Summary: Joint Session between Working Group on the Private Sector and
Working Group on Human Rights
Private sector and human rights
||17 July 2002, 11:30-13:00
Moderator(s):|| • Mr. Antoine Mach, Covalence|
Presenters/ Participants:|| • Mr. Gilles Carbonnier, Economic Adviser and Coordinator for Private Sector, International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC)|
• H.E. John J. Maresa, Business Humanitarian Forum
• Mr. Jorge Daniel Taillant, Human Rights Centre Argentina (CEDHA)
• Ms. Salil Tripathi, Amnesty International
||Karen Lee (ICV), Antoine Mach (Covalence)
||Private sector, human rights, legislation, accountability, responsibility, Business Humanitarian Forum
In lieu of the inadequacy of Adam Smith’s ’invisible hand’ to uphold the universal values of human rights and freedoms, civil society has called for the necessary aid of a ’humanitarian hand’. Today’s session ran on the conviction that the private sector is accountable to society and must be sensitive to the social consequences of its activities. Stimulated by
the presentations, pertinent issues were brought up including the need for closer relations between the private sector and humanitarian and environmental organisations as well as the need for stronger laws protecting human rights and the environment.
Salil Tripathi presented his experience with Amnesty International. The protection of human rights is the matter of
"every organ of society" (Universal Declaration), this is why he works on pushing the private sector to respect and promote human rights. But instruments such as voluntary codes of conduct should not be seen as substitutes to governmental regulation.
In view of the fact that traditional state roles such as welfare services and utilities are increasingly handled by the private sector, Mr. Tripathi spoke of the need to build on existing voluntary ethical codes in business to form a document binding businesses by law to their responsibility of upholding basic values such as those stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This would also necessitate some form of regulating mechanism.
Mr. Tripathi hoped an instrument could be drawn up in consultation with the Civil Society so that private firms would promote values such as freedom from discrimination and access to health services.
On behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Mr. Carbonnier
is calling the private sector to promote international law in conflict zones. From his point of view, although private companies et humanitarian organizations have different objectives, there is now a momentum for dialogue and exchange of information.
Focusing on the intimate relation between businesses and the political climate, Mr. Carbonnier
explained ICRC’s work with the private sector in reconciling international humanitarian values. As an intermediary, the ICRC works independently
liaising with non-state actors from armies, political parties, religious leaders, trade unions and the media. In their efforts to promote and enforce international humanitarian law, Mr. Carbonnier discussed some limitations of the ICRC’s ability to intervene. He referred to the policy that the ICRC must act in-keeping with the onus of the Geneva Convention, and that in working closely with companies and organisations, it must avoid the polarisation and instrumentalisation of the dialogue or being directly linked to any particular company which may result in it being seen as biased and thus hinder its ability to mediate.
Mr. Carbonnier noted that the main problem faced by the ICRC in the private sector is not the lack of awareness of social concerns (humanitarian, environmental or otherwise) but the lack of incentive to take them into account, and the deep rooted suspicion companies have against humanitarian groups and vice
Representing the private sector, Mr. John J. Maresca of the Business Humanitarian Forum
(BHF), agreed with the principle that business has to respect human rights. He also mentioned the natural contribution of business to the realization of human rights through economic development, advances in technology, human development. On the question whether companies should adopt sanctions or promote human rights from the inside, Mr. Maresca said most companies don’t believe in sanctions.
Mr. Maresca, introduced
BHF, which was formed in 1999 for the purpose of more effective dialogue between businesses and humanitarian organisations. Pointing to business as the greatest allocator of resources, he emphasised the crucial role businesses play in human rights. The private sector has an influence on human rights not only through economic development, but also in contributing technologies, products as well as its ability to raise consumer awareness of humanitarian issues. He noted the encouraging trend of companies becoming increasingly more receptive to external advice.
Mr. Maresca did feel the need however, for legally binding legislation to better define boundaries within which companies should function. In conclusion, he noted that while it is necessary that private firms should uphold humanitarian values, there are great difficulties in its application taking into account the multitude of interests firms must consider (e.g. political interests, workers rights, etc) and in the case of multinational companies, the differing cultures, and national laws determining acceptable business practice (e.g. the case of
Mr. Taillant of Centre de Derechos Humanos y Medio Ambiente brought a historical perspective noting that voluntary codes of conduct are important first steps, elements of custom that will one day turn into law. He also stressed the fact that forced by pressure, transnational corporations are almost the only ones to integrate sustainable development, finally calling for MBAs in human rights.
As companies become bigger and more powerful, Mr. Taillant suggested the effects of globalisation have created a new conception of ‘the state’. As opposed to the ‘nation state’, a new idea of the ‘corporate state’ has emerged and thus the need for the law to accommodate changes in society by making parallel changes. Speaking on the environmental costs of private sector activity, Mr. Taillant spoke of his objective of achieving sustainable development through the responsible use of resources by the private sector in its struggle to balance the interests of ‘people, place and profits’.
The speaker was quick stress that while it is important that NGOs work on the global level and with large multinational corporations, it is the small and medium businesses which have most effect on local communities. Hidden and protected from the scrutiny faced by large multinationals, small and medium businesses have little incentive to take into account social costs and externalities.
Mr. Taillant suggested that other than guidelines protecting rights such as the right to food and housing, there should be a means of ‘footprint identification’ to ensure that companies are held responsible. The main problems involved in enforcing reform in damaging business activities are that after the imposition of taxes or legislation to curb the effects, firms may either lack ideas of how to change or lack the financial resources to change.
According to Mr. Salil Tripathi of Amnesty International, only 11% of the world’s working population works for transnational companies and therefore emphasising that reform in multinational companies is but one facet of a wider reaching problem.
Mr. John J. Maresca advocated the beneficial role businesses play in society labelling them as firstly providers of jobs. However there was disagreement in some of those present when he responded to a question raised regarding workers in ‘sweatshops’, by arguing that “any job is better than no job”. While not wanting to defend the exploitation of cheap labour and poor working conditions, Mr. Maresca rephrased his sentiment to arguing that it is the case of “the job versus the ideal job”.
In reply to Mr. Maresca’s comment, Mr. Tripathi reflected that external investment may actually destroy local structures providing for local communities. He made an important point that those not officially employed such as gatherers and farmers may not necessarily want or need jobs and that the question is not about jobs but of livelihoods.
It was concluded that the function of the civil society is to identify problems in local communities and to put political pressure and raise social awareness to ensure that both go vernments and firms work towards a balance of all three interests of ‘people, place and profits’. The discussion identified the need for stronger legislation, better indicators, and increased education to promote social conscience.
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