- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 24, 2005

Washington Times correspondent John Zarocostas also interviewed Chris Sidoti, director of the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights, on last week’s passage of the resolution on business and human rights. The International Service for Human Rights, founded in 1984, also has an international office in New York City and sites for training and support of human rights in more than 100 countries.

Question: Mr. Sidoti, the U.N. Human Rights Commission has passed a resolution asking the U.N. secretary-general to appoint a special representative to look into corporate social responsibility and human rights. How do you think it will evolve?

Answer: I think it will involve, first, a very important analysis of the application of existing law, both directly to corporations and to corporations through the states that have obligations under international treaties.

Second, it will involve the identification of areas in which further international legal development is necessary, and third, it must do both of these studies within the context of examining the actual experience on the ground of where business does good things and bad things in relation to human rights. So, it will be an experienced-based study as well.

Q: There’s been a lot of controversy leading up to this. For a long time, the corporate world was suspicious of any initiative in this direction by the United Nations. Do you think their fears can be put to rest?

A: I think their fears can be put to rest in a number of ways.

To start with, there’s no denying that states have the principal responsibilities under international law, and these moves are not attempts to absolve states of their responsibilities. In fact, they endorse the existing approach in international law that states bear the primary responsibility.

But, second, they recognize that, increasingly, corporations — particularly the large corporations — have far more power and influence than many small states have.

It’s unreasonable to expect, for example, that a small struggling state located in Africa, or in parts of Asia or the Pacific islands, will have the capacity to stand up to large corporations that are either offering a great deal of investment or threatening to withdraw existing investment unless the states do particular things. So, we’re recognizing that although states bear primary responsibility, corporations have obligations as well.

This should not, so far as I’m concerned, be threatening to corporations, because many corporations are already recognizing their obligations, are already acting very properly, already have a high level of sensitivity to human rights issues.

Yet on the international economic playing field, these “good” corporations will be at a competitive disadvantage to corporations that are prepared to ignore human rights issues, or even to collaborate with human-rights-violating states in their interest of pursuing profit and having an advantage. So, anything that ensures we have a proper legal framework for a competitive environment based on human rights standards is in the interests of corporations in the end.

Q: The problem in many areas of international law has been the element of enforcement. Assuming this new paradigm results in some agreed general principals down the road, would they have any teeth?

A: Initially, they would not have any teeth, other than the teeth of international public opinion and political and moral pressure. International law has been much faster in developing standards and norms than it has in developing enforcement mechanisms to ensure that they are implemented.

It’s one of the reasons why the high commissioner for human rights [Louise Arbour of Canada] has identified implementation of human rights standards as the highest priority for her office, and indeed she suggested [creating] the commission on human rights itself.

The setting of standards is still under way, but we do have a wide range of good standards now, and the challenge is one of enforcement.

Enforcement initially will be by moral pressure or political and moral persuasion. That’s the way that the international legal system works. So states need not fear that overnight they will be confronting new types of regulation and highly litigious environments.

But they are right to say this will expose them to greater scrutiny, to more open criticism when they are not living up to their obligations and to the possibility of political actions not just open to states but also open to communities. And I think some of the best corporations are already recognizing that.

Already, there is a strong sense of responsibility, social responsibility, human rights responsibility — there is a very strong commitment to increasing transparency and increasing accountability.

For these corporations, the development in the commission will not represent very much except the endorsement of the international community for the approach that they have voluntarily adopted.

For other corporations, though, whose track record is not so good, there is not an immediate threat of new forms of legal action, but certainly they have to expect that they will be subject to greater scrutiny and a higher level of transparency and accountability will be expected of them.

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