advancing the business case for human rightsFebruary 2001
Chris Marsden confesses to being daunted by his latest role. The former head of BP's community affairs team is to take over this spring from Sir Geoffrey Chandler as chair of Amnesty International's UK Business Group
'Following in Geoffrey's footsteps is a little bit alarming. He is a hell of an act to follow', Marsden said. Chandler has been described as 'the oldest angry young man around' because of the passion with which he has pressed the business world to take human rights seriously.
The former Shell executive has chaired the Business Group since its inception in 1991. The group began as a collection of Amnesty members with an interest in, and experience of, the business world. It has since become a more expert body, with members from organizations such as the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum (PWBLF), Friends Ivory & Sime and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Since the group was set up, business has changed from being viewed as a side issue by the charity to one of its core activities.
While the UK group is the most developed, similar ones operate within Amnesty organizations in the US, Australia, the Netherlands, Italy and France.
A network on international development already exists to help these Business Groups work together.
Last year the Business Group (with PWBLF) published Human Rights: is it any of your business?, a 144-page document that analysed the dilemmas and risks companies face and how they can implement sound human rights policies.
It argued that every company operating where human rights are abused needs to understand and manage the consequent risks. To drive home that message, the group produced a map of the world, highlighting the British companies which operate in countries with poor human rights records.
Seventeen countries are covered, including Brazil, Colombia, Russia and China. Many leading British companies operate in them, including Allied Domecq, Cadbury Schweppes, ICI and Tate & Lyle. Amnesty does not want companies such as these to pull out, but to work on improving human rights.
Marsden sees globalisation as a fact of life, but one which needs to be managed. 'There is a major governance deficit in making globalisation work for the benefit of all. That deficit will be filled through the work of groups like Amnesty, both by energetic opposition and by supporting companies to do better.'
He describes a model of 'intelligent activism', working with businesses to bring about improvements. 'I am not interested in outright opposition. Business plays an important role allowing people to earn a living.'
Instead the emphasis of the Business Group will be on persuading companies that they should have a robust position on human rights. 'We have to get companies to behave well, either by persuading them of the business case – which is not always that obvious – or by appealing to their ethics, which is not as futile as it might seem.'
The bottom line for Amnesty is the UN Declaration on Human Rights, from which the Business Group has developed a checklist (see below). Marsden describes the UN Declaration as 'the hardest bit of soft law there is' and says it is essential for companies to incorporate it into their policies and practices. 'If we don't get that soft law through to companies' own policies we will not make global business work.'
The new Business Group chair acknowledges that many companies still prefer to keep their heads down. But he says there has been good progress over the past few years, and clearly believes that momentum can be maintained.
There are two separate but related challenges. The first is to help companies improve their business practices.
Second, Amnesty wants multinationals to put pressure on erring governments which need their investment.
A few years ago this was anathema, but after Shell's experience in Nigeria and BP's troubles in Colombia during the 1990s, attitudes have changed.
Sir Geoffrey Chandler's distinctive voice may be heard a little less from now on, but companies can clearly expect no relief from pressure to improve their human rights records.
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