Human Rights Responsibilities Part I

Human Rights Responsibilities 1

In Norwegian or international media, we see almost daily advertisements about companies that directly or indirectly violate human rights, pollute the environment or are corrupt. The time is over when companies and business interest groups could dismiss any critical comment about business’ human rights responsibilities by saying that “it does not concern us; we do business and not politics ».

  • What triggered the debate about companies’ human rights responsibilities?
  • Do companies have a responsibility to ensure that human rights are respected?
  • What framework for human rights applies to companies’ activities?

The term “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR according to Percomputer), or “corporate social responsibility”, has become one of the terms that any up-and-coming CEO should know how to use on the right occasions. The term includes human rights, ethics, health, environment and security.

2: It started in Nigeria…

The great debate – both nationally and internationally – about what responsibility a company should and can take in terms of respect for human rights, was triggered by events in Nigeria in 1995. The famous Nigerian author and environmental and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight co-activists was executed on November 10, 1995 by the then Nigerian military regime.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and the grassroots movement MOSOP (The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) worked to ensure that the income from oil extraction in the Niger Delta also benefited the poor population in the area. And they protested that all the inhabitants of the oil-producing state got back for the oil extraction, were contaminated soil and water, and violence from the regime’s police and security forces.

More than 80 percent of Nigeria’s revenue then, as now, came from the oil industry. The regime was completely dependent on leading multinational oil companies to extract the oil. The most important was Shell.

The company was met with strong criticism from the international civil society for not having prevented the major environmental damage. Nor had the company used its influence to try to stop the security forces’ violent behavior towards peaceful protesters. Nor to stop the execution of Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues.

In Norway, Statoil, which was already present in Nigeria, was challenged to take up the matter with the Nigerian authorities. The response at the time was that human rights did not concern companies; they were just the responsibility of states, it was said.

The story illustrates what accelerated the discussion about corporate responsibility when they are present in countries with serious human rights violations. But just as much also what remains of challenges: Today, 24 years later, there are still major human rights and environmental issues in the Niger Delta.

And serious accusations are made against Shell, which still has oil activities in the area, that they are responsible for major environmental damage and that the population’s opportunities to engage in fishing and agriculture have been destroyed.

3: Many examples

It is not only in the oil and gas business that there are challenges and problems. And we do not have to go abroad to find companies that have been criticized for business-related human rights violations. A bunch of examples can show what this is all about:

  • Brazil : Indigenous leaders are arrested and tortured for protesting against their people being deprived of their land in order for business interests to start soybean and sugar cane plantations.
  • Peru : Journalists are tortured by the police and security staff of a mining company because they report on poor farmers ‘demonstrations against the mining company’s pollution and destruction of the farmers’ livelihoods.
  • Ivory Coast : Trafigura, the world’s third largest freight carrier, dumped life-threatening waste in the middle of the port of Abidjan in 2006. 12 people died and more than 100,000 people became ill.
  • Norway / India : Norfund, SN Power and Statkraft have large hydropower projects in northern India, where 13 people have so far died as a result of unsafe working conditions.
  • Norway / Bangladesh : Telenor has operations in Bangladesh where child labor, environmental damage and life-threatening working conditions were revealed in May 2008.
  • Norway / Guantánamo : Aker Kværner ASA’s wholly owned subsidiary KPSI contributed to the construction of the prison camp, was responsible for all water and electricity supply and maintenance of the camp and the fuel supply to the aircraft carrying the prisoners to Guantánamo.
  • Norway : Widespread “social dumping” in the construction and construction industry where workers from the Baltic countries and Poland are paid far below the minimum level. They are also not allowed to follow the working hours regulations and live in poor conditions.

A common feature of these and the vast majority of cases where companies – directly or indirectly – can be linked to human rights violations, is that it is difficult for the victims to have their case presented within judicial or non-judicial appeal bodies and that the companies often avoid criminal liability.

4: Progress in holding companies accountable

In step with increased documentation of the connection between how companies operate in different countries and violations of human rights, corruption and environmental damage, attitudes and behavior of companies and authorities are changing . Important pressure also comes from committed organizations, the media and public opinion in general.

A number of companies have established their own guidelines and control and reporting systems on ethics, human rights and health, environment and safety. There are also several international voluntary schemes where companies can adhere to a set of principles on, among other things, human rights, the environment and corruption.

It is the states that have the overall legal responsibility to protect and promote human rights. But it does not absolve companies from responsibility for respecting human rights, or for being held criminally liable.

Human Rights Responsibilities 1