Internalizing Human Rights in Corporate Business Practices

By Robinson, Mary | UN Chronicle, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Internalizing Human Rights in Corporate Business Practices


Robinson, Mary, UN Chronicle


What do people around the globe consider the most important task of the United Nations in the twenty-first century? The results of the "Millennium Survey"--the world's largest-ever public opinion poll--show that the protection of human rights is the organization's primary assignment.

The findings of the survey, featured in Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Millennium Assembly Report, should be no surprise, given the challenges to human rights in the world today: racial discrimination and gender inequality are daily realities for millions; torture, arbitrary execution and slavery remain common practice in many countries; and poverty--a fifth of the world's population exists on a dollar a day--the list goes on.

In the lead-up to the Millennium Summit in September 2000, a debate is under way about the United Nations ability to address these challenges in a world being transformed by the global economy and the information technology revolution. The benefits of globalization are enormous for some, but for far too many people on the planet remain, at best, a promise. The Secretary-General addresses this in the Millennium Report: "We must ensure that globalization becomes a positive force for all the world's peoples, instead of leaving billions of them behind in squalor."

My mandate as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights calls for me to enhance international cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights, to in effect make the globalization of human rights central to the globalization debate. While I am more convinced than ever that real progress requires, first and foremost, that Governments live up to the letter of their commitments to human rights, I also firmly believe that innovative approaches and the contributions of new partners are crucial.

The UN system is redoubling its efforts to work more effectively with non-State actors, such as global companies, trade unions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international networks of civil society, to help it achieve its goals. One of the tools being developed to strengthen these relationships is the Secretary-General's Global Compact initiative, focussed on engaging the private sector in the United Nations mission to advance human rights, core labour standards and environmental sustainability. Its nine principles are based on internationally agreed standards found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Labour Organization's Declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work, and the Rio Declaration adopted at the 1992 UN Earth Summit, which express a dear set of universal values supported by the international community. As such, the Compact is capable of providing a frame of reference for other industry initiatives or regional, government-led efforts.

Some have asked why the United Nations should develop a Global Compact with business. These voices express the concern that corporations are already too powerful and that closer partnership with the United Nations will only enhance that power. They point out that the 100 biggest companies have a combined annual revenue larger than the gross domestic product of half the world's nations and contend that big business is only interested in playing by the rules of free trade. …

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