UN resolution: Corporations need to protect human rights

6 Jul

– by Lisa Nandy

Last month the UN Human Rights Council unanimously voted through a ground-breaking resolution on human rights and transnational corporations. It was an important step towards establishing an ethical, international framework for business which will help to stop multinational companies putting profits before people right across the world.

The significance of this should not be underestimated. It marked the first time in the 65 year history of the UN that member states have unanimously endorsed a set of principles they themselves had not negotiated.

The commitment of the UN is reflected by strong feeling in Westminster, right across the political spectrum, that in the wake of the financial crisis it is not merely desirable but a necessity for business and finance to be transparent and accountable. The same ethical obligations that apply to states and individuals must also apply to business. In 2008, an under-regulated banking system brought the world economy to its knees and the most vulnerable in society are paying the price. Corporations may operate across borders, but we simply cannot allow them to operate above the law.

That’s why my colleagues and I have established an All Party Parliamentary Group for International Corporate Responsibility which last week hosted a meeting with the US Assistant Secretary of State, Mike Posner, who leads on human rights, democracy and labour for the Obama administration. He told a packed room in Parliament that business and human rights will be the most important human rights issue of the 21st century. He is right. The power of multinationals now far outstrips many of the states within which they operate. In 2010 Walmart’s revenue was an astonishing $414 billion, hence its ranking as the 26th largest economy in the world, just behind Norway.

It gives multinationals a power that outstrips individual states, predicted over 150 years ago in the Communist Manifesto.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.

Without international action to prevent human rights abuses, promote respect for human rights and provide remedy for victims, abuse will continue.

This is especially the case now, as many companies operate in developing countries where conflict and risk is high. From North Africa and the Middle East to Colombia and the DRC, companies are present in conflict zones where human rights are not always respected by states themselves. The difficulty of operating to high ethical standards in conflict zones should not be underestimated and requires a concerted, united response from business, states and international organisations, but it is possible.

Despite often valid reasons for operating in conflict zones, intentionally or not, companies from a range of industry sectors have acted in a manner that has directly or indirectly supported abuse. The Egyptian Government, for example, made demands on mobile phone operators to suspend services during the recent uprising and transmit inflammatory messages over their networks. Campaigners argue telecommunications companies operating in Egypt could have taken a series of steps to delay executing those instructions and raise human rights concerns. Vodafone, one of the companies involved, has since apologised and said that its competitors were doing the same.

It is clear that the importance given to this issue by the UN is only a first step. The British Government must lead the way in protecting the most vulnerable and promoting the best – not the worst – of British business to the world. In its proud internationalist tradition, pressure to act must come from the Labour movement. As individuals, businesses and legislators we have a shared interest, as well as a shared responsibility to take action and stand up for some of the most voiceless communities across the world.

– Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan. Follow her on twitter.

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