Human Rights: Narrowing the Divide between Business and Social Responsibility

In the face of western companies marketing challenges supporting the Olympics and activists linking the games to Darfur/Tibet, addressing human rights issues are top-of-mind.

Today, key global human rights issues increasingly span: Arms - Business – Children - Terrorism - Economic - Social - Health - HIV/AIDS - Labor - LGBT rights - and the list goes on. Notable issues include:

Kenya: In May, the Kenyan government launched Operation “Rudi Nyumbani” (Return Home), aimed at returning thousands of men, women, and children to their homes, which they fled in the violent aftermath of the December 2007 elections. However, the provincial commissioner for Rift Valley province recently announced that all displaced persons camps in the province would be closed within three weeks. Since the announcement, there have been reports of forced returns and inadequate services once people reach their homes.

Burma, Colombia, Angola, Burundi: In more than twenty countries around the world, children are soldiers of war. Denied a childhood and often subjected to horrific violence, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children are serving for both rebel groups and government forces in current armed conflicts.

China: The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing is presented as a unique opportunity to demonstrate to its people and the world a commitment to the fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in China’s own constitution. Several obstacles have prevented freedom of movement, religion, assembly and access to information. There is a substantial increase in human rights abuses directly related to preparations for the Games such as violations of media freedom and an intensifying persecution of Chinese human rights defenders who speak out publicly about the Games.

The Role of Business: Coca-cola and GE who have allocated millions of dollars to sponsor the Olympics are being criticized for not speaking out about the deteriorating human rights situation in China and responsibility agendas are being challenged.

Globalization has led to widespread growth in commerce and the reach of businesses. It has been debated that business responsibility and policies aimed at improving corporate conduct neglect to fully consider human rights issues - and - there is no shared assessment of the extent of the impact that business practices have on human rights.

As businesses ‘license to operate’ obligations continue to evolve and change so are the implications on human rights as companies are forced to take proactive measures to prevent employee misconduct, engage suppliers, address product quality/safety issues and ensure integrity of their business relationships.

While human rights models are considered to be well developed, business alignment and implementation are being scrutinized.

This was a key topic addressed at the Global Compact US Network’s Human Rights and Business Symposium in April. Jointly convened with the Harvard Business School, the meeting drew approximately 100 corporate executives, civil society representatives, academics and other human rights experts.

Some key issues and comments brought up by the Global Compact panelists include:

  • For human rights to be respected, it is important to partner with individuals and organizations who are experts in their field such as religious, community, legal and development organizations – Ms. Mary Robinson, The Ethical Globalization Initiative
  • Public health is a key component and often overlooked – Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, Chairman, Anglo American plc
  • Business should assess what impact business has on human rights – Christine Bader, Advisor to the UN SRSG
  • Important that human rights are integrated into the business – Reverand David Schilling – Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility
  • Utilize specialized groups such as Dream for Darfur to influence China to pressure Sudan for change – Robert Corcoran, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship, GE

Olympics-The Devil You Do the Devil You Don’t: Top sponsors of the games include Atos Origin, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Manulife, Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, Lenovo, McDonald’s, Panasonic, Samsung and Visa.

Companies expanding their business interests in China are exposing themselves to risks - politics, trade disputes, fears of unsafe products as well as being tarred by negative publicity.

Properly measuring and responding to external issues such as the Olympics, which are often larger than the company wide, is hard to navigate. Also, corporations can’t be expected to intervene in a complex cultural and political situation that will fix China, Darfur and Tibet overnight. This situation underscores a more careful approach about which ‘battle you pick to fight' in relation to long term social responsibility planning and impact.

J&J is sponsoring a medical training center for 2,000 Chinese medical personnel to treat athletes and spectators during the games. GE is providing ultrasound equipment to treat injured athletes, as well as power, lighting, water and security systems at sports venues.

Some conclusions to be made in the interests of uniting a variety of efforts to strengthen human rights in relation to business responsibility, protect individuals and communities from harm:

  • Develop tools to properly assess and manage human rights issues within a company (e.g. freedom of association, right to privacy)
  • CSR and human rights should be integrated within the decision-making process
  • Access to food, water, shelter and education are linked to human rights, so companies already engaged in CSR are in a more favorable position to lead human rights implementation and education
  • Vouch for better inclusion and enforcement in trade agreements
  • Engage multi-stakeholders that represent different sectors, expertise and environments
  • Gauge opinions about human rights and issues that employees/customers would like companies to advocate for on their behalf
  • Communicate the standards and transparent measuring to key stakeholders such as NGOs, investors and employees

As for the Olympics sponsors, it would be fair to show their commitment by at least issuing a public statement of support for human rights which seeks to promote the ‘respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.’

We can only hope to protect the integrity of the games, all the athletes and countries involved.


Some useful human rights resources and links include:

Declaration on Human Rights – - The Human Rights Compliance Assessment – - Business and Human Rights Resource Centre: – UN Global Compact –