- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 24, 2005

Special correspondent John Zarocostas interviewed Nicholas Howen, secretary-general of the International Commission of Jurists, in Geneva Friday for The Washington Times on the commission’s decision to call for the chief of the United Nations to appoint a special representative on issues of human rights, transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

The resolution — passed by a 49-3 vote with one abstention in the 53-member U.N. Human Rights Commission — was seen as a positive step by international policy-makers, advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and corporate umbrella groups such as the International Chamber of Commerce.

The U.S. delegation cast one of the three votes against the resolution, saying it “takes a negative tone toward international and national businesses.” Australia made a similar objection, and South Africa voted no, seeing the resolution as too weak. Burkina Faso abstained.

Question: What’s your view, Mr. Howen, on the resolution to have a special U.N. representative for human rights and corporate responsibility?

Answer: It’s quite a breakthrough, because for the first time the commission has said that it will quite seriously look at the impact of businesses on human rights. But there are three things of which we have to make sure. One is that the expert who is appointed really is a human rights expert and not an apologist for business.

Second, this is about accountability. This is not just about a voluntary code of conduct and best practices, which is done outside the commission. The Commission on Human Rights is about standards and accountability. And third, it’s very important that we look at ideas to strengthen that accountability, and not just ?walk in place? without advancing.

Q: The U.S. delegation was one of the few voting against the resolution and they’re uncomfortable with the idea — that it’s the state that has responsibility, not business, for human rights. What’s your take on that?

A: There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding, sometimes deliberate, sometimes not, around this. Those that seek accountability of corporations are very, very clear. The state is the primary implementer of human rights. It’s the state that has the primary obligation to respect and implement human rights. It also has an obligation to make sure that businesses are regulated. If states are unable and unwilling to do so in this age where corporations are increasingly becoming powerful and more wealthy than many states, then human rights law must change and must be able to also hold corporations directly accountable, and that’s the development that we’re working toward.

Q: Besides human rights, should the special representative also have a clear grasp of business?

A: Clearly, it must be someone that understands business, because the reason why we’ve got this far is because there has been a dialogue with business, even though there have been disagreements over what the outcome should be. There’s an agreement that we must keep on talking, whoever the special representative is, certainly.

Q: The name of the former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, Arthur Levitt, has been mentioned as an appropriate person for this initial two-year post. Any views on such a possibility?

A: I have no views about an individual. But I would say that it’s inappropriate for the Commission on Human Rights to appoint anyone who is only a business figure. This is the Commission on Human Rights. This is not a gathering of business leaders. … And therefore, the commission must appoint someone who really does understand human rights and can reach out to business.

Q: Do you think the idea of corporations having a good image regarding human rights is catching on?

A: I think there are two things happening, and I’ve been involved on this issue for many years with business. The first is that there’s been a progression. … [Initially, it was] the external-relations departments of corporations that dealt with “corporate social responsibility,” for the purpose of creating a facade. But I think that moved on a little bit because of the scrutiny of what businesses are doing. They’re beginning to see this is actually a question of change in the way that they manage their companies and supply chains. Thus the fact that, just recently, Nike published [the names of] all their suppliers worldwide, and there’s been lots of pressure for that to happen over a long period of time.

Q: Do you think other companies will follow?

A: Inevitably, in the same way that BP was the first company to announce the size of the signature payments it made to the Angolan government — how much money they paid when contracts were signed. That was huge and controversial. It started to break the wall of the dam, and others began to follow.

Yes, initiatives like this mean we move from pure [public] image to actually changing management practices … But it will take many years to get there. Also, these voluntary initiatives must be complemented with regulation. So we bring the bad guys along as well, and you have a level playing field. We are really at a time when we are beyond “voluntarism.”

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