Home / News & Events

Statement by Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at Business for Social Responsibility Conference on Profitable Partnerships

Building Relationships That Make a Difference
 
San Francisco, 3 November 1999

It is a pleasure to return to San Francisco to address the annual conference of Business for Social Responsibility. At an early stage in my term as High Commissioner I began to appreciate the role business can play in relation to human rights and that business was increasingly interested in the subject. In the summer of 1998 I accepted an invitation to visit BSR's office here just to check them out! They passed - with honours - I was impressed by small details: the concern for an environmentally friendly office, the multicultural and gender balanced staff, their evident enthusiasm and commitment, and the sense of a team which had thought through its responses to complex ethical and moral issues.

I welcome the opportunity to take stock with you of where the debate now is on business and human rights. In the past 50 years, the world has made progress in economic growth and wealth creation on a scale previously unimagined. This progress has been accompanied by significant improvements in human development indicators such as life expectancy, levels of education and nutrition standards. The business sector has been and continues to be the backbone of this sustained progress.

There is perhaps no better example of how business moves this process forward than the revolution taking place here in California. The new technologies being created and developed here have accounted for the lion's share of U.S. economic expansion in recent years and will undoubtedly play an increasing role in the years ahead.

But as we marvel at the power of business to generate ideas and products which in turn contribute to higher standards of living for many, we should not lose sight of other signs and indicators which make our view of the world more complex on the eve of a new millennium. Concerns are expressed by many people who believe the system which has produced so much prosperity for some, threatens many others.

As Mike Moore, the new Director-General of the WTO put it recently: Increasing numbers, not just in the United States, feel excluded, forgotten and angry, locked out and waiting for a promised train that may never arrive. They see globalization as a threat, the enemy. A central policy challenge for governments is to make the prosperity that flows from globalization accessible to people." Let us hope the upcoming Seattle Ministerial Conference of the WTO will be able to contribute to the aims Mr. Moore has set for himself: an outcome which benefits the most vulnerable economies, a more open trading system that can contribute to better living standards and a safer world and a WTO which can reflect the needs of all its members.

For there is still much debate as to whether making a bigger economic cake" will lead to better living standards. There is little disagreement, however, about how much remains to be done to fight against poverty and the inequality of opportunities and development which continue to plague the majority of the world's people. Well known statistics highlight these problems -- three billion people live on less than $2 a day. The growth in real per-capita income in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa from 1960 to 1995 was only $28. The overall gap between the richest 20% of humanity and the poorest 20% doubled between 1940 and 1990. And if the gap between rich and poor countries is growing, so too is the phenomenon of poverty and exclusion within societies. In many developing countries, even those experiencing some increase in net national wealth, the gap between the poorest in society and the richest has been growing dramatically.

The social responsibility movement

It is a pleasure for me to have the opportunity of raising these issues with a group of people who are looking ahead and asking the tough questions about the future - the leaders of some of the most successful and well known corporations in the world who are also the leaders of the corporate social responsibility movement. BSR companies are on the vanguard of a process which has taken on incredible energy and direction over the past few years. I hope I will be able to hear also from you about the progress you've made and the challenges you face as you work not only to produce good products and services, but also healthier societies.

During this conference, you will be seeking to advance further some of the real breakthroughs which are being made by business leaders in this movement. This progress is due in large part to the work of organizations like BSR which are leading a fundamental reshaping of the way business is done. BSR's broad membership of influential companies, your extensive research and publications as well as a wide range of training and technical assistance activities are invaluable resources for companies which have recognized that the triple bottom line of economic, environmental and social performance is now being watched by shareholders and by wider society alike.

I would not want to let this opportunity pass without expressing my admiration for the work of BSR's Chairman, Arnold Hiatt, who is one of the true pioneers of this movement. Arnold's commitment to this cause began, as human rights begin, to borrow Eleanor Roosevelt's words, in small places...close to home". Over 20 years ago Arnold did what every good business leader must - he thought not only about the needs of his customers, but also about the needs of his employees and the wider community and their links to his company's success. He then convinced his board of directors that addressing in practical ways the needs of the community would not only be the right thing to do, but would also be the profitable thing to do.

The Challenges to Human Rights

I am aware of other business leaders going the extra step needed, reaching beyond codes of conduct and external audits in efforts to construct industry wide inspection systems such as the Fair Labor Association, a monitoring group composed of industry and human-rights representatives that was created a year ago by a Presidential task force.

But why does ensuring greater respect for human rights matter to you? My hunch is that I don't need to make the argument to this group. You already understand that consumers are increasingly well informed about how products are manufactured or produced, and whether a company treats its workers well. You don't underestimate the extent to which investors are putting their money into socially responsible business funds. You recognize that without respect for human rights and the rule of law in our increasingly global village, you will eventually, if not already, find yourself trying to do business in unstable political and social environments where not only your employees' health and safety are at risk but also your opportunities for building new markets and continued growth.

So if we agree that human rights are important to business, we should ask ourselves - are they being respected universally? The answer is clear and challenging -- Awe have a lot of work to do". One need only consider the massive violations of human rights this year alone in places like Kosovo, Sierra Leone or East Timor to understand the enormity of the challenge still ahead. As terrible as these situations are, there are perhaps even more troubling violations of fundamental rights which aren't part of the daily news because they have tragically become almost commonplace -- the 12 million children who die each year under the age of five from preventable diseases, the 1.3 billion people who do not have access to clean water, the millions of women and girls throughout the world for whom primary education remains only a dream.

Having served as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for just over two years now and seeing first-hand the state of human rights in all parts of the world, I am more convinced than ever that lasting progress requires first and foremost that governments live up to the letter of their commitments to human rights. Yet I recognize more now than I did two years ago, that in many countries, due to severe lack of resources and in some places to the lasting effects of history, even the best intentions of governments will not be enough. Real progress will require innovative, mutually beneficial partnerships at all levels between governments, corporations, non-governmental organizations, international organizations and all others committed to a world where fundamental rights are guaranteed for all people.

What will happen if we don't do more? My fear is that in our interdependent world, unless concrete actions are taken now to effectively implement human rights, the progress enjoyed by many countries over the last fifty years and the spread of democratic societies in all regions will not be sustainable.

That is why I draw such encouragement from the commitments that all of you have made to making the world a better place. And why I count on you to go further - to expand your network ever wider - and to look for new and innovative ways of achieving these common goals.

Turning Commitments into Actions

One of the most visible results of the increased attention paid to the links between business and human rights is the development of corporate policies and practices which address human rights issues directly. This is evidenced by internal ethical statements, corporate codes of conduct, sectoral agreements on issues such as child labour in the clothing industry, or wider codes such as Social Accountability 8000 and the new Sullivan principles which are to be commended.

The focus has rightly been placed on identifying and correcting business practices which result in clear violations of human rights standards such as child and forced labor, unsafe working conditions, illegal transportation and dumping of toxic waste to name some of the most evident practices which, unfortunately, have been only too common in the past.

I believe we are now moving into a crucial stage in this evolving process - namely, developing the systems through which the commitments made by companies to protect human rights, labour and environmental standards can be monitored effectively to ensure compliance. Taking initiatives such as the Fair Labor Association (FLA) as the next step. In other words, ensuring that actions match commitments. This, by the way, is the main challenge which governments also face. Human rights standards are, by and large, now in place - implementation must follow.

This is no easy task. Later this afternoon the focus of one of your breakout sessions will be the topic of Innovative Approaches to Monitoring". I was interested to read about the study of factory conditions recently conducted by the research organization IHS in Indonesia on behalf of Reebok which will be discussed during this session. What is particularly impressive in this case is Reebok's willingness to be open about the problems which the study pointed out. It is an important example for other companies who are struggling with similar issues.

But even as significant efforts are being made to ensure that initiatives such as codes are rigorously complied with, some argue that even more must be done. It has been noted that the absence of uniform definitions among various codes and the variety of methods of implementation may result in ad-hoc approaches which run the risk of being short-lived. Others have asked whether the business community will be able to mobilize across-the-board support for balancing global governance structures in favour of human rights, labour, the environment and development.

Business and the United Nations

These were some of the issues UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan hoped the United Nations could help to address when he proposed a "Global Compact" between the United Nations and the world business community earlier this year.

As many of you know, the Global Compact calls on business leaders to join forces behind a set of core values in the areas of human rights, labour standards and the environment. In the area of human rights, corporations should ensure that they uphold and respect human rights and are not themselves complicit in human rights abuses. With respect to labour standards, businesses should make sure that they are not employing under-age children or forced labor, 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 greater environmental responsibility and encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies.

What makes these principles particularly important is that they already enjoy world-wide support, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Labor Organization's Declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work, and the Rio Declaration adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit.

The immediate goal in implementing the Compact is to challenge the international business community to incorporate these universal values into mission statements; to change management practices to achieve these goals; and to share learning experiences. The three United Nations entities most directly involved in implementing the Global Compact, the International Labour Organization, the UN Environment Programme and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have joined forces to work together to promote the principles. A Compact-oriented website, dialogues among prospective partners, training exercises, and access to United Nations databases are among the mechanisms we are developing to make the Compact work.

My Office stands ready to support your initiatives. The approach we have adopted is a modest but we hope, a catalytic one. We seek to encourage, stimulate and support corporate initiatives in this area and to work with organizations like BSR to identify and recognize good practices. An idea your Chairman has been developing, which I fully support, is to establish an award for a business practice which has made a real impact on ensuring respect for the human rights of employees or communities. I hope we will be in a position to work together to make such an award a mark of real achievement, similar to the Baldridge Award for quality here in the United States. I am excited by the proposal to weave into the award a prize which will support the work of human rights organizations in all regions.

But let me be clear -- the Global Compact will only be a truly useful tool if it is able to produce something more than itself. This will require a process in which the interests of the UN system, the business community and our non-governmental organization partners converge around common goals. These goals must then be transformed into partnerships that contribute to achieving the UN's mandate of enhancing international cooperation to promote, as the UN Charter puts it - Asocial progress and better standards of living in larger freedom".

I recognize the amount of work which will be required to use the common framework of the Global Compact as a guide for entering into innovative partnerships which produce real results both for business and for people. I also believe that the business community will have to continue to drive this process forward. The UN's added value comes through the international standards themselves, an understanding of local and country situations and its ability to bring all relevant actors together to address
common problems.

Conclusion

If I could leave you with one thought: don't underestimate the role you can play in shaping the future of human rights as we approach the new millennium. Consider the information technology revolution and just imagine what your creativity and knowledge could contribute to improved access to education for all. Or how your ability to innovate could help ensure adequate distribution of food, energy, building materials and healthcare - all of which, by the way, would contribute to the realization of fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration and the International Covenants.

Your ability to make a difference was brought home to me recently. I read about Noah Samara, the Ethiopian-born founder of a company which is producing a digital radio made for developing markets that connects with various power sources, including solar panels. In addition to selling time to various broadcasters who will reach new audiences through the system, Mr. Samara will use 5% of his profits to provide free digital radios to the poorest villages in Africa and to provide basic information including educational and health programming. Mr. Samara says it best: People need so many things in these areas -- information on hygiene, how to be better entrepreneurs...If we can do that, we will help them break through some of the hardest barriers."

This one initiative has the potential to make a real difference, to empower people not just in one community but in thousands. There is a lesson there -- to look beyond your horizons, to put to the ultimate use the creativity and energy which you hold. To build a future where human rights are a reality for all people.

I wish you every success for this year's conference.

Thanks