can be held to account for their complicity in human-rights abuses.

Ken Saro Wiwa Jr, the son of the murdered activist, says: “History will show that this was a landmark case. Multinationals now know that a precedent has been set, that it is possible to be sued for human rights violations in foreign jurisdictions…(The) terms and conditions of the offer from Shell enabled us to gain some measure of psychological or financial relief.” Michael D Goldhaber of the magazine American Lawyer adds: “Wiwa [v. Shell] has left its mark on law and legal culture – and in this respect the movement for business human rights is the big winner.”

The second event was a gathering on 20 June of representatives from indigenous, women’s, environmental and labour movements around the world to share “people’s voices on the crisis“. The meeting, a few days before the UN conference, was a valuable opportunity for people working at the sharp end of the interlocking economic, food, climate-change and energy crises to share experiences and propose solutions – many of which engage with issues where human rights and business interact.

Each participant’s story was unique but there was a common thread: the urgent need for more participatory, transparent, and above all people-oriented approaches to economic globalisation. Such approaches are essential both in offering a means of protection and control in the face of severe pressure and hardship, and in ensuring that those involved in campaigns over (for example) land rights, a toxic-free environment, trade-union rights, or clean government have the democratic and legal instruments to advance their case. The links between business practices and human rights which Ken Saro-Wiwa glimpsed are becoming even more relevant amid a global downturn which bears most heavily on the world’s poorest peoples. 

A world of action

This movement for “business human rights” is not just a legal one. It is being pursued on many other levels:

* Non-governmental organisations are increasingly exposing and campaigning against corporate abuses. These range from grassroots NGOs to international groups like Human Rights Watch. HRW‘s report “On the Margins of Profit” (February 2008) brings together its extensive research on business’s impacts – from internet firms’ involvement in censorship by the Chinese government, to construction companies in the United Arab Emirates whose dangerous working conditions put their workers’ lives at risk 

* Some governments are taking action too. The British parliament’s joint committee on human rights launched a broad inquiry on business and human rights in March 2009. The Swiss government led a group of sixteen others in developing the Montreux Document – guidance that aims to reduce abuses by private military and security companies operating in conflict-zones

* The United Nations now has a special representative on business and human rights, John Ruggie. He is currently fleshing out a framework – endorsed by the UN’s Human Rights Council – based on the principles of “protect, respect and remedy”. These refer to the duty of governments to protect people from human-rights abuses by third parties, such as companies; companies’ own responsibility to respect human rights; and access to remedy for victims when abuses have occurred

* Many companies themselves are coming to realise that it is in their own interests – and perhaps even right in principle – to take a proactive rather than a reactive approach to human rights. The potential benefits are many: reducing legal and reputational risk; increasing access to credit, as more investors and financial institutions take human-rights considerations into account; ensuring smoother relationships with local communities (sometimes described as obtaining a “social licence to operate”); and helping to attract and retain employees, who are increasingly reluctant to have to leave their morals at the door when they enter the workplace.

A strengthened case

A human-rights perspective connects these diverse initiatives. Human rights are internationally-accepted standards, so they are applicable equally wherever a company and its partners and suppliers operate. They cover the range of ways in which business interacts with society:  non-discrimination; freedom of association; the right to health; privacy; indigenous people’s rights; freedom of expression. They are bottom-up, not top-down: unlike a “corporate responsibility” approach that often involves a company picking and choosing social issues it sees as relevant, a human-rights perspective takes as its starting-point the individuals affected by a company’s operations.

Human rights provide checks and balances against abuses of power. These are most often seen in relation to the actions of states; but as the power and influence of the private sector around the world has increased, so have expectations that it respect human rights and public concerns when it clearly does not.

The economic downturn in itself poses huge challenges to human rights, and to the business and human-rights movement. Labour rights – among them the right to work, to fair and safe working conditions, and to freedom of association – are at risk as companies fold, downsize or squeeze their suppliers. Discrimination increases: minority groups are often the worst hit, and migrant workers face retaliation as competition for work intensifies. Increased social unrest and protests can lead to tougher measures by government and private-security forces, and abuses of civil and political rights (with the risk of corporate complicity in those abuses). And companies may cut back on human-rights initiatives that they still consider to be “unessential” expenditure rather than a part of their core operations.

Yet at the same time, the crisis strengthens the case for applying a human-rights lens to business. In responding to the crisis, there is an opportunity to shift from a short-term approach that serves narrow interests and in which profit-per-se is the end-goal, to a longer-term, more inclusive and transparent approach, in which profit is a means to an end – to provide the employment, goods and services that people need. As Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has said: “Responding in a responsible way to the crisis…means prioritising the interests of working women and men, not just capital. It means we need to expand decent employment and livelihood opportunities.”

A critical role

All around the world citizens and governments are rethinking the way that business is done. Katanga Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo is an example. When the price of copper fell, the Chinese owners of over forty smelters fled – without paying taxes, and without paying their employees. The province’s governor Moïse Batumi, asked by the Financial Times if the workers would be allowed back if the price of copper picked up,  said: “No, no, no. Not as long as I am governor. Katanga is not a jungle. They worked as if it was a jungle.”

Joel Bakan, in his book The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profits and Power, Joel argued: “The question of what to do about, and with, the corporation is one of the most pressing and difficult of our time.” Whatever the answer – and there may be several – human rights have a critical role to play. The movement to bring a human-rights approach to business is growing. Governments and international institutions should take notice and support it.

Annabel Short is head of programme at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, an international non-profit that raises awareness of companies’ human-rights impacts. It has offices in London and New York, and researchers based in India, Senegal, South Africa and Ukraine

This article was written in Annabel Short’s personal capacity

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