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August 26, 2003
UN to Hold Corporations More Responsible for Human Rights and the Environment
    by William Baue

A UN sub-commission adopted a resolution calling for transnational corporations to be held more accountable for human rights protection and environmental stewardship.

Earlier this month, the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights adopted a resolution that calls for multinational corporations to be held more responsible for their actions regarding human rights and the environment. The resolution, entitled Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations, promotes corporate social responsibility (CSR) not by enacting new regulations, but by enumerating and compiling existing laws and standards into one document.

In addition, the sub-commission, which is comprised of 26 members who are experts in the area of human rights, issued extensive commentary on the norms.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that monitor corporate performance on human rights and the environment applauded the resolution.

"The new UN Human Rights Norms, and the accompanying interpretive commentary, constitute an authoritative interpretation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 [which] applies not only to states and individuals, but also to 'organs of society,' including businesses," read a joint statement issued by an ad hoc group of 15 NGOs that includes Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam.

"In addition to the Universal Declaration and the principal human rights treaties, the UN Human Rights Norms and Commentary rely upon and restate the relevant principles from a wide range of labor, environmental, consumer protection, and anti-corruption treaties and other international instruments," the statement continued. "As such they provide a useful checklist for companies on how to act consistently with international norms."

The statement also pointed out that the UN Global Compact, an initiative spearheaded by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that promotes voluntary CSR practice, acknowledged that the norms complement its work. Similarly, the norms are not regulations per se, but rather a compendium of extant international regulations. And as with voluntary initiatives, corporations can elect to adopt the norms and abide by them.

"Eventually, we'd like to see binding standards for corporations," said Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program of Human Rights Watch. "But this is a good first step."

Some in the business community do not welcome the norms because of this very aspect.

"These norms clearly seek to move away from the realm of voluntary initiative, and we see them as conflicting with the approach taken by other parts of the UN," said Stefano Bertasi of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC).

However, voluntary compliance with more stringent CSR standards can be a double-edged sword. Companies that elect to take the high road often suffer a competitive disadvantage when their less conscientious competitors avoid the expenses of corporate responsibility. The norms could help alleviate this effect.

"The norms help to level the playing field for companies that want to do the right thing for human rights," said Mr. Ganesan. "Now every company's obligations are detailed and no company can say that it doesn't have responsibilities in the area of human rights."

The resolution now resides in the hands of the sub-commission's parent, the 53-nation UN Commission on Human Rights, for final approval.


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