Human Rights, Corporate Wrongs?

By Leeson, Helena | The World Today, August/September 1998 | Go to article overview

Human Rights, Corporate Wrongs?


Leeson, Helena, The World Today


By accident or design, a significant number of countries deny their people the rights to which they are entitled under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When multi-national companies trade with such countries the skills, jobs and foreign currency they bring impact, to a greater or lesser extent, on the human rights situation. Whether this is beneficial or detrimental depends in part upon each company's policy on human rights. Through engagement or disengagement firms have the power to influence the lives of millions.

THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION of Human Rights (UDHR) was developed fifty years ago largely in response to the devastation of the Second World War. As the first international consensus on mankind's inalienable rights, it is a milestone in our understanding of human rights'. Since then governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), companies and individuals have wrestled with its implications.

Apartheid was perhaps the first major human rights challenge following the signature of the declaration. It forced companies trading with South Africa to consider their positions.

The response was varied; some companies stayed and denied any responsibility. Others, particularly in the extractive industries, stayed but tried to maintain ethical standards within the burden of apartheid regulations. Others still felt their position to be untenable and withdrew investment from, or stopped trade with, South Africa.

The consequences are now history; but whether it was the companies that worked for change within the country, or those that left which proved the greater force for change, remains a matter of dispute.

ENVIRONMENT OF ABUSE

By the late seventies and early eighties the corporate ethical agenda had become dominated by environmental issues. Tangible problems such as water pollution, acid rain and deforestation led the increasingly vociferous green movement to target a number of major companies.

The movement had significant popular support and customer pressure, which combined with a growing environmental awareness in many leading companies produced an increasing sensitivity to, and mitigation of, industry's impact on the environment.

Then in 1984 the catastrophic destruction of the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal in India brought the issues of human rights and environmental abuse into the public eye as a combined tragedy. The scale and horror of the accident helped to ensure that the role of corporation as potential abuser was widely discussed; the complex question of corporate responsibility and accountability became a matter of public debate.

As the 'greedy' eighties have given way to the 'caring' nineties, awareness of human rights as a corporate issue has grown. Whilst a small number of companies have had links with human rights issues for some time most influentially perhaps Levi Strauss in the US - the overwhelming majority of firms currently examining the issue have come to it within the last five to six years. Within the UK it would appear that most companies have been actively engaged with the subject for just a year or so.

Discussions with companies and NGOs have pointed to three main factors that help to explain the recent emergence of human rights as an issue. These include;

specific incidents, particularly the execution in Nigeria of Ken Saro Wiwa and the campaign that surrounded Shell during his trial. To a lesser extent media allegations against high profile companies such as BP and Marks & Spencer have helped raise public interest, even though some of these allegations have subsequently proved groundless.

an increased willingness within the progressive multi-nationals to allow public scrutiny of ethical policy and openly to acknowledge errors. Combined with a more constructive stance by some key NGOs, such as Amnesty International, Save the Children Fund and Christian Aid, this has produced advances. …

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