Whenever I become convinced that Americans have slurped too much left-wing Kool-Aid, sang too many choruses of “Kumbaya,” and are about to turn the White House over to the wine and cheese socialists, I turn my attention toward the United Nations for a strong dose of “things could be worse,” and I am always rewarded. For example, it turns out that John Ruggie, the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations, recently issued a report that, according to the document, “presents a conceptual and policy framework to anchor the business and human rights debate, and to help guide all relevant actors.”
The title of the report is: “Promotion And Protection Of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social And Cultural Rights, Including The Right To Development.” Once you get through all the mumbo-jumbo, and there’s plenty of that, it becomes clear that the UN bureaucrats want to assign multinational corporations some level of legal, moral and social responsibility for human rights violations that occur in countries in which they do business. It’s part of the activist-driven Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) movement which is all about turning business executives into good little apparatchiks and the corporations they run into purveyors of the left-wing’s political agenda.
Just the title of the report alone gives me the heebie-jeebies. It refers to, with no specificity, a pot-luck of “human rights” that span the gamut from civil to cultural with everything else in between. If companies are to be responsible in some measure for respecting and protecting these human rights and for remedying violations when they occur, wouldn’t it be nice to know who or what will determine if something is, in fact, a human right?
Will there be an all-powerful Czar of Rights? Or maybe another UN cabal of activists and other so-called stakeholders will be created to anoint certain civil, political, economic, social and cultural desires as gen-u-wine “human rights” that merit respect, protection and remedies if they are violated. Will corporations have any say in which rights are right, and which rights are wrong?If the UN wants multinational companies to accept corporate social responsibility for respecting and protecting human rights, wouldn’t it be prudent to know in advance which rights we’re talking about? Apparently not. The report to the Secretary-General argues that it is better to define “the specific responsibilities of companies to all rights,” not just some limited list of rights.
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.
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.”