UN perspectives on "business and humanitarian and human rights obligations".

Author:Weissbrodt, David
Position:Business and Humanitarian and Human Rights Obligations - Proceedings of the One Hundredth Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: A Just World Under Law

I have been asked to summarize and reflect upon the role of the United Nations in establishing the humanitarian and human fights obligations of business. My remarks will trace the history of this topic at the United Nations and then focus on the latest developments.

Since the early days of the United Nations there have been human rights treaties and other law-making instruments that may be interpreted to apply directly or indirectly to business. Most prominently, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1) focuses on the obligations of states, but it also mentions the responsibilities of individuals and "every organ of society." (2) Human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, (3) require states "to respect and to ensure to all individuals ... rights" (4) such that if a corporation endangers the rights of an individual, the state has a duty to take preventive action. Some other UN-based treaties such as the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women specify state responsibility for the misconduct of any "persons, group or organization" (5) or even of "any person, organization or enterprise." (6)

The UN Commission on Transnational Corporations unsuccessfully attempted to draft an international code of conduct for TNCs in the 1970s and 1980s. (7) During that same era the OECD (8) and the ILO (9) developed voluntary guidelines for TNCs with rudimentary and rarely used procedures for interpretation. The ILO focused almost exclusively on the narrow issue of labor standards and the OECD guidelines mentioned human rights only once.

In January 1999 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed a "Global Compact" of shared values and principles at the World Economic Forum in Davos. (10) The original Global Compact asked businesses voluntarily to support and adopt nine succinctly expressed core principles, which are divided into categories dealing with general human rights obligations, standards of labor, and standards of environmental protection. In 2004 the Global Compact added a tenth core principle on corruption. (11) About 2,300 transnational corporations have joined the Global Compact.

Several UN-based institutions have adopted fragmentary corporate responsibility standards in limiting procurement to companies that protect the environment (UNCHR), do not engage in child labor (UNICEF), do not promote cigarettes (WHO), and do not engage in corrupt business practices (World Bank). If these standards were made more consistent, they could yield quite a powerful influence for corporate social responsibility.

In August 2003 the twenty-six human rights experts from around the globe who are members of the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights unanimously approved the Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights. (12) The Norms provide that

States have the primary responsibility to promote ... and protect

human rights recognized in international as well as national law,

including ensuring that transnational corporations and other

business enterprises respect human rights. Within their

respective spheres of activity and influence, transnational

corporations and other business enterprises have the obligation

to promote ... and protect human fights recognized in

international as well as national law,....

The Norms have, by fat', the most comprehensive approach to human rights, requiring TNCs and other business enterprises to respect the fight to equality of opportunity and treatment: the right to security of persons; the fights of workers, including a safe and healthy work environment and the right to collective bargaining; respect for international, national, and local laws and the rule of law; a balanced approach to intellectual property fights and responsibilities: transparency and avoidance of corruption; respect for civil, economic, political, social, and cultural rights; consumer protection; and environmental protection. In respect to each of those subjects, the Norms principally...

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