December 12, 2004 (The Observer)
Former Irish President and UN commisioner Mary Robinson is trying to bring multinationals together in a major effort to alleviate global poverty, reports Terry Slavin.
When Mary Robinson was confronted by a band of Friends of the Earth protesters asking to be allowed in to the London conference she was chairing on business and human rights last week, she didn''t hesitate. Not only were they allowed in, she asked them to address the conference, even though their accusations of human rights violations were targeted at one of the conference''s main sponsors, Barclays.
But then the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has never been one to worry about putting noses out of joint. From George W. Bush to Jiang Zemin, Robinson, who turned the human rights post into the most high-profile one in the UN system, has made it her business to speak her mind and damn the consequences.
In an interview with The Observer, Robinson, an imposing woman who exudes warmth even when struggling with a miserable head cold, said she first discussed what she planned to do with Barclays. The bank pointed out that it was due to meet them anyway to discuss their allegations arising from its involvement in the highly controversial Narmada river dam in India and a gas pipeline in Thailand. ''But I think it''s important that people who have a human rights issue to bring out feel they have access to a forum like this,'' she explains. Barclays ''wasn''t overjoyed'', she says, but it agreed.
The conference was organised by the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights, a group that counts Barclays as a prominent member and of which she is an active honorary chairperson. It is just one of a plethora of organisations into which she has poured her considerable energies since she resigned from the Human Rights Commissioner''s job in 2002, amid speculation of US anger in the wake of her handling of the World Racism Conference in South Africa - which the US and Israel walked out of - and her vocal denunciations of the ''war on terror'' post 9/11, when she slated the Bush administration for ripping up the Geneva conventions and for the civilian casualty count in Afghanistan.
The daughter of two County Mayo physicians, Robinson has spent her entire adult life as a human rights advocate - first as a crusading lawyer, arguing landmark cases before the European Court of Human Rights, and then, after 1990, as a political leader, when she was elected Ireland''s first female President. She was the first head of state to visit famine-stricken Somalia in 1992 and to go to Rwanda after the genocide.
After leaving the UN, she set up a vehicle to continue her advocacy: Realising Rights, the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, which is dedicated to three of the issues she holds dearest: fighting Aids in Africa, making migration policies more humane, and (while she''s at it) reshaping the world trade system along more humanitarian lines.
And that''s just the working breakfast. But the meetings she has now tend increasingly to be with companies, not heads of state. Her stock answer, when asked what is the worst human rights problem in the world, is ''extreme poverty'' that denies people basic rights to health, housing and education. At a time when power is shifting from governments to multinational corporations, they must shoulder some of the responsibility, she argues. ''No other societal actor has the potential to transform the way people live and work around the world today - for good and bad - more than the private sector.'' And she points out that the top 200 companies in the world represent a quarter of world GDP: ''With power comes responsibility.''
Of course, she says, the problem is that companies that do seize the mantle of social responsibility are liable to be hoisted with the petard of their own standards once they are perceived to have fallen foul of them. Witness the discomfiture of Barclays, facing up to a barrage of criticism over alleged human rights abuses on the controversial Trans Thai-Malaysia gas pipeline, to which it has lent $257 million. Last week Thailand''s National Human Rights Commission called for a halt to the project until allegations of illegal seizures of land are investigated.
Barclays was one of the first signatories to the year-old ''Equator Principles'', a voluntary agreement by 25 big international banks to adhere to the social and environmental guidelines of the World Bank when they finance big projects. The company maintains that the Equator Principles have not been violated on the Thai gas project, and that its involvement has ensured that environmental and social standards will be met because they are included in loan covenants.
But Robinson says that one of the problems with the principles - and the World Bank''s lending guidelines, which are now under review - is that they do not adequately address human rights issues. At the same time, she says, ''I believe civil society groups must do more to reward those companies that take leadership on human rights, rather than target them and allow the vast majority of companies to slip past public scrutiny.''
Some, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have proved more adept than others at wielding the carrot as well as the stick. When Gap published a highly critical corporate social responsibility report recently, it expected it would be pilloried by pressure groups. Instead, she says, ''they got great acknowledgment that they were turning a corner''. Gap saw tackling human rights issues in its supply chain as ''a way to reach out to a constituency that hitherto had been very critical. [After the report] they found a willing ness to give them time to get their house in order.''
But getting one''s house in order on human rights is still very new to companies, she says. Environmental issues are now firmly part of risk management, but companies remain uncomfortable with the wide-ranging language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
An attempt last year to spell out a human rights code for business, known as the UN Norms, caused an outcry from groups such as the International Chamber of Commerce and the CBI, which described them as ''absurdly onerous''. But Robinson''s group, BLIHR, has given the norms a fighting chance by showing how they can be applied in practice. The 10 companies in BLIHR - Gap, Barclays, ABB, The Body Shop International, National Grid Transco, Hewlett-Packard, Statoil, MTV, Novartis and Novo Nordisk - have developed a matrix based on the norms that allow companies to plot how they measure up on human rights issues.
''The 10 companies in BLIHR are committed to what they are doing,'' says Robinson, with typical bluntness. ''But it doesn''t mean they are better than other companies, or that they don''t have any serious problems.''
She said she was impressed by ABB which, when faced by recent criticism for continuing to supply electricity to the rogue regime in Sudan, circulated a letter from its chairman to stakeholders spelling out the dilemma it faced and asking for dialogue. ''Had ABB said "We''ve had a lot of heat on this, we''ll pull out", it may not have been the best human rights way forward.''
For Robinson, the best way forward is the only way she has known since she proclaimed, on succeeding to the Irish presidency, ''I was elected by the women of Ireland, who, instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system.''
She has certainly rocked a few cradles in her time: she has two sons and a daughter. But it was the birth of her first grandchild, a year ago today, that rekindled the fire in her to make a better world.''I''m in a real hurry now,'' she says.
She is recently back from Mali, where she went on a trade mission as honorary president of Oxfam International. She was moved by the plight of women working in the fields while their children lay in the clay beside them. ''They have so little return for what they are doing and they are desperately trying to get their children to school,'' she says.
Paris, 7 December 1998.
HUMAN RIGHTS ON THE EVE OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.
Speech by the former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Mary Robinson.
As we approach a new millennium, it is right to ask how far we have lived up to the vision of those who framed the Declaration, how we can do more on behalf of those whose rights are not yet vindicated and how we can meet the challenges of the future.
Institutionally, much has been achieved. The concept of universal and indivisible human rights has attained legitimacy, officially at least. A substantial body of law has flowed from the adoption of the Declaration. There is a complex human rights machinery.
But, the iron test is implementation; whether the aims of the Declaration and the legal texts, which followed, are translated into reality, into protection of individuals'' human rights on the ground. The Declaration throws down a formidable challenge to governments. It gives them an objective list of standards which their institutions and practices must reach.
Yet who could fail to be dismayed when we compare the reality of the human rights situation around the world with the idealistic aims of the Universal Declaration?
- The most basic right, the right to life is daily violated. The dream that such horrors as the Holocaust would never happen again has turned to nightmare in the face of Rwanda, Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia;
- Conflicts within States are proving as bloody as conflicts between States in the past. National minorities increasingly find their culture and identity under threat; ethnic differences are exploited for political ends;
- Authoritarian governments still resort to arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and summary execution, even while paying lip-service to their human rights obligations.
- Freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of association remain distant dreams for many;
- Bonded labour and the traffic in women and children have become our modern versions of slavery.
Even resource-rich States fail to meet their responsibilities under the Declaration to care for the vulnerable in society. The rights of the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, universal access to medical care are routinely denied. The duty, under Article 14, to respect the rights of asylum seekers is made subject to financial considerations. We dispense humanitarian aid to the victims of famine and conflict rather than addressing the human rights issues at the heart of their problems.
And when we measure implementation of social and economic rights, and the right to development, then we really see how far our performance has fallen short. A billion and a half people earn less than a dollar a day; the same number have no access to clean water. A third of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is unlikely to live past the age of 40. In Southern Asia half of all children under five are malnourished while two thirds of women cannot read or write.
It is painfully clear that inequities within and between societies are not diminishing but growing. We are in danger of reaching a point where the world is divided, not between developing and developed States, but between over-developed and never-to-be-developed States.
What we are confronted with is a failure of will on the part of governments; a failure to prioritise, a failure to acknowledge policy contradictions. Governments can develop the most sophisticated weapons and spend $800 billion a year on them. But they stand by while the gulf between rich and poor grows even greater.
Truly, we have a long way to go before we can conclude that the standards embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been put into practice.
THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
We can and must do better. It is not sufficient to be appalled by human rights violations and to denounce them. We must devise new, improved strategies to tackle and prevent abuses. The stakes are high - the credibility of our institutions of governance is at issue. We have to demonstrate that tolerance is better than intolerance, diversity and pluralism better than racism and sexual discrimination, power-sharing better than authoritarianism, peace better than conflict. The suffering of the disadvantaged and those denied their human rights must be a constant warning against complacency.
To start with, we have to recognise that profound changes are happening in society:
- Beliefs and values are everywhere challenged. It is no exaggeration to speak of a moral and ethical vacuum in many societies. At the same time, some religious proponents seek to impose their beliefs by force on their fellow human beings.
- Revolutionary technologies, particularly in the health field, raise profound new ethical issues. The Genome Project, cloning, genetically modified organisms all give rise to fundamental questions about the nature and rights of the individual.
- The environmental debate becomes more urgent daily. We are depleting the earth''s resources as never before. The scale of the problem and the close linkage between human rights violations and environmental degradation have led to calls for not only the rights of the present generation to be protected but the rights of the next and future generations.
We must face up to these momentous changes and take account, too, of the shifts of power that are taking place in society. States are no longer as powerful as they were - that is one of the most significant changes since the Universal Declaration was adopted. In 1948 the role of the State was of paramount importance. The State was seen as guarantor - and as threat. Today, many issues of importance to citizens are decided by other actors. Globalisation of the world economy has spread rapidly. Now, more than ever, national economies are dependent on events and decisions outside national borders.
PARTNERSHIP: THE WAY FORWARD
Fresh ideas and strategies are required if we are to tackle both the traditional human rights issues and the new, far-reaching challenges that are emerging. My vision is of a new partnership between the key actors in the human rights field:
United Nations: A particular responsibility rests on those of us in the United Nations family to give the lead. I have been heartened by the progress made towards incorporating into all of the UN programmes and agencies explicit commitments to the promotion and protection of human rights. This is coming about through the initiative of the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and I am grateful to him for his strong support.
States and Regional Groups: States have a special responsibility to protect the human rights of their citizens and to promote a culture of human rights. Rhetoric must be matched by action. National capacity building is essential; States have a duty to establish human rights institutions that are accessible to all. States should also enter into partnerships with their citizens and non-governmental organisations, share information and resources. They should allow human rights defenders to perform their vital tasks. Their approach to human rights must be transparent so that progress can be measured. Human rights can also be enhanced through States'' participation in regional groupings where they can benefit through sharing principles and actions.
Transnational Corporations: Huge power - and responsibility - lies in the hands of transnational corporations. Some 500 corporations currently control a third of global GNP and three quarters of world trade. A dozen corporations may soon dominate all aspects of the food industry. It is small wonder that much decision-making has moved from the national to the supranational level, from the Cabinet room to the Boardroom. There is an enormous, and still often unrecognised, human rights dimension to the activities of transnational corporations. I welcome the growing acceptance by the corporate world of the need to respect the ethical dimension of their activities. That reflects the concerns of informed consumers and shareholders. It is a trend which should be developed and strengthened. For example, a human rights dimension must be built into transnational corporations'' ethics statements. Assessments of the human rights impact of major investments should be carried out as a matter of routine. It is in the corporations'' interests since good ethics are good business.
Multilateral Bodies: Multilateral organisations, too, play a vital role. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank often have a decisive say in determining a State''s economic policies and priorities. The human consequences of Bank and Fund policies can be far-reaching. Yet the impression is that sufficient account has not been taken of the consequences and the human rights implications of their actions, that these are regarded as someone else''s responsibility, not the institutions'' or the economists''. The dialogue with the Bretton Woods institutions and the World Trade Organisation must, therefore, be intensified. All of the programmes and policies pursued by the IMF and the World Bank should be consistent with international human rights standards.
Non Governmental Organisations: As the State''s role weakens, the importance of Non-Governmental Organisations increases. The role of the NGOs is well summed up by Aung San Suu Kyi: "The watchfulness and active cooperation of organisations outside the spheres of officialdom are necessary to ensure the four essential components of the human rights paradigm as identified by the United Nations Development Programme: productivity, equity, sustainability and empowerment ....... Development must be by people not only for them. People must participate fully in the decisions and processes that shape their lives."
The Role of the Individual: An aspect of the Declaration that deserves more attention is the emphasis on the individual''s duties and responsibilities. Article 29 of the Declaration underlines everyone''s duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. As it was simply but powerfully formulated by René Cassin: "Tes droits sont mes devoirs, tes devoirs sont mes droits". The individual may feel threatened by the State or dwarfed by transnational corporations and international financial institutions. But the message of Article 29 is clear. It tells us, at a time of moral and ethical confusion, that we are members of one human family with rights in common and duties towards each other. As we look to the future, the sense of mankind "being in this together" could be a potent force for strengthening and protecting human rights.
Forging a new partnership between the various actors - States, regional organisations, transnational corporations, multilateral bodies, NGOs, individuals - will not be easy. Though conscious of the size of the task, I am not daunted. I pledge to do everything in my power to be a catalyst for the development of such partnerships. For the victims, those on the receiving end of human rights abuses, I pledge to be a witness and a voice, the best guarantor and defender of their rights that I can be.
by United Nations High Commission for Human Rights