Human Rights Responsibilities Part II

Human Rights Responsibilities 2

5: International initiatives

The preface to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads as follows:
«… that every individual and every body of society, with this declaration constantly in mind, shall seek – through education and upbringing – to promote respect for these rights and freedoms, and by progressive national and international measures to ensure that they are widely and effectively recognized and complied with. both among the peoples of the Member States themselves and among the peoples of the territories under their sovereignty. ”

Companies are without a doubt part of what is referred to here as community bodies. According to the Universal Declaration, companies have a responsibility not only to respect human rights, but to actively promote them.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson have made important contributions to putting companies’ human rights responsibilities on the UN agenda.

Already at the 1999 World Economic Forum (Davos) meeting, Kofi Annan called on multinational corporations to promote universal values ​​through their work by supporting human rights and promoting decent labor and environmental standards.

In April 2005, a special representative for human rights and business was established at the UN. The American professor John Ruggie, who has been appointed to this position, has been tasked with presenting the best existing models and preparing recommendations in these three areas:

  1. How can states best fulfill their responsibility to protect human rights and prevent companies from contributing to their violations through their activities?
  2. How can companies respect human rights?
  3. What does it take for the victims of business-related human rights violations to have their voices heard and their rights safeguarded?

The creation of this position came almost as a compromise after the UN Subcommittee on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights had unanimously recommended the UN Human Rights Council to establish its own human rights standards for business and industry. The Sub-Commission has the professional expertise; the states sit on the Human Rights Council.

The standards, which were drawn up in close collaboration with, among others, several international human rights and environmental organizations and researchers, were rejected by the Human Rights Council.

Amnesty International is one of the leading organizations working to establish binding global standards for companies’ human rights responsibilities. In connection with Amnesty’s lobbying in support of the norms, it became clear that strong business interests and large multinational companies put strong pressure on the governments of their own countries to prevent the norms from being adopted.

Today, Amnesty International works closely with John Ruggie to help make his reports and recommendations to the Human Rights Council as concrete and ambitious as possible. The goal is that when his mandate expires, the work he has done will lay the foundation for some clear UN guidelines for multinational companies and the business community. And secondly, that in the long run a convention will be adopted and a special rapporteur for human rights and business will be appointed.

Norway has been an important player in the work of ensuring that Ruggie’s mandate has been renewed, and that he has been given a relatively strong mandate with specific challenges and questions to map and answer.

There are a number of international voluntary schemes where companies can adhere to a set of principles concerning human rights, the environment and corruption. The most prominent of these is the UN Global Compact , with ten principles dealing with corporate social responsibility, which companies promise to abide by when they join. To date, nearly 8,000 companies from around the world have joined the Global Compact. The strength of the voluntary schemes is that they have functioned as an arena for the exchange of experiences and expertise.

The great weakness of them is that only those companies that want it themselves, adhere to the good principles. The “worst companies” can only give up. There is no publication of the annual reports that the companies are obliged to submit to document how they comply with the principles. It is therefore not possible to assess how well the companies actually comply with them. And the only form of sanction that companies can be subjected to is that it is published if they do not submit a report.

6: National initiatives

Experience with the voluntary schemes shows that they are insufficient in preventing companies from violating or contributing to human rights violations or committing environmental crime.

In Norway, there was no support from companies or the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry (NHO according to Nonprofitdictionary) to the UN’s human rights standards for business and industry when these were presented in 2004–2005. Nor to the idea of ​​global binding standards as such.

One of the arguments used by the companies at the time was that “it is completely unrealistic for the UN to have human rights standards for companies. There are so many companies around the world. Should one then have an army of UN employees in their blue hats who will try to monitor the companies? », It was asked.

The same argument could have been made against the adoption of a separate UN Convention against Torture and a Special Rapporteur on Torture: “There is so much torture in so many prisons in so many countries in the world that it is not possible to monitor all of these and stop all torture. ”

True, but the very fact that torture is a major problem, and that there is a strong desire to combat torture, contributed to the adoption of the Convention and the appointment of the Special Rapporteur. And thus we got two very important tools to fight torture.

Today, several of the Norwegian companies and NHO are far more positive about having global standards within the UN. This change of attitude is taking place at the same time as there has been a greater focus in Norway on the need to obtain binding national guidelines for corporate social responsibility. There are a number of human rights, environmental and development organizations and researchers who support this, and who called on the red-green government to include this in its recommendations in the White Paper on Corporate Social Responsibility (launched in January 2009).

It is, of course, far more convenient for a company to focus on international measures rather than national measures, which can be adopted much faster. Norwegian companies, NHO and LO are strong opponents of binding national guidelines for the companies, and have worked to ensure that the government does not recommend this in the White Paper. They succeeded fully. The White Paper does not contain a single requirement, only expectations of the companies.

It is a paradox that many of the same companies are against binding national guidelines for business

  1. itself has chosen to join the existing voluntary international schemes with a number of guidelines and principles for how companies should fulfill their social responsibility
  2. already spend a lot of resources on complying with these and reporting on how they do this in practice
  3. argues very convincingly about how companies that safeguard their social responsibility can strengthen their market position and competitiveness both abroad and at home.

7: The way forward

Despite opposition to both global and national standards for corporate social responsibility, it will in all probability only be a question of when and what kind of standards are established here at home and abroad – not whether they are established. In addition, many and extensive human rights violations and examples of environmental crime have been documented by many companies.

At the same time, there is a documented great need for regulations. Binding standards for all also contribute to more equal conditions for the companies and their activities and thus also to fairer conditions of competition.

Human Rights Responsibilities 2