Business & Human Rights in Vancouver: Amnesty criticizes UN Framework on CSR

I’ve been following the debate between John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, and Amnesty International regarding the proposed principles for a UN framework on corporate social responsibility. Below is a letter Ruggie submitted to the Financial Times, followed by a response from Amnesty.

Sir, Hugh Williamson reports that Amnesty International and some other pressure groups fear that adoption of a proposed set of guiding principles for implementing the United Nations “protect, respect and remedy” framework in the area of business and human rights “risks undermining efforts to strengthen corporate responsibility”, and that “the current draft should not be adopted by the Human Rights Council” (“Amnesty criticises UN framework for multinationals”, January 17). This is bizarre on several counts.

First, these same organisations keep telling the world that there are currently no global standards in the area of business and human rights, causing both governments and business enterprises to fall far short of desired practices. In contrast, the UN framework and guiding principles elevate standards of conduct significantly.

Second, these same organisations use the UN framework constantly as a basis for criticising the performance of companies, governments and international agencies – so how inadequate and unacceptable could its implementation possibly be?

Third, Amnesty and the others would have a lot to answer for if they actually were to oppose Human Rights Council endorsement of this hard-won initiative. In 2004, they heavily promoted a scheme for regulating companies that had no champions among governments and triggered the vehement and unified opposition of the business community. What was the result?

Victims of corporate-related human rights harm, for whom these organisations claim to speak, got nothing. Now, seven years later, we have a proposal on the table that enjoys broad support from governments, business associations, individual companies, as well as a wide array of civil society and workers’ organisations.

Do Amnesty and the others really urge its defeat – delivering “nothing” to victims yet again? How much longer will they ask victims to wait in the name of some abstract and elusive global regulatory regime when practical results are achievable now?

John Ruggie,

UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights,

Cambridge, MA, US

Here’s the response from Amnesty:

Sir, John Ruggie’s letter (January 19) in response to Hugh Williamson’s article “Amnesty criticises UN framework for multinationals” (January 17) is surprising on several counts.

At Amnesty International our researchers regularly investigate human rights abuses committed by corporations. We work with victims – from the Niger Delta to India, Netherlands to Papua New Guinea. We campaign for their rights and work with them to seek reparations. We do not believe the draft guiding principles effectively protect victims’ rights or ensure their access to reparations.

Let’s be frank – the real opposition to effective guiding principles does not come from Amnesty International but from business interests. The draft guiding principles enjoy broad support from business, precisely because they require little meaningful action by business.

Prof Ruggie has acknowledged that governments often fail to regulate companies effectively, and that companies working in many countries evade accountability and proper sanctions when they commit human rights abuses. The fundamental challenge was how to address these problems. His draft guiding principles fail to meet this challenge. Amnesty International believes they must be strengthened.

We have offered constructive advice, based on years of investigative experience, to help the process. We will continue to do so.

Widney Brown,

Senior Director for International Law and Policy,

Amnesty International

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Business & Human Rights in Vancouver: Georgia Straight article on Bill C-300

From the Straight:

Simon Child has never been to Africa, but that hasn’t stopped the Grade 11 student at Semiahmoo secondary school from trying to improve the human-rights situation on the continent. Child, director of outreach and advocacy with the nonprofit Africa Canada Accountability Coalition, says one way to accomplish this is to force Canadian corporations to act more responsibly in Africa. In a phone interview with theGeorgia Straight, Child said this is particularly true in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo where several Canadian mining companies operate.

Human-rights groups have tried to draw attention to massive human-rights violations of women in two eastern provinces of the DRC, where warring government and rebel forces have been involved in mass rape. Child pointed out that minerals from the DRC are key components of cellphones, iPods, and other electronic gadgets used by youths, and that the Congolese people will benefit if those resources are mined in the most ethical manner possible. “The first step to doing that is getting our government to make sure they’re keeping an eye on these mining companies working in a place that has been called the rape capital of the world,” he said.

This is one reason why ACAC and other human-rights groups are strongly supporting Bill C-300, a private member’s bill introduced by Liberal MP John McKay. The bill has passed second reading and is now being studied by the Commons foreign affairs and international development committee. If it becomes law, mining and oil-and-gas companies will be required to act in a manner that is consistent with international human-rights standards to qualify for assistance from Export Development Canada, which is a Crown corporation. In addition, the bill would prohibit the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board from investing in mining and oil-and-gas companies that don’t respect human rights.

“Mining companies do not like having this reputation of being human-rights abusers,” Child said. “So if we get this bill, we can know who is doing good and who is doing bad. We could clear the air.”

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International’s Canadian office, told theStraight in a recent interview that governments and companies have long maintained that voluntary standards are the best way to deal with corporate human-rights violations in other countries. “We’ve always said that voluntary isn’t enough,” he said.

Neve noted that in 2006, the federal government launched a consultation process involving industry officials, academics, and human-rights organizations to address corporate conduct abroad. He said that it produced a “remarkable consensus report”, which proposed several steps to enhance human rights. He said the groups waited two years for the government’s response, which he described as a “profound disappointment”.

“We need to get some clear human-rights standards developed,” Neve added. “We need to have a meaningful complaint process that would oversee this, and we need to have some real sanctions to ensure that when companies are acting out and not complying with these human-rights standards, there are sanctions—whether that is losing certain forms of government financial assistance or other measures.”

Pierre Gratton, president and CEO of the Mining Association of B.C., told the Straightin a phone interview that his industry supports the creation of an ombudsman’s office to review corporations’ human-rights records. However, he said that an ombudsman should also have authority to investigate nongovernmental organizations. He added that the consensus report proposed an ombudsman’s office to provide more discreet oversight than what McKay’s bill calls for. “The ombuds’ function was to provide a mechanism into looking into matters and attempting to provide solutions,” Gratton said, adding that punitive actions should only be considered as a last resort.

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