Global Policy Forum

Why Human Rights Should Matter to the


By Pierre Sane

Earth Times News
January 8, 2001

When I discuss human rights with chief executives of large corporations, they often ask me a legitimate question: if governments are still the primary bodies accountable for upholding human rights, why should business care about human rights? After all, the chief mission of businesses, many would agree, is to create wealth and generate profits for its shareholders.

I believe there are five sound reasons why business should care about human rights.

The moral argument:

We do not need to convince managers and boardrooms that the amputation of children's limbs in Sierra Leone in order to terrorize a population and win a war is wrong, or that the gang rape of women by Serb soldiers in Kosovo is evil, or that the killing of civilians in East Timor or Chechnya is to be condemned. These acts are wrong, insidious. They have been prohibited internationally.

The legitimacy argument:

Human rights have been codified in treaties ratified by governments. People around the world are struggling to hold their governments accountable for the implementation of international law.

The self-interest argument:

I believe it is in the interest of business to see human rights protected. The rule of law protects investments by guaranteeing political stability. An educated and healthy population increases economic productivity. A company tarnished by controversies around human rights violations can see its reputation destroyed and its profitability threatened.

The responsibility argument:

Companies, and more specifically, multinational corporations have secured for themselves freedoms to operate which has given them enormous power to affect the lives of people ? with power comes responsibility.

The universal argument:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) calls upon all organs of society to protect and promote human rights. The ILO conventions protect the rights of the workers. Other conventions place direct responsibility on companies to act in accordance with international human rights law.

I believe there are five course of action businesses can follow to protect and promote human rights. First, business needs to debunk three myths and stop hiding behind the spurious arguments put forth by some governments. The first myth is cultural relativism. In other words, "our people have different values. You cannot impose on human rights which are a western construct." Your response as pointed out by the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, should be that humanity is indivisible and human rights are as African as they are Asian or European. It is worth recalling that these same governments have not hesitated to adopt capitalism or communism, which as we know emerged from the banks of the river Thames.

The second myth is economic determinism. That is, economic growth will lead to the development of a middle class who in turn will demand civil and political rights. Your response, as agreed by the world community in Vienna six years ago should be: Human Rights are indivisible.

The third myth is that human rights action is political and business should not interfere in domestic politics. If that is so then business should not interfere to change legislation pertaining to repatriation of profits or labor laws or environmental protection. The truth is that human rights are a matter of international law and the law must be upheld. It is a perfectly legitimate demand.

Second, companies should develop codes of conduct which are consistent with international standards on human rights. They should also ensure that they are implemented by all partners and subcontractors. And the performance should be monitored independently and reported publicly.

Third, businesses should lobby governments to adjust their legislation, develop the mechanisms and institutions at home and abroad to ensure that human rights will be protected. Working for an effective justice system to protect commercial agreements alone is not enough. All agreements, including human rights treaties must be safeguarded.

Fourth, Businesses must enter into dialogue with governments, NGOs, trade unions and with other businesses to continuously define and refine roles and strategies.

And fifth, the rights of the workers and of the communities directly affected by business operations must be safeguarded.

Clearly, all industries are not alike; but the oil industry, in particular, has a unique role to play because of the critical role it plays in the functioning of the world economy. Oil explorers very often go to dangerous places with weak legal infrastructure, in emerging democracies, in countries ravaged by conflicts and wars; where the decision to invest is primarily dictated by geology.

In many producing countries the oil revenue will represent the lion's share of the government's revenue. This, when combined with a lack of democratic accountability, makes political competition fierce and at times violent. As the oil industry expands and explores new fields, develops new mandates, builds new pipelines and refineries, it finds itself in the midst of strife, unrest and conflicts in countries where international human rights law is violated daily.

In such an environment it is particularly important for the industry to develop its own set of principles and guidelines in order to ensure ethical behaviour and in order to meet expectations of consumers--in markets at home and of employees globally. These codes of conduct must be based on international standards and the latter must prevail when domestic legislation encompass 'bad' laws, that is laws which are in clear breach of internationally agreed standards. What the oil industry decides has importance far beyond the industry. It can set standards for other industries. It can help enormously in making this planet a better place for all. And at a more immediate level it can ensure that a company is not caught in the eye of a human rights storm.

While corporations are not directly responsible for all human rights violations committed by the states in which they operate, they are in a position to ensure that they are not complicit in those violations and that they use their legitimate influence over the host government to promote and protect human rights. How can the industry get there? We believe companies do not have to wait for government initiatives--the body of international protocols, treaties, covenants and conventions that can help a company write its code of conduct exists. In fact there is a mechanism that can assure compliance.

In our discussions with multinational corporations, we have found that most companies have common goals: they want to invest in countries which respect the rule of law, which guarantee equality before law, which have transparent laws, which believe in good governance, which seek to improve the lot of their people, and which respect the human rights of the population. Yet, that collective goal disintegrates at individual levels in some cases. When we ask why, the companies say this is because all companies will not act in concert. A French company will say, if we don't do it somebody else will. An American company will say if we don't play along the Europeans will.

I suggest that senior executives of the oil industry come together and deliberate on this issue. We welcome the United Nations Secretary-General's initiative, the Global Compact. We also see the recently-announced voluntary principles for the extractive industries from the US and the UK as a welcome first step. I urge that the companies make public the minimum standards they require from countries, from the police force of the governments, and from the international community, so that human rights are protected and in turn make public their own commitment.

Companies have common concerns on capital repatriation, on free movement of goods, services and currencies. Why not demand protection of human rights? Why not make respect of human rights, of the rule of law, of good governance and transparency, of freedom for the people, as essential an element of the new architecture of globalization, as the free movement of capital, currencies, and commodities? Why can't the agents of globalization be the agents of the globalization of human rights?

After all we live in a global world. Unless we globalize human rights, the global world will be perilous for business. We all know that human rights are good for business because without the rule of law arbitrariness prevails, without human rights political instability will be looming and with instability, investment will be at risk.

Amnesty International is a 40-year-old democratic movement with one million members in 160 countries, Its objectives are to promote observance of human rights everywhere and to oppose specific violations of international human rights law such as wrongful political imprisonment, unfair trials, torture and ill-treatment, judicial and extra-judicial executions, disappearances - to promote the respect of humanitarian principles in armed conflicts and the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. In so doing we seek to engage governments, individuals and all organs of society to take action whenever appropriate to promote the goals of the UDHR, that is a world free from fear and free from want.

The author is the Secretary-General of Amnesty International


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