In January 2018, the international community marked the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
Historians, political economists, anthropologists and development analysts say human rights issues have a more obvious connection with trade and commercial activities dating back to the 18th century.
One of most extremely and probably oldest example was the proliferation of slavery and forced labour, and its subsequent abolishing around the mid-19th century. This marked the beginning of an awareness of the rights of others, and remains a good example of early international cooperation for humanitarian causes.
Past and recent human rights reports indicate that although freedom from slavery is now universally accepted as a human right, there are still forms of slavery and exploitation going on across the world – including Ghana. Perhaps, Mauritania is the only country in Africa where slavery and the slave trade is still officially practiced. In Mauritania, children are born into slavery because their parents are slaves; and they grow and die in servitude, without ever having the right to enjoy their inalienable rights and full participation in the societies in which they were born.
In fact, forced labour, child labour, child-trafficking, forced prostitution and sexual exploitation, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, inimical widowhood rites etc. are still happening across the world. Even in the most advanced democracies, which pride themselves as the citadels of freedom and liberty, people are still discriminated against on the grounds of the colour of their skin and hair, culture and religion.
Historians recount that the 19th century saw a huge increase in the volume of trade among the industrialised nations, resulting in competition and failed attempts to reach international agreements. This led to conflicts which culminated in the signing of the 1884 Geneva Convention, which was signed by 12 countries that agreed to respect work of the Red Cross.
They also agreed to recognise certain basic rights for participants in war. After the First World War, the League of Nations was created in 1920; but it failed to prevent the Second World War for lack of consensus to sanction erring nations.
The end of the Second World War became a catalyst for fresh attempts to create a system of internationally recognised human rights in the form of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. Since 1948, this declaration – at least on paper – has been at the heart of developing international humanitarian laws over the last 70 years, and is also the basis for national constitutions of several progressive and modern nations.
Principles and obligations
In subsequent years, the UN Human Rights Conventions were enacted to support the UDHR. The conventions incorporate the principle that human rights apply to individuals and organs of society (institutions), which includes public and private business organisations. The UN Human Rights Convention sets out the legal obligations of a government, including ensuring that all people living in a country enjoy equality, a fair justice system and access to and public services. The convention was a general principle and an aspiration document that was not originally intended to be for legally binding obligations.
This perhaps explains why many human rights issues remain merely hopes and aspirations. Not even elected governments with the power to task and spend want to be held accountable for human rights abuses. To a large extent, some governments of developing countries do not see water and sanitation, health and education as human rights.
Two other conventions – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESCR) – were unequivocal that basic rights such as education, health, water and sanitation and the right to participation in political activities are more of obligations than aspirations. The reason is that these rights form the basics of life, empowerment and the development of capabilities. So, when denied these rights or where they are inadequate, life becomes poor.
Specifically, the ICCPR covers the right to life, liberty, thought, conscience, peaceful assembly, family and privacy. It prohibits slavery, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment, arbitrary arrests and discrimination. Most of the world’s progressive nations, except the totalitarian ones, have signed this covenant.
However, the world is witnessing the worst forms of civil, political and economic rights violations – only comparable to the slave trade. Clear cases of terrorism include the arrest and beheading of Christians in Iraq and Syria to Boko Haram’s bombing of unarmed people and the abduction of innocent school girls across Nigeria, the chaotic situation in Somalia, and the state-sponsored slavery in Mauritania etc.
On its part, the ICESCR covers human rights in areas such as education, food, healthcare, housing, right to work and improved working conditions as I indicated earlier. However, a critical analysis of these rights nationally and internationally buttresses the gory statistics on the declining quality of education, food insecurity, hunger and starvation, deepening unemployment (especially among the youth), and the housing deficit culminating in millions of people sleeping on the streets.
The growth of slums, urban poverty and increasing crime across the continent is an indication that Africa in particular is losing the battle to widening poverty. Ghana is battling with its own human rights issues – top among which is unemployment among the youth. The unprecedented and deadly voyages of Africa’s youth cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in search of better conditions is a blot on the conscience of Africa’s leaders, and an agenda-item for the international community to collectively address.
The International community also includes multinational corporations, which wield enormous financial power to make a positive impact on human rights issues in poor countries.
Human rights and CSR
Sadly, the international community is yet to agree on a human rights regime which focuses on effective protection for individuals and communities. The UN declaration of human rights indicates that it is a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations to ensure that every individual and every organ of society are under obligation to promote the ideals of human rights.
There is now widespread recognition that business organisations owe obligations beyond the narrow confines of their shareholders’ interest. Thus, the increasing adoption of corporate social responsibility strategies by many multinationals is a prudent decision.
This is because the power and potential influence of some of the MNEs is not in doubt. Statistics indicate that some large multinational are so huge that their sales and GDPs are often larger than the countries in which they operate. Many MNEs are bigger and have the political, financial and economic power to influence the domestic and international policy of nations, to shape human rights and positively impact the lives of millions of people across the world.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, it is these very powerful multinational corporations that often come into contact with the poorest communities. MNEs have been heavily criticised for human rights abuses, environmental degradation and corruption often associated with the extractives sector. Human rights abuses and environmental degradation in the Delta and Ogoni regions of Nigeria remain the most classic examples in abuse of corporate power.
John Ruggie, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, has pointed out that the root cause of corporate involvement in human right abuses lies in the governance gaps created by globalisation, and the capacities of societies to manage their consequences.
The result has been increasing involvement of MNEs in corporate responsibility – either voluntarily or in adherence to local and international legal obligations. More than ever, many actors have emerged in the debates over the nature of big organisations’ responsibilities to their stakeholders and the wider communities.
As to what constitutes corporate responsibility, its still a subject of debate. Many experts on CSR have indicated the difficulty in formulating a universally accepted definition. This is because CSR embraces related concepts like sustainability, corporate government, corporate citizenship and human rights.
A commonly held business case for adopting CSR is that it provides commercial benefits, in the form of improved public relations and enhancement of corporate brand and reputation. Perhaps in the absence of strong accountability systems CSR fills a vacuum, and has in many contexts ensured the creation and maintenance of commercial standards across the borders.
This explains why some companies easily get away with human rights abuses in poor countries. Some critics argue that the widespread adoption of CSR is not a genuine attempt by the MNEs to define and attribute their responsibility, but rather an attempt to avoid or forestall the rigours of legal control (Voiculescu and Yanacopulos, 2011).
However, proponents of CSR argue that its adoption by many MNEs reflects a deeper cultural change that is occurring as part of an evolutionary process. They claim that investors and potential customers are becoming aware of the wider implications of business activity on the environment and livelihoods of poor people. In Ghana, many poor communities have lost their farmlands and houses around where extractive operations are intense.
Non-governmental organisations in poor countries have played a key role in highlighting corporate abuse and holding business accountable in areas such as environment and livelihoods, workers’ rights, fair trade and general human rights cases. NGOs have been insisting on an objective means of measuring the implementation of CSR strategies.
At the moment, the adoption of CSR strategies and reporting is voluntary – and it has evolved without prescribed content. Two of the most comprehensive voluntary corporate responsibility initiatives are the UN Global Compact (2000) and the OECD Guidelines for multinational enterprises. The Global Compact requires that MNEs incorporate a set of core principles in the areas of human rights, labour standards, the environment and corruption.
A sated earlier, since the MNEs play a dominant role in global economics and politics, they are equally under obligation to uphold and respect human rights. In the context of corporate branding, human rights protection is the right thing to do. Companies are under obligation to voluntarily report human rights abuses arising from their operations.
Not reporting human rights abuses poses a number of risks: including putting the company’s social licence at risk, consumer boycotts, exposure to legal liability etc. Thus, businesses must comply with all applicable laws and respect internationally recognised human rights in countries and communities where they operate.
The Open University (2016) Study Guide. Business, human rights and corporate social responsibility. Open University Milton Keynes.
UN Commission on Human Rights (2005) Human Rights Resolution 2005/69
UN Human Rights Council (2008) Protect, Respect and Remedy: a framework for business and human rights
Voiculescu, A. and Yanacopulos, H. (2011) The Business of Human Rights: An evolving agenda for corporate responsibility. Zed Books. Open University.
(***The writer is a Communications and Development Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate. All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organisation. (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Mobile: 0202642504/0243327586/0264327586)