Friday, May 01, 2009

Crisis or not, business-human rights link holds

Should business and government shelve human rights concerns during the current global economic crisis? Of course not. It was the obsession with money as the supreme value, trumping all other values, that got us into this mess, and it would be folly to rely on that obsession now.

A senior UN official has added his voice against the temptation to make human rights a casualty of the crisis. John Ruggie, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on human rights and transnational corporations, did so in his April 22 report to the Human Rights Council.

He buttressed his argument mainly with these points:

The business and human rights agenda matters now more than ever. “Any gains Governments believe can be had by lowering human rights standards for business are illusory, and no sustainable recovery can be built on so flimsy a foundation.”

“The same types of governance gaps and failures that produced the current economic crisis also constitute what the Special Representative has called the permissive environment for corporate wrongdoing in relation to human rights.” Governments promoting greater corporate responsibility, and corporations adopting human rights strategies, both reflect “the now inescapable fact that their long-term prospects are tightly coupled with the well-being of society as a whole.”

In his report, the first in his current three-year mandate, Ruggie noted the beginnings of a positive trend in corporate law: governments and courts are introducing “more public interest considerations” into what companies do and how they do it.

He cited Denmark, India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom as taking preliminary steps in that direction. As for the United States, "federal statutes require publicly listed companies to have robust programs to assess, manage, and report on material risks. None refers to human rights explicitly, but material risks clearly do encompass human rights issues."

To fill information gaps, 19 leading law firms from around the world have volunteered their services to survey corporate law provisions in over 40 jurisdictions.

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