Opinions - 25.10.2011 - 00:00 

Advocating human rights

Globally active corporations are no longer just economic forces but also political ones. Professor for Business Ethics Florian Wettstein comments on corporate responsibility and human rights.


24 October 2011. Early in 2010, the world was surprised to learn about Google’s public attempt to put pressure on the Chinese government and their threat to withdraw from China because of the persistently repressive censorship policy. It is extremely rare for a company to flex its muscles so determinedly for an ideal. However, it is understandable that Google’s stance has not only earned public approval. After all, corporations have rarely distinguished themselves as guardians of human rights in the past. Instead, they say that protecting human rights is solely the state’s responsibility.

“Business as usual” often becomes a problem
Admittedly, overt and direct human-rights violations by corporations have tended to decrease over the years. But those account for only a fraction of all human-rights violations. Cases with the implicit, or less obvious, involvement of corporations are much more frequent. Companies do not act as the actual “main culprit”, but in various ways abet human-rights violations by other entities, typically the host nations. Often in those cases, one cannot allege malicious intent, because usually the core problem is “business as usual.” ABB, for example, was accused of supporting the antics of a ruthless regime with their infrastructure projects.

The major Swiss banks were confronted with the accusation that they funded activities that trample on human rights. And the surveillance software supplied by the Nokia Siemens consortium made it possible for the Iranian and Bahraini governments to crack down on dissidents with sheer brutality. Corporations do not normally break laws with such transactions. Often, the problem is rather that they dutifully obey the laws. For example: Internet companies that conduct self-censorship in accordance with Chinese rules or pass along activists’ and dissidents’ confidential user information to the authorities.

Political dimension of corporate action

These examples have in common that they show the political dimension to and relevance of corporate actions. Whether they like it or not, companies that operate globally are no longer just economic forces but also political ones. The requirement for the acceptance of political responsibility and, especially, for the protection of human rights is thus implied. The UN special representative of the secretary general on business and human rights, John Ruggie, also came to this conclusion. The “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” he issued in June are not binding, but they set a much-noticed benchmark. Most of all, they point out that the unconditional consideration of human rights has to become as natural to companies as the economic rationale that at the end of the day revenue should be higher than the expenses.

So, companies that are able to understand and reflect on their role in a global political context are in demand. In this respect, Google’s rebellion against China’s censorship policy could well show the way. Google did not break new ground with it, though. Following the appeal of the American priest Leon Sullivan, international companies stood up against the South African apartheid regime in the 1980s and contributed to its discredit, isolation and eventual fall. Anyone who claims to take human rights seriously in a global economy has to take a stance. It becomes apparent again and again that in their choice of location, companies rarely hesitate to make political demands —unfortunately, mostly only when they’re negotiating economic incentives.

Picture: Photocase / Yunioshi

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