Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Fine-tuning, rather than reinvention, is what we need on human rights

July 2009

A lot of noise is being generated about how developed countries should hold multinational businesses to account for their involvement in human rights abuses across the world. In Britain, there have been calls for the creation of a commission on business and human rights that would have the power to sit in judgement on the behaviour of multinationals (EP11, issue 2, p7). In Canada, the government is recruiting a CSR counsellor to act in a similar way, although initially just for extractive industry companies (see page three). On the wider stage, John Ruggie, the United Nations special representative on business and human rights, is considering if an international mechanism can be found to provide redress for victims of corporate human rights abuses.

It’s no bad thing that these discussions and actions are taking place, but the direction in which they’re moving is rather puzzling. For the new instruments that are being put forward are similar to what we already have in the shape of the National Contact Points (NCPs) that have been set up and run by governments around the globe to judge whether or not companies have breached the OECD guidelines for multinationals. Is there any need to reinvent this particular wheel?

The NCPs are not perfect. They have rightly been criticized in some countries for showing insufficient zeal. But there is nothing so badly wrong with them that a little fine-tuning cannot fix. NCPs now exist in a large number of countries, especially developed ones, and even if they differ slightly in character and philosophy from nation to nation, they all perform the same function. Rather than building a new structure to replace or sit alongside NCPs, why not beef them up and make them more effective?

One way of doing so would be to encourage governments to put them in the hands of a well-known public figure – perhaps a respected retired politician – instead of the kind of minor civil servant usually entrusted to run them at present. And making NCP deliberations more public would increase the likelihood that the findings receive wider attention in the national media. That in itself would lend more authority to the NCP process.

But the key move must be for national governments to begin putting their weight behind the NCPs. Since NCP findings are non-binding, companies need to know that an adverse judgement is likely to call forth government action. As Ruggie said last month (see page eight), NCP disapproval ought, at least, to lead to a denial of export credit insurance to the company concerned until the situation is remedied.

Whatever the instrument – whether NCP or an alternative – it has to have back-up in order to fulfil its purpose. So given that NCPs already exist – and on a global scale – why not stick to them, ensure government backing, and make them work better?

Peter Mason | Global | Human rights


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