Human Rights: Corporate Morals in the Globalocal Theater

By Winston, Morton | Whole Earth, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Human Rights: Corporate Morals in the Globalocal Theater

Winston, Morton, Whole Earth

Until recently, corporations have claimed innocence of and distanced themselves from human-rights violations. After all, corporations do not and cannot arrest and imprison people for their religious and political beliefs; or pass and enforce repressive security laws; or take and torture prisoners, disenfranchise people from voting on account of their race or gender, execute citizens, or engage in genocide and ethnic cleansing. Only governments with a monopoly on the "legitimate" use of violence can do these things--generally with impunity. Labor unions have never quite believed in corporate innocence, but their own violence, and moral and organizational failings, have (especially in the US) weakened their credibility. Even human-rights organizations--children of the Holocaust--have preferred helping individuals rather than groups of citizens mired in the complex "exotic" nations. Shell in Nigeria, Unocal and TOTAL in Burma, and dozens of corporations in China, have awakened global and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to the links between business and human rights. Awareness is the first step. Here, Dr. Winston laps out the spectrum of strategies employed by NGOs caught up in the globalocal crises of moral authority and power as they search for skillful means and effective, compassionate action.

While many human-rights NGOs now desire that businesses correct their human-rights violations, they disagree on how to address the businesses. They differ in what they want them to do, as well as in the tactics they use to persuade them. Some in the human-rights movement see transnational corporations as potential allies and useful levers that can influence repressive governments engaged in human-rights violations. Others believe transnational corporations act in complicity with repressive governments and are themselves responsible for some kinds of human-rights violations. Activists in this camp advocate "shaming" or coercing transnational corporations into severing such complicit or supportive relationships with repressive regimes.

Still another school within the human-fights movement now talks about companies attending to the "triple bottom line": not only the financial account, but also the social and environmental accounts. These NGOs try to make businesses morally accountable to their "stakeholders," as well as financially accountable to their owners and shareholders.

What Works?

NGOs differ dramatically not only in their goals regarding business accountability, but in their styles and tactics in approaching corporations. Tactics range from cooperative and collegial to contentious and confrontational. Here are seven core approaches used by human rights groups:


Try rational persuasion and moral argument with corporate managers. Get them to agree to institute human-rights principles in their company's code of conduct, and to voluntarily implement and monitor their own compliance. This assumes that many corporate managers are ethical persons who are trying to "do the right thing," and so will respond to ethical arguments.


This approach assumes that some corporations might choose to adopt ethical guidelines and do the right thing, but they cannot be trusted to monitor their own compliance with voluntarily adopted ethical principles. They need to be audited on a regular basis by an independently accredited agency. This view is favored by groups such as the Council on Economic Priorities, which has developed what it claims to be the first fully auditable social-accountability standard for businesses ("SA8000").

Both the social responsibility approach and the social accountability approach rely on companies voluntarily choosing to adopt ethical guidelines. They regard corporate managers as potential allies in the global struggle for human rights, and seek to enlist their aid to that end. …

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