How Global Trade and Human Rights Go Hand in Hand

By Clark, Joe Louis | Canadian Speeches, May 1997 | Go to article overview

How Global Trade and Human Rights Go Hand in Hand


Clark, Joe Louis, Canadian Speeches


Former Prime Minister

International trade and the promotion of human rights are not necessarily in conflict, as they are often portrayed. Both can serve the same end: improving the well-being of people. And Canada has been a major force in promoting both human rights and global trade. Speech to a conference on "Globalization, Trade and Human Rights: the Canadian Business Perspective," Toronto, February 22, 1996.

I am very pleased that this initiative is being taken, to bring together leaders of the business community and the human rights community in Canada. One of the most threatening trends in public affairs today is the growing instinct to polarize -- to define ourselves by our disagreements, rather than by our common interests. In my experience, that is the single greatest obstacle to uniting our own country, but that malignant instinct spreads well beyond Canada's domestic debates.

And it is not simply bad temper. There are real differences, of interest and of analysis, and it is natural that they would become more prominent and assertive in a time when familiar assumptions and systems seem to be breaking down. Those differences, of interest and analysis, exist in this room, and were well and clearly identified in the briefing paper prepared jointly by the Business Council and the International Centre.

What is encouraging -- and unusual -- in this case, is that those differences were taken as an incentive to seek common ground. The very fact that this meeting has been convened reflects an understanding that the modern world can't function by pulling into separate solitudes.

The specific issue in this conference is the appropriate behavior of Canadian corporations, operating internationally, respecting human rights. In that sense, the issue is private practice rather than public policy. But that distinction can be overstated. There is an overall interest in Canada's reputation internationally--the actions of corporations flying the Canadian flag help define Canada's reputation, just as the actions of governments set the framework within which corporations act. In fact, as the imprint of global business becomes more pronounced, and the capacity of nation-states more restricted, the actions of corporations become ever more important.

Naturally, in this media-driven age, that means that more attention will be paid to corporate behavior around the globe, including by discriminating consumers and activist shareholders. Many trends started in the United States, and it is worth noting that companies like LeviStrauss, WalMart, Sears, the Gap, and a growing list of others, are becoming more consistently interested in human rights issues.

One of the characteristics of the modern world is that state sovereignty is not what it used to be, while the role of multinational corporations has grown, and is growing. So the capacity of governments to compel is less than what it might once have been. The interesting question is whether the responsibility of business grows as its influence grows. I think most Canadian business leaders would say that it does, and there is a practical demonstration of that view in the active role of many corporations in support of community projects in Canada--and, in some cases, abroad.

In fact, it would be instructive to compile an inventory of the initiatives that reach beyond business, of Canadian corporations operating internationally. Bata Shoes, for example, provided seed money for a co-operative in Thailand that lets young girls find work in their villages, rather than going to Bangkok to work in the sex industry. As another example, the Caisse Desjardins has helped create a co-operative banking system for peasants in Vietnam, and has established a service that makes it less risky for Canadians of Vietnamese origin to transfer funds to their families in Vietnam. At home and abroad, cynics could say those corporate initiatives are just smart public relations, but cynics usually see less than meets the eye. …

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