Business of Human Rights: Can Canada Actively Promote Its Trade and Investment Interests While at the Same Time Maintaining a Commitment to the Highest Standards of Human Rights?

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A most disturbing trend in both national and international affairs today is the growing tendency to polarize - to define ourselves by our disagreements rather than by our common interests. In my experience, this is the single greatest obstacle to uniting Canadians and, more particularly, to securing broad support for a new foreign policy consensus. I will argue below that the way forward lies in harnessing our differences in the search for common ground. By sharing thoughts and experience, Canadians can build bridges between apparent solitudes and move forward together. Though it is a difficult balance to achieve, I am convinced Canadians can reasonably pursue both prosperity and high principle in their foreign relations.

There has recently been much commentary on the place of human rights in foreign policy, as well as some discussions of what constitutes appropriate behaviour for Canadian corporations, operating internationally, with respect to human rights. Although the latter concern relates to private practice more than to public policy, the distinction is easily overstated. The actions of corporations flying the Canadian flag help define Canada's reputation abroad, just as the actions of governments establish the policy, legal, and regulatory framework within which corporations act. In international affairs, the public and private realms frequently intersect and sometimes merge.

Nevertheless, the nature of the interaction is changing: as the capacity of nation-states becomes more restricted, the imprint of global business is becoming more pronounced. Given that the role and influence of multinational corporations continue to grow, and that the power of governments to compel is diminishing, the question arises as to whether or not the responsibility of business should grow concomitantly with its influence. Many business leaders would say that it is. In this media-driven age, there is no question that more attention is being paid to corporate behaviour around the globe, by the press, by discriminating consumers, and by activist shareholders. American companies especially, such as Levi Strauss, Wall-Mart, Sears, the Gap, and a growing list of others, appear increasingly concerned over and responsive to human rights issues.

Canadian companies have neither sought nor attracted that kind of profile. Still, there is evidence of a substantial degree of social commitment on the part of Canadian business. This has been demonstrated in the active role which many corporations play in support of community projects in Canada and in some cases in corporate activities abroad. Bata Industries, for example, provided seed money for a co-operative in Thailand that helps young girls find work in their villages as an alternative to facing pressures to migrate to the sex industries of Bangkok. The Caisse Desjardins has helped create a co-operative banking system for peasants in Vietnam and has established a service which makes it much less risky for Canadians of Vietnamese origin to transfer funds to their families in Vietnam. Cynics say that these sorts of initiatives amount to little more than smart public relations. Yet cynics usually see less than meets the eye. The fact is that the acceptance of corporate responsibility can be both a positive contribution to the well-being of communities and a good thing for business.

Doing business abroad, however, can become more controversial when the human rights performance of the host country - usually a trade partner or investment destination - is measured against an international standard. Many countries, including Singapore, China, Malaysia, and others, have argued strenuously that the norms applied by human rights institutions have been shaped by Western precepts and do not reflect adequately local conditions and long-established indigenous values.

We should neither trivialize nor underestimate the popularity and power of these arguments. I would, however, venture that without some degree of basic agreement on universal standards, performance - and progress - becomes almost impossible to assess. …