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Fundación Santillana Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes

Articles > Business and Human Rights

Business and Human Rights

Adela Cortina


We must apply best practices in human rights, workers' rights, environmental policy, and the fight against corruption. These practices should be universal. But the reality is that children and adults are bought and sold, rights and freedoms are routinely ignored, the pharmaceutical patents system rides roughshod over the principles of fairness, and injustice reigns everywhere. In her article, Professor Adela Cortina examines a new framework that international organizations are attempting to establish, guided by the three ideals: protect, respect, and remedy.

The discourse of human rights breached the walls of the business establishment years ago, and has had a following wind since 2003, when the United Nations introduced its Norms on the responsibilities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises with regard to human rights, and 2005, when the UN Commission on Human Rights requested that a Special Representative be appointed for this field of concern. Though opposed by the United States, the resolution was carried by a vote in favor by 49 out of 53 countries, and, in August 2005, John Ruggie was confirmed in that new office. Why was it necessary to open up a forum expressly engaging in thought and action on human rights in the business world?

Past experience ─such as the Union Carbide Disaster in Bhopal, India, in 1984, where a poisonous leak killed thousands and afflicted close to 200,000 with permanent serious illness; exploitative sweatshops and plantations around the world; the effects of drug patents on the death figures for AIDS and other diseases; violations of the freedom of expression and assembly in the world's "South"─ counsels that awareness of the formidable array of potential injustices may help us make the right response.

In light of situations like these, it is not enough that a corporation voluntarily assume responsibility and file a threefold financial, social and environmental annual report. Business must abide by those rights, each of which is a charter born of hard-won victories, each of which must take precedence over all other claims and special pleading; and business must do so not as some optional concession, but in the way of discharging a duty of fundamental justice.

In 1999, the then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, invited business to join a Global Compact to support good practice in human rights, labor rights, environmental rights and the fight against corruption. But that is not enough, and still less so in a globalized world, in which developing countries' flawed legal systems deprive their citizens of protection against the inhuman depredations of business enterprises, both local and multinational. That is why it became necessary to go beyond the Global Compact and corporate social responsibility and create an essential forum for the issue of Business and Human Rights.

John Ruggie now urges the creation of a new world policy framework, guided by three fundamental principles: the State duty to protect human rights, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and the need for more effective access to remedies. "Protect, Respect, and Remedy" is the new mantra to be adopted by governments and corporations, whatever their size and degree of complexity, but particularly multinationals, for it is not individuals alone who are accountable for their actions-organizations, too, should be called to account, and some wield great power. The greater your power, the graver your responsibility.

It is a pressing concern that corporations should place respect for human rights at the heart of their business, identify those aspects of their operations that impinge upon fundamental rights, design practices directed at safeguarding those rights, construct indicators by which such practices can be evaluated, and submit to the supervision of internal and independent audits. These measures must meld together as a self-consistent ethos, a corporate sense of citizenship nurtured from within.

The rights of the three generations are at stake, ranging from the right to life in cases such as Bhopal, arms manufacturing and dealing, patents, or food prices, to the freedom to express complaints, freedom of assembly, rights to non-discrimination and decent pay for the sustenance of a family, freedom from child labor and from the exploitation of adults, the right to safety at work, the right to development. Yet no progress will be made towards the ever-deferred Millennium Development Goals if businesses refuse to play their part.

Today, the issue is out there, up for discussion. For instance, the Carolina Foundation and the Fòrum Universal de les Cultures hosted a debate featuring Mary Robinson, President of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, as part of the program of events for Spain's Presidency of the European Union. There are two main challenges on the table: a business, like any other human organization, is under a duty to respect human rights by avoiding harm; but it is also in a position actively to support human rights within its sphere of influence-it can offer its positive assistance to human rights protection.

Businesses can help break the vicious circle of violations that typically takes hold in countries beset by legal and governmental shortcomings, and set in motion a virtuous circle of good practice. As Amartya Sen rightly said, an ethical company is a public good that benefits the entire community. Corporations can seek to influence government and society towards forms of law that protect human rights. And protection is not the role of governments alone; it likewise behooves civil society to don the mantle of human rights, for modern citizenship cannot help but be local and cosmopolitan at one and same time.

El País, February 04, 2010

Translated by Mike Escárzaga


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