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UN norms facing stormy passage

April 2004

There is growing business opposition to United Nations norms that set out the basic human rights responsibilities of companies operating in more than one country.

Representatives of 53 nations are currently considering the text of the norms during the six-week-long annual meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. It is possible the norms could be approved, but the commission will be mindful of increasingly vocal criticisms from business – including a strongly-worded attack by the UK-based Confederation of British Industry last month – and is thought most likely to delay a decision.

‘The betting would be on the norms being held over or referred for further study,’ said one observer close to the discussions who wished to remain anonymous. ‘They are unlikely to be adopted immediately without any changes, because business organizations are opposed.’

‘What we need is an educative exercise about the norms,’ he added. ‘Let’s face it, 99 per cent of firms have not even heard of them, and even those that are yelling about them probably haven’t read them.’

Although some companies such as ABB, Barclays and Novartis have publicly supported the norms through the recently-formed Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights, the CBI’s intervention, together with the established opposition of the International Chamber of Commerce, suggests that corporate opinion is currently against their adoption.

The CBI says the norms, which potentially would have the status of ‘soft law’ much like the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, would leave business in ‘a legal no-man’s land’ and should be dropped completely. John Cridland, CBI deputy director-general, said they would bring in ‘absurdly onerous’ reporting requirements and discourage investment in poor countries.

Supporters of the norms are concerned governments have also shown little enthusiasm. Even the UK, which has said it will champion CSR internationally, has so far been non-committal. Its CSR minister, Stephen Timms, told EP that he was monitoring the norms’ progress, but instead stressed his support for the OECD guidelines for multinationals, which the CBI has claimed are an adequate alternative. ‘Where the UN work is going I’m not sure at this stage,’ Timms said.

Non-governmental organizations, with the Amnesty International Business Group to the fore, claim the norms would not create new legal obligations on companies, ‘but simply codify and distil existing obligations under international law’.

The NGOs fear the norms could be sent back to the human rights subcommission which adopted them in summer 2003 (EP5, issue 4, p1). But while they say this would be ‘detrimental’, NGOs also favour a cautious approach, declaring in a statement that the norms ‘deserve a chance to be more carefully studied by the commission, governments and business before action is taken’.

Violations of individuals’ basic human rights by companies appear relatively uncommon. Fewer than 50 of the 2500 companies regularly reviewed by Ethical Investment Research Services are in breach of core International Labour Organisation standards, for example. Most of the serious breaches are in supply chains and not the directly employed workforce, according to Eiris.




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