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The business of human rights

Human Rights
Rana Plaza victim

Profit-driven corporations neglect human rights. This woman was killed in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013. Weronika under a Creative Commons Licence

The third annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights took place in Geneva in early December. Its aim was to address the growing number of human rights abuses by transnational corporations and the current gaps in international legal frameworks. State representatives, civil-society actors and transnational corporations gathered for an ‘inclusive dialogue’.

The motivation for the UN’s work on business and human rights is this: transnational corporations are becoming incredibly powerful in an increasingly Western-dominated, globalized world. Such power, combined with a weak international legal framework and weak legal institutions in the countries where these corporations operate, has led to large-scale human rights abuses in recent years. The activities of Shell within the Niger Delta, for instance, ravaged a whole community; the ‘Markina Massacre’ in 2012 saw over 30 striking miners killed by South African state police.

The forum was suggested by John G Ruggie. The former UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights is the creator of the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, also known as the ‘Ruggie Principles’. These principles look to get states to recognize their responsibility to protect people from human rights abuses, to ensure that corporations respect human rights, and to provide access to remedies for those who have suffered abuses. These principles are not, however, legally binding and are severely limited in scope.

The governments of Ecuador and South Africa tabled a resolution at this year’s session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva ‘to establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group with the mandate to elaborate an international legally binding instrument on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with respect to human rights.’ The resolution was adopted, despite huge opposition from Western states such as the US and Britain.

Currently, states and corporations can act with impunity, so a legally binding instrument would be a step forward, in theory forcing states and transnational corporations to adhere to a stricter code of human rights. But it will not get to the root of the problem.

In attendance at the Forum were high-powered executives from big businesses with poor human rights records, such as Shell and Nestlé. They were given a huge amount of airtime, with representatives sitting on panels at major side-sessions. These representatives spoke about the great strides their corporations were making with regards to corporate social responsibility… Corporate whitewashing was in the air.

Several panellists, and not just those from the business community, kept to a script that says corporations are moral and do not mean to commit human rights abuses. Corporations, we are led to believe, simply need clearer instruction on how to behave and clearer legal guidelines. The UN refuses to acknowledge that the problem is not legalization but capitalism. Companies engaging in questionable business practices is the norm. These questionable practices, as former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz noted at last year’s Forum, ‘have been undertaken … by some of the world’s largest and leading businesses, as they have pursued the goal of profit and value maximization’.

Therein lies the problem. Capitalism is not compatible with human rights. At least in its current unabashed form. Corporations want to keep costs low and profits high, which is why abuses occur. The way in which major clothing brands shift their production to countries with cheap labour, such as Cambodia and Bangladesh, is a clear example of this. Conditions might improve slightly with a legally binding instrument (although with its narrow mandate and lack of support from many key states this is uncertain), but capitalism will always lead to exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful.

In a capitalist world economic model, in which 1 per cent of the World’s population own half of the World’s wealth, human rights abuses shouldn’t come as a surprise. Inequality, which is a by-product of rampant capitalism, is creating a rich environment for corporations to exploit and subsequently commit and get away with gross human rights abuses. This suits most Western countries, as well as transnational corporations, which are motivated by profit above all else.

We need to have a more open conversation about the capitalist world economy and who it really benefits. We need to work to reduce inequality, through critiquing and deconstructing the current economic model. We need to start talking about a grassroots movement to restructure the economy and our society from the bottom-up, in a manner which favours people over profit.

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