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Global Enterprises and Human Rights

Summary of the second plenary session at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum 2011 by Peter Craven

Dr. Wolfgang Schüssel

Dr. Wolfgang Schüssel

“Encouraging signs from companies, municipalities and communities”

“Today everything crosses borders.” Those were the words of former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel during his keynote address that set the tone for an excellent debate on the subject of Global Enterprises and Human Rights. “But it is not just good things like democracy and human rights, best practices and the rule of law, science and technology, that are going global. Drugs, organised crime, illicit money, weapons and terror are also crossing borders.”

Wolfgang Schüssel went on to cite two examples – land grabbing in Ethiopia and Argentina’s tax battles with grain companies – to illustrate his contention that “globalisation is the twilight of sovereignty.” What to do? First, we must step up the beneficent interaction between the three parties in a triangle made up of strong, competitive companies, strong civic society, and a state sector that is responsible and itself strong enough to ensure that there is no accountability gap. Secondly, international organisations, like the UN, the EU, ASEAN and the African Union must play a more forceful role. In the final analysis though: “Good governance is the product of economic success.” And, Wolfgang Schüssel implied, vice versa.

Global Media Forum GMF 2011 Markus Löning

Markus Löning

It was a view shared by Markus Löning – the German government’s Human Rights Commissioner – who believes that enlightened German companies can actually be in the vanguard of the human rights movement. “Companies take their values with them when they do business abroad,” he said, “and I believe that is good.” With two provisos: “Not only should they stick to the standards set by the International Labour Organisation: they must go beyond them. They must demand from their trading partners a commitment to the rule of law and an independent judiciary.”

Global Media Forum GMF 2011 Mohan Munasinghe

Prof. Mohan Munasinghe

Professor Mohan Munasinghe says “Yes, but no!” This outspoken advocate of sustainable development – based in Sri Lanka and at Manchester University in the UK – sees the glass as half empty. Globalisation has brought progress to some. But another result, says the professor, is “systematic crowding out.” Broaden the definition of human rights to include the right to food, water, shelter and so on, and you will see, says Mohan Munasinghe, “that the poor end up living on land ravaged by environmental degradation.” The rich twenty percent consume 85 percent of the planet’s resources. High time, therefore, for enlightened self-interest in the form of Millennium Consumption Goals. The idea is that the rich will voluntarily reduce their consumption by 20 percent in order to, “create more space for the poor to move out of poverty.”

Global Media Forum GMF 2011 Alasdair Ross

Alasdair Ross

Alasdair Ross – Global Product Director at the Economist Intelligence Unit – also broke a lance for global business: “Globalised enterprises are overwhelmingly a motor and driver for economic development and growth and as such human rights.” It is a great misunderstanding, he argued, to assume that companies are only motivated by financial considerations, competition and market trends: “A company’s reputation is a huge concern and can so easily be damaged.” That’s why they are, perhaps contrary to expectation, so vulnerable to the kind of pressures that can be exerted by new media: “An extraordinary spectacle that could change everything.” Yes, Alasdair Ross concedes, there is still a “digital divide” but it will he believes be overcome and translated into an “extraordinary power for digital democracy.”

Global Media Forum GMF 2011 Rainer Wend

Dr. Rainer Wend

Rainer Wend is Executive Vice President for Public Policy and Responsibility at the world’s largest logistics company: Deutsche Post DHL, also one of the world’s largest employers. He provided interesting insights into the day-to-day linkage between turning a profit and trying to maintain high standards of corporate social responsibility. Both senior managers and local staff are trained in human rights awareness. And here, too, there is enlightened self-interest: what Rainer Wend called the “sweet spot.” It comes when a company’s constructive contribution to social processes and interaction leads to sustainable business environments and sustainable profits. He did however admit that although his company has its own code of conduct and subscribes to the UN catalogue of human rights guidelines, it is still in effect policing itself. And there are problems about applying human rights, “which are clearly universal and indivisible,” in over 200 very different cultural and political contexts, including China and North Korea. In some countries, Rainer Wend indicated, Deutsche Post DHL has discussed pulling out because of qualms about human rights practices. However, he concluded, dialogue is more important than departure, and: “Our corporate policy will NOT be that we will only operate in democratic countries.”

The debate concluded with many questions from the floor, especially from African speakers doubting that good intentions, codes of conduct and “quiet diplomacy” would be enough to curb some of the worst practices of global enterprises in that continent. “But what about the African governments? Why are they not doing their job?” Markus Löning retorted loudly. Also, Professor Munasinghe was asked how confident he was about his Millennium Consumption Goals being adopted. He responded by saying that while governments have been slow to take up the initiative, “there have been encouraging signs from companies, municipalities and communities who are saying ‘we will do it!’” Another example – one of many at the Global Media Forum – of the emphasis on the “bottom up” approach.

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