Global Business and Human Rights: The Road Ahead

A growing number of activists in today’s global economy know how to expose a company’s wrongdoing and inflict serious damage to its reputation and bottom line. But sometimes there is a happy ending to a bad story. Thus is the case with the global retailer Gap, famous for its blue jeans and other casual wear.

In 2009 a news investigation by London’s Sunday Times highlighted human rights abuses by a Gap contractor in the southern African country of Lesotho. Young children and others were suffering with breathing problems and rashes due to toxic materials the contractor dumped into landfills and the nearby river.

A June 2011 article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, is a case study on how a global company’s proactive engagement with its stakeholders—including workers, human rights organizations and governments—can result in “win-win” scenarios. A panel discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) examined ways that could result in more such positive outcomes in development, at the intersection of global business and human rights.

“Virtually everyone around the world is touched by business activity related to human rights,” said Dr. David W. Yang, Director USAID Office of Democracy and Governance. “The recent UN Human Rights Council endorsement of the “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” drafted by the Special Representative John Ruggie, illuminates the importance of an integrated approach to business and human rights in development, and the relationship to economic growth and poverty reduction. There are obstacles, but development practitioners are in a unique position to build bridges to such an approach,” Yang said.

The UN framework recognizes a nation’s duty to protect against human rights abuses, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and greater access by victims to effective remedies.

Chris Avery is the Director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, which tracks the positive and negative impacts of more than 5,100 companies in 180 countries. “There are several emerging trends on the landscape,” said Avery. “More NGOs are examining private sector conduct and they are taking steps to prevent the ‘oil sector curse’ in Africa”. Among the positive outcomes Avery cites is that many companies are now adopting human rights policy statements and seeking NGO partners. Avery is quick to point out that serious problems remain with some companies talking the talk but supporting business organizations that actively lobby against measures to support human rights.

The issue of business and human rights came to the fore on the global policy agenda in the 1990s, reflecting the dramatic worldwide expansion of the private sector at the time and heightening social awareness of businesses’ impact on human rights.

Melike Yetken, Division Chief, Business & Human Rights in the U.S. State  Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor said, “the new global rules are not yet written. The Rule of Law is extremely important in promoting multi-stakeholder dialog.”

Bennett Freeman, Senior Vice President, Sustainability Research & Policy at Calvert Investments said that the Ruggie Principles validate the importance of business to human rights, and throws down a challenge to global companies.