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RSA World Leaders Lecture

"Beyond Good Intentions: Corporate Citizenship for a New Century" ;

Mary Robinson, United Nations High Comissioner for Human Rights
London, 7 May 2002
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to be here today with all of you, members and guests of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. I have long admired the range and scope of your activities. You will understand, however, that it is somewhat daunting to be invited to deliver the inaugural RSA World Leaders Lecture.

May I be bold enough to recall what I said when I was honoured to receive the Albert Medal from your President, His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh, at an enjoyable ceremony at Buckingham Palace last November. I took some pleasure in noting the fact that the Royal Society, founded in 1754, drew inspiration from the Royal Dublin Society, founded in 1731.

Apart from that story underscoring the intimate relationship between the two countries, it also reminds us of the great strength of a common tradition in the two islands, the space that existed for voluntary organisations outside of government to act for the public interest – to foresee a role for what is now called civil society – or a vibrant "third sector."

The question must be asked now on a global level. How can the RSA's mission, - to create a civilised society based on a sustainable economy by stimulating debate, developing new ideas and encouraging cooperation between the creative sources of British society, - be harnessed to address the challenges of globalisation?

As Secretary-General Kofi Annan put it in his report to the UN Millennium Assembly, We the Peoples:

"we must think afresh about how we manage our joint activities and our shared interests, for many challenges that we confront today are beyond the reach of any state to meet on its own…We must form coalitions for change, often with partners well beyond the precincts of officialdom. No shift in the way we think or act can be more critical than this: we must put people at the center of everything we do."

The evidence that new approaches are urgently needed to solve persistent global problems is all around us, but all too easily overlooked. Consider the findings of a new report issued ahead of the special session on children which begins tomorrow at UN headquarters in New York. I know some of you will be intimately aware of the grim statistics, but they bear repeating:

  • Of the 132 million children born every year, 10.2 million - or one in 12 – will die from preventable diseases: measles, malaria, diarrhea and prenatal conditions.
  • Of the 132 million children born every year, 10.2 million - or one in 12 – will die from preventable diseases: measles, malaria, diarrhea and prenatal conditions.
  • Over 120 million will never go to school - the majority of them girls.
  • One of every five children between the ages of 5 and 14 in the developing world will work, and half of those will do so full time.

Clearly, despite the growth of the global economy, and the world's commitment to a "first call for children", the reality is bleak. Why have we fallen short? At the heart of the problem is a lack of political will, a lack of accountability for failing to live up to international commitments, and in some countries, a severe lack of resources needed to make change. But I would propose that such shortcomings have also been due to a lack of imagination, an unwillingness to look for new solutions, and for new partners, to solve the problems of a new century.

Our efforts within the UN to confront the gaps in effective governance have increasingly sought to encourage the private sector and civil society in the kind of creativity, innovation and focus on good practice that has been the RSA's approach across the fields of business, design, the environment, education and the arts throughout its long history.

So I welcome this opportunity to share some thoughts on these issues and discuss with you the promise and the challenges of multi-stakeholder partnerships.

I should first explain briefly where human rights and my Office fit into the picture. The international human rights cause was adopted into the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights over a half-century ago.
Since that time a rich and extensive body of international law directed at bettering the human condition has been agreed upon by states, including the numerous developing countries who were to achieve their independence with the support of the United Nations. A large part of that law concerns human rights machinery and institutions to implement the human rights norms and standards which have been created or evolved at national, regional and international levels.

The Office that I head as High Commissioner for Human Rights, is a recent example of these institutional developments. Established by the General Assembly eight years ago, the OHCHR is intended to offer leadership, support and co-ordination to the international human rights system. It is no small task. Our mandate is to promote and protect all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural, of all people, in all countries. Predictably, the regular UN budget allocation (less than 2 per cent of the UN overall budget) is not commensurate with this ambition! We could not fulfil the ever expanding demands on the OHCHR without the voluntary contributions made by states, large and small, to our annual expenditure, a figure of some 75 million US dollars. The United Kingdom, I am glad to state here, is a major contributor.

If I were to encapsulate in a simple word the goal of my Office, and indeed of the entire international system of human rights, it would be in the word prevention. If human rights are respected, if basic education, housing and health care are secure, if there is freedom from personal violence and freedom for men and women to earn their living and raise their families, not only are human rights violations prevented, but conflict, terrorism and war can also be prevented.

Beyond Good Intentions

The title I have chosen for my lecture today is "Beyond Good Intentions: Corporate Citizenship for a New Century". I chose this title for two reasons:

First, to repeat a point which I made at the Albert Medal ceremony last year: business leaders don't have to wait – indeed, increasingly they can't afford to wait - for governments to pass and enforce legislation before they pursue "good practices" in support of international human rights, labour and environmental standards within their own operations and in the societies of which they are part. The public increasingly expects corporations to act in a socially responsible way. But it is also a business led debate, as the recent annual meeting of the Institute of Directors here in London illustrated.

With globalisation has come the growing sense that we are all responsible in some way for helping promote and protect the rights of our neighbours whether they live on the next street or on the next continent. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not simply a charter of rights, but speaks of duty in very broad terms. Article 29 provides: "Everyone has duties to the community …" What we need to do in the new century is to acknowledge that the community is no longer just our nearest neighbourhood but the global community.

Second, I wanted to indicate that good intentions clearly won't be enough. It is vital that the business community focuses not only on policies of good corporate citizenship but also their implementation in practice. If it really wants to prove to a growing number of sceptics that globalisation can be made to work not just for the privileged, but also for the powerless, it is practice that matters.

Despite the progress made at the policy level in recognising the links between profitable business and responsible social performance, many observers are still not convinced that company commitments are much more than window dressing in terms of the way business gets done around the world. Recent studies have shown that the business world has not succeeded in persuading the public that companies are serious about corporate social responsibility in practice.

Research published late last year by The Observer newspaper reveals high levels of scepticism among leaders from the voluntary sector, education, local government and media over companies' claims that they have improved their environmental and social performance. These leaders believe strongly that only legislation is effective. They want laws to compel companies to act responsibly. This significant sector of public opinion is convinced that voluntary approaches, though strongly favored by the private sector, are piece-meal and largely ineffective because only limited pressure for change can come from consumers, investors or campaigning groups.

On the environment, this debate is over whether or not business can "green itself from the inside". Environmental groups say it is not going to happen. Some of these groups are campaigning to have the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development in August adopt proposals for an international convention to enforce responsible corporate behaviour. They seek an international regulatory framework on corporate activities as the best way to ensure proper respect for environmental and social standards around the world.

I would argue that it is not a simple case of choosing between voluntary or regulatory systems to induce corporate responsibility. If indeed we believe that universal principles in the areas of human rights, labour rights and the environment should become an integral part of business strategies and day-to-day operations, regulation alone will not be sufficient. It must be coupled with a concerted effort to stimulate good practices.

Regulation is crucial to minimize abuses and to enforce compliance with minimum norms. But regulation alone won't establish the business case for making necessary changes. To do so, we must provide incentives so that doing the right thing also makes good business sense. By focusing exclusively on regulation, business is driven toward the logic of managing the costs of compliance. The result is that society loses out on the power of business to innovate and establish new forms of behavior that are so desperately needed.

Millions of people who are denied their rights today want to enjoy them now, not in some distant future. To achieve that goal we will have to embrace every good idea, every committed partner and every possible approach that can make a difference.

The Global Compact

One way of making progress is to engage the private sector in achieving public goals. Engagement between the UN and civil society in furthering international objectives is not new. Although the number, diversity and influence of civil society organizations and private enterprises has grown markedly over the past decade, they have been interacting with the United Nations since its founding. Several non-governmental organizations, including representatives of business associations, participated in the San Francisco Conference of 1945.

Today, the UN is pursuing its engagement with the private sector on corporate social responsibility issues through a number of different avenues. One of the key initiatives is the Global Compact. Formally launched by the Secretary-General in July 2000, the Global Compact calls on business leaders, trade unions and NGOs to join forces behind a set of core values in the areas of human rights, labour standards and the environment.

Let me outline briefly what we are asking corporations to do in these three areas. With respect to human rights, corporations should, first, ensure that they support and respect human rights within their sphere of influence as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and second, ensure they are not themselves complicit in human rights abuses. On labour standards, businesses should uphold freedom of association and collective bargaining and make sure they are not employing under-age children or forced labour, either directly or indirectly, and that, in their hiring and firing policies they do not discriminate on grounds of race, creed, gender or ethnic origin. And in relation to the environment, companies should support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges, promote greater environmental responsibility and encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies.

Several hundred companies from a wide range of countries North and South, such as Russia, China, Argentina, South Africa, Germany, Norway, Indonesia, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have responded to the Global Compact and are working with trade unions, civil society and the UN to make its principles part of the strategic vision and everyday practices of companies in all regions. I have learned of local initiatives in discussion with business leaders of companies large and small in places as far apart as Sao Paulo, Brazil, organized by the Ethos Institute, and New Delhi, organized by the Institute of Indian Industry. It has been heartening to see women business leaders to the fore in these discussions.

What specifically are companies supporting the Global Compact being exhorted to do? As a first step, we are calling on them to:

  • publicly express support for the Compact and its principles in mission statements and annual reports;
  • post on the Global Compact website concrete examples of progress made or lessons learned in implementing the Global Compact principles;
  • undertake activities jointly with the United Nations that advance the implementation of the Compact's principles or support wider UN goals such as poverty eradication.

The Global Compact is a voluntary initiative to promote good corporate citizenship. I want to stress that it is not, and must not be, a mere public relations exercise. A commitment to the Global Compact has to lead to concrete actions in support of the core principles I have explained. Equally, when such actions are taken, a company deserves recognition.

But how will we know that real changes are happening? The Global Compact is developing a learning forum which will serve as an information bank of disparate experiences - some successful and some not - of company efforts to implement the Compact's nine principles. Through this learning approach we hope to develop the elements of good practice that address specific human rights, labour and environmental issues relevant to all industry sectors. The idea is to move toward a system of performance based good practices, reflecting the judgment of the broader international community, rather than the situation of asking companies simply to adhere to varied and often weak local standards and legislation.

It is too early to say whether this initiative will bring about large-scale improvements in business practices around the world. But I believe it is an experiment worth trying.

Many NGOs have argued that without monitoring mechanisms in place to ensure adherence to its principles, there can be little hope that the Global Compact will produce real change in performance by companies. The Global Compact does not substitute for other approaches that rely on monitoring and enforcement. It is designed to complement such approaches by giving business and other sectors of society space to try out new ideas, and to make a difference through voluntary action.

But clearly, to maintain its integrity, the Global Compact needs to ensure high standards of participation. A significant step in this direction was taken earlier this year with the creation of a Global Compact Advisory Council that brings together senior business executives, international labor leaders, and heads of civil society organizations from across the world. The Council is the first UN advisory body composed of both public and private sector leaders. Its task is to assist the Secretary-General in developing more precise standards of participation in the initiative.

Another step has been to strengthen links between the Global Compact and the Global Reporting Initiative. As you may know, the GRI was launched last month as an independent institution that will be based in the Netherlands. It was established to develop, promote, and disseminate a generally accepted framework for sustainability reporting on the economic, environmental and social performance of corporations and other organisations.

Social reporting has taken on significant importance in Europe and is increasingly seen as one important means to create the transparency through which companies can demonstrate that they are living up to their responsibilities. Companies endorsing the Global Compact principles now have in the GRI reporting guidelines an internationally recognised tool for fulfilling their Global Compact obligation to report on the steps they are taking to protect human rights, labour and environmental standards.

The UN human rights programme and the private sector
What does the learning approach advocated by the Global Compact mean for involving the private sector in our human rights work at the UN? Allow me to give you a few brief examples. At last year's World Conference against Racism, the Global Compact provided the framework for analysis and reflection on some very interesting initiatives by six companies from five continents on diversity, equality and non-discrimination in the workplace and surrounding communities. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, participated in a high-level dialogue on these issues with Global Compact participating companies and other organizations on the opening day of the World Conference. A multi-stakeholder workshop looked at partnership approaches to fighting discrimination and fostering diversity and a panel we co-hosted with the ILO brought together trade union, company and UN representatives to share experiences of implementing equal-opportunity and diversity policies within organisations.

The resulting report of company experience, called 'Discrimination is Everybody's Business', is available on the Global Compact website. I am pleased to note that the initiative has inspired a number of national level initiatives between business and civil society that are getting underway this year.

My Office is also developing its role as a facilitator of dialogue with the private sector. Last December, for example, we hosted a workshop in Geneva between representatives of indigenous peoples and natural resource, energy and mining companies. There was a lively discussion at the workshop on the relationship between those companies and indigenous peoples concerning the questions of land, consultation and revenue sharing, which lead to recommendations for further study and joint action.

And this coming September, the committee of independent experts charged with monitoring the implementation of the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child, will hold a general day of discussion on 'The private sector as service provider and its role in implementing Child Rights'. The Committee has become increasingly aware of the significant role of private actors – be they corporations, foundations, non-governmental organizations or other institutions – in providing services which are vital in realising the rights of children, for example, to education and health.

It will be an opportunity to gather and facilitate the exchange of relevant experience on the development of public-private partnerships in providing services for children. The discussion will also seek to clarify how legal obligations of State parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child are translated into practice when services for children are provided and/or funded by actors other than the State.

Challenges for the future

These initiatives are intended to define more clearly the boundaries of corporate responsibilities for human rights and to identify good practices by companies in contributing to their realisation. But they also raise many complex issues. While few would disagree that businesses are responsible for the safety and well-being of their employees, coming to grips with the responsibilities of a business outside its immediate operations but still within its 'sphere of influence', as it is described in the first principle of the Global Compact, has not yet reached the same level of agreement.

A new report, by the Geneva based International Council for Human Rights Policy, has made a useful contribution to this issue by looking at the closeness of the relationship between a particular company and potential victims, and between the company and authorities who may abuse human rights. Clearly, the closer the company's connection to victims of rights violations, the greater its duty to protect. Employees, consumers, and the communities in which the company operates would be within a first line of responsibility.

But what happens when the company is more removed from the problem? The urgent debate over access to HIV/AIDS drugs in developing countries has highlighted the extent to which pharmaceutical companies have responsibility for the rights of people facing life threatening disease.

So we are finding that the nature of the product or service, the type and location of the relevant consumers, the size and power of the company, the prevailing human rights situation in the countries where the company operates, in addition to the proximity to potential violations, must all be part of the responsibility equation.

Turning to the second principle of the Global Compact – the obligation of companies to avoid complicity in human rights abuses – may I say that I do not underestimate the difficulties of defining the boundaries of business responsibility in this context. In order to draw those boundaries, it is important first to understand how the concept of complicity is being used today.

There can be no doubt that a corporation which knowingly assists a State in violating international human rights standards could be viewed as directly complicit in such a violation. For example, a company that promoted, or assisted with, the forced relocation of people in circumstances which would constitute a violation of international human rights could be considered directly complicit in the violation. The corporation could be legally responsible if it or its agents knew of the likely effects of their assistance.

But the contemporary notion of corporate complicity in human rights abuses is not confined to direct involvement in the execution of illegal acts by others. The complicity concept has also been used to describe the corporate position in relation to violations by government or rebel groups when the company benefits from these violations. Violations committed by security forces, such as the suppression of peaceful protest against business activities, or the use of repressive measures while guarding company facilities, are often cited as examples of corporate complicity in human rights abuses. In legal terms, where human rights violations occur in the context of a business operation, the company need not necessarily cause the harm directly for it to become implicated in the abuses.

Perhaps most challenging is the growing expectation that companies will raise systematic or continuous human rights abuses with the appropriate authorities. Indeed, it reflects the growing acceptance by the public, and by leading companies, that there is something culpable about failing to exercise influence in such circumstances. Whether or not such silent complicity would give rise to a finding of a breach of a legal obligation against a company in a court of law, it has become increasingly clear that the moral dimension of corporate action - or inaction - has taken on significant importance.

We have, I believe, made some progress in analyzing what is meant by the key phrases: "sphere of influence" and "complicity in human rights abuses." These concepts shape the expectations on companies. They can also reflect legal requirements now and in the future.

But corporate responsibility is only part of the picture. What I want to stress again is that, although I am confident that initiatives like the Global Compact can help to build consensus and reach practical solutions to contemporary human rights challenges, they do not imply that the role of government in ensuring respect for human rights has become any less important. Primary responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights remains with governments. Voluntary initiatives are no substitute for government action.

Nonetheless, it is significant that parts of the UN human rights system which used to focus exclusively on the responsibilities of governments are now also addressing the role of the business sector. For example, a growing number of Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts appointed by the UN Commission on Human Rights to study specific human rights issues around the world have sought to enhance contact and cooperation with the business sector in the course of their work. In addition, the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, an expert body of the inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights, is in the process of developing human rights principles for companies under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other universally accepted norms.

Some business representatives have argued for UN approved guidelines of international standards for corporate practice. Why? First, because increasingly global business sees advantages in having standards that are applicable in all countries. Second, local companies supplying many customers on the international market are confronted daily with the demands of 30 or more codes, not all alike, and they lack the resources to respond. The argument is that approval by the UN of one set of guidelines would give a level of authority which would make it the real standard and simplify and improve implementation. It has been stressed by some that it was important to use the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as a basis, since business and government needed to have a shared ultimate reference point. At the same time, many others fear that new regulation in this field will hamper development or be used for protectionist purposes.

I would be the first to acknowledge that regulation internationally may be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain in the short-term. But I believe that international standards will become more and more relevant in this context. Most of the debate centres on the existing human rights obligations generated by the Universal Declaration. The challenge is not to develop a new swathe of regulations, rather, the task is to make the human rights norms proclaimed more than 50 years ago relevant, influential and, most importantly, effective and enforceable in today's globalised world.

So where do we go from here? How do we address the current lack of ability in many countries to solve specific human rights problems through application of traditional sources of authority, and the need to engage other actors and institutions in society to work 'collaboratively' towards solutions? What human rights challenges may lend themselves to new approaches? What role could the RSA play in finding answers to these questions?

Let me close by suggesting three ways in which the RSA could be involved:

Within the Global Compact, we at the UN need partners committed to helping us take actions in support of the Compact's principles which can make a real difference in the lives of people. I would encourage all of you to consider how you could bring your own networks together to multiply these efforts at home and around the world.

By becoming part of the Global Compact learning forum, RSA members would have a new window into the challenges companies face in being both good corporate citizens and profitable. Perhaps you could consider sponsoring an event that could bring together academics, business leaders and human rights advocates to share experiences and plan joint action around studying the challenges of corporate citizenship, specifically addressing human rights issues. The Global Compact and my Office would be pleased to support you in such an initiative.

Finally, I would urge you all to consider what in practice you could do to support international efforts in achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals. Take for example the technology gap between the developed and the developing world. You all know that this gap is widening by the day. Research and the development of new technologies are overwhelmingly directed at rich country problems. Think of the progress that could be made in addressing the crises of public health, agricultural productivity, environmental degradation and demographic stress which so many people have to face, if the business and academic communities were to offer their expertise and skills to addressing the problems of the poorest countries of the world.

This encapsulates the concept contained in the Universal Declaration, that everyone has duties to the community. It can become one of the big ideas of this new century, an underlying principle that helps us shape the forces of globalisation in the light of shared values. It can pave the way to an ethical globalisation which becomes a positive experience for all the world's people.

Thank you.