Nick Nichols

So, what responsibilities should good corporate citizens embrace? The UN’s Mr. Ruggie writes that, “In addition to compliance with national laws, the baseline responsibility of companies is to respect human rights.” He adds, and here is the kicker, “the broader scope of the responsibility to respect is defined by social expectations—as part of what is sometimes called a company’s social license to operate.”

Correct me if I am misinterpreting, but I take this to mean that a company’s responsibility to respect an ill-defined multitude of human rights is based on whatever the social expectations are at any given point in time. So, if my countrymen and I believe it is our right as human beings to tap into your company’s oil wells to satisfy our own righteous need for crude, then you must respect our right to do so. Does this sound familiar?

The UN report goes on to state that in order to “discharge the responsibility to respect requires due diligence.” What is the scope of this corporate due diligence? Apparently companies should consider “the country contexts” in which their business takes place, the human rights impacts of the company’s activities within that context and—pay close attention here—whether the company might contribute to abuse through relationships connected to its activities, “such as with business partners, suppliers, State agencies, and other non-State actors.” That’s right. The corporate responsibility to respect human rights includes avoiding any indirect involvement in human rights abuses where the actual harm is committed by others.

Whoa dude! That means a business executive who endorses the UN’s human rights and corporate social responsibility agenda had better hope the company’s shareholders have no familiarity with the term “complicity.” Why? If the investors discover that an executive has formally accepted corporate responsibility for human rights abuses that may be committed by another party, including governments, the word “complicity” will likely be tattooed on the executive’s termination papers.

I am certain that there are numerous business leaders in the real world who are legitimately trying to position their companies appropriately on the human rights front. I would strongly urge a full reading of Mr. Ruggie’s report to the Secretary-General—and by that I mean word for word. I would also suggest that corporate general counsels take a hard look at Mr. Ruggie’s work, as well. I suspect that if the report is actually read by corporate decision-makers, many will share my reaction to its contents, best summarized by a quote from Hamlet, Act 1, scene 4 in which Marcellus observes: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Nick Nichols

Nick is a retired crisis communications executive. He also developed and taught graduate-level crisis management courses at the Johns Hopkins University. Nick is the author of Rules for Corporate Warriors: How to Fight and Survive Attack Group Shakedowns. He is a Vietnam veteran.