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Human Rights

Business and human rights, back on the UN agenda

Where paragons of human rights virtue gather

Well, well, here we are again. Global regulation for multi-national companies on human rights.

Sounds familiar? It should. We’ve been here quite a few times before.

But that was back when “emerging markets” (was there ever such a disconcertingly vague term?) had less power, less desire and less focus on regulating large companies.

Now, it’s not just left wing governments that might want to find a way to regulate big business on social issues. Any nationalistic-minded politician who wants a poll boost or nationally-based business filip might like to have a go.

And so it is that Ecuador, backed by South Africa, Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela all back an international treaty on business and human rights.

No surprises there, but others voting for the measure in June included China, India and Russia.

Now that’s a different ball game. Isn’t it?

The answer is that we don’t know yet. The devil is always in the detail.

This seemingly well researched piece from MintPress news notes that any treaty, according to US sources, would only apply to countries which signed it, and also that:

“As it stands today, for instance, the language of the Ecuador resolution appears to focus solely on multinational corporations, leaving national companies accountable solely to domestic legislation and regulation.

As John Ruggie, the Harvard professor who led the drafting of the Guiding Principles as a U.N. rapporteur, wrote in a nuanced analysis  published Tuesday, this would hold foreign companies involved in last year’s Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh solely responsible for the catastrophe. The treaty would place no liability on the garment factory’s local owners for the fire and building collapse, which killed more than 1,100 workers.”

Here’s some more on it all from the Huffington Post.

Here’s the view of John Ruggie, which is always worth reading.

It’s worth noting that the MintPress piece says that:

“…analysts have told MintPress that only around eight governments worldwide have come out with national action plans on how they will implement the Guiding Principles, as urged by the Human Rights Council in June. Despite its strong support for the Guiding Principles, the U.S. also has yet to release such a plan.”

So whilst the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights remain hugely under-used, it’s perhaps no surprise that countries with dodgy human rights records will use that as an excuse to favour their own companies and discriminate against multi-nationals.

This is a medium term issue, as it will take a couple of years at least to unfold. But as part of a broader trend of emerging market nations looking to “take back” (in their own views), power from western governments and companies, it’s well worthy of note.

The question then, is how can large companies concerned about human rights respond to these broader trends? Trends which may have significant impact on business operations in the next ten years and beyond.

More on that on this blog soon, and later in the year we are bringing the key players together to discuss just that in London on November 10th