Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Engaging the Private Sector

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Engaging the Private Sector

Article excerpt

Multinational corporations are a potential force for human rights in the global workplace.

Multinational corporations face considerable scrutiny of their business practices and vigorous debate on the role of business in promoting and protecting international human rights.(1) To date, business interests and human rights activists have often been seen as engaged in an intractable conflict. But for those who truly care about improving conditions for people living in the global economy, the real challenge is how to integrate business and human rights.

A growing number of activists, businesspeople, and policymakers now recognize that the interests of business and human rights advocates are not always in conflict.(2) Collaboration between private companies and non-governmental organizations, for example, emerged as the most effective way to eliminate child labor in the production of soccer balls in Pakistan. (See "Business and Human Rights" in this issue of FORUM.) By broadening their perspectives to take account of each other's concerns and constraints, the human rights and business communities are finding themselves better positioned to achieve their goals in a rapidly changing international landscape.

The convergence of three trends - the globalization of international human rights standards, the globalization of international commerce, and the proliferation of international networks - has led to mounting pressures on multinational enterprises to be accountable for human rights conditions in the factories and countries where they operate. Today, the way a government treats its citizens has become a legitimate subject for international inquiry, discussion, and action. Moreover, the volume of trade and investment that crosses national and international borders increasingly links economic livelihoods to the global marketplace. Equally important, individuals and organizations can now gather and disseminate information in support of human rights and commerce with unprecedented ease and power.

International Human Rights

For centuries, how a government treated its citizens was not considered an appropriate subject of inquiry by other governments or the international community.(3) This doctrine of international law came under attack in the mid-20th century when a series of international agreements rejected the absolute supremacy of state sovereignty over individual rights. The United Nations Charter of 1945 called on member states to promote and protect human rights.(4) The Nuremberg tribunals following World War II established individual responsibility for specific international crimes, including crimes against humanity. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights fundamentally broadened international law by recognizing that all individuals are entitled to certain rights.

The second half of the 20th century has witnessed a proliferation of standards defining the basic freedoms and liberties that constitute human rights. The United Nations, as well as regional international organizations like the European Union, have codified human rights standards that address civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights; and the extension of human rights to particular groups, including women, children, and minorities. The International Labour Organization, which was created in 1919 and became part of the United Nations system in 1945, has developed hundreds of standards for working conditions and worker rights, including international conventions on child and forced labor, freedom of association, and collective bargaining. Almost without exception, these standards obligate governments to protect, promote, and advance the rights of their citizens.

As the number of standards has proliferated, so too have the size and scope of the international human rights community. From humble beginnings, an international network of activists, religious leaders, lawyers, trade unionists, politicians, and political dissidents has become a powerful worldwide movement. …

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