What Role Does the Private Sector Play in Human Rights?

Posted by Adrienne Bory
December 8, 2008
Eiffel Tower in Paris

About the Author: Adrienne Bory serves as the Public Affairs Officer for the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. She interviewed Deputy Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Krilla.MS. BORY: Deputy Assistant Secretary Krilla, you are finishing up your participation at the International Seminar on Business and Human Rights in Paris. Can you tell us what the conference was all about?

MR. KRILLA: Sure, the conference celebrates the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And since the Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly here in Paris sixty years ago, the Paris location was really a deliberate tribute to that groundbreaking moment in history.

The location was a tribute -- but the actual conference brought civil society, governments, business and trade unions together to discuss business and human rights. It is a key opportunity for the international community to review global progress on the relationship with business enterprise and human rights and to chart developments ahead.

MS. BORY: Was this all just lip service or did you find that governments and business are truly making a solid effort to promoting common good?

MR. KRILLA: The companies that are represented at this conference tend to be thought leaders in their industries -- and as such tend to be in tune with their impact on human rights in countries in which they operate, as well as more general corporate social responsibility. So they really have an interest in sitting down with other players. Likewise, governments have the responsibility of protecting the rights of their citizens -- whether they acknowledge that responsibility or not. Many companies are responsible for positive developments, in even repressive countries, so governments are a captive audience. And civil society, those NGOs and local organizations that closely follow these issues, act as a kind of glue to keep everyone honest. All the stakeholders have an interest in being here and getting down to business.

MS. BORY: Should companies really be held responsible?

MR. KRILLA: We believe it is the duty of governments to protect the rights of its citizens. Certainly we expect companies to respect the rights of its labor force, the human rights of the communities in which they operate, and it would be great if they, to whatever extent they can, use their influence to put pressure on governments to promote general good and Universal Human Rights -- but ultimately we look to governments to secure the protections of human rights.

Also, any business/human rights initiatives must also be voluntary. When we talk about international CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) frameworks and human rights, we feel that any type of mandatory approach in the international arena dangerously shifts the focus of accountability for human rights violations away from governments.

Attempts to push the responsibility for protecting human rights away from governments and onto the private sector are a challenge that we face today. While the ultimate goal of protecting human rights is one I have spent most of my career working on, this approach can create the perception that governments have less of a responsibility to end human rights abuses for which they are ultimately responsible. The key to ending abuses by private sector companies or any other actor is for governments to promote, enforce, and respect the rule of law.

MS. BORY: What can these governments do when countries don’t comply?

MR. KRILLA: The countries that are attending these events, the Swiss, the French, South Africa and others, are not exactly the “who’s who” of human rights abusers. The challenge of those governments who respect human rights is to work together to press other governments to respect human rights -- to help governments put human rights laws on the books or respect the human rights standards laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And where they have good laws on their books, to make sure they are enforcing those laws.

When companies are operating in an environment where the government itself has difficulty enforcing -- or chooses not to enforce -- laws that provide for human rights of their citizens, it presents a significant challenge to the multinational businesses.

MS. BORY: Why?

MR. KRILLA: Their operations can run the risk of adding to the problem through ignoring the needs of the local communities or providing inadequate conditions to their labor work force. However, increasingly, companies are recognizing their responsibilities over their global supply chains.

Outsourcing their production does not mean they can outsource their responsibility.

MS. BORY: How is the U.S. Government working to promote human rights and business?

MR. KRILLA: This is where our multi-stakeholder approach on this issue has been most helpful -- bringing together companies with significant overseas supply chains, NGOs that understand these environments and ultimately, the governments themselves and their human rights obligations to their citizens. These issues are complex and often have not only social, but economic and governance implications. Without the participation of all stakeholders, it’s difficult to effectively address these multiple facets.

Whether we are talking about trying to eradicate the worst forms of child labor in the cocoa fields of West Africa, or stop forced labor surrounding illegal logging in the Amazon, or provide adequate factory worker rights globally, each of these stakeholders brings important value to the discussion.

Of particular importance to improving success of business/human rights initiatives is the participation of governments whose countries host operations of multinational corporations. Given that the CSR movement sprang from the need to fill governance gaps in countries where multinational corporations have operations, including host governments is critical to developing truly viable solutions to these issues. For example, the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, or VPs, include guiding principles to which extractive companies commit with regards to their interactions with public security -- these can only be truly effective with the support of the host government.



Syrian P.
December 8, 2008

SNP in Syria writes:

The private sector (Corporate interests) has been the primary supporter of Human right abusers world wide, from setting up Banana Republics to Aramco Sheiks. They in fact have violently overthrown dozens of progressive leaders worldwide and installed puppet juntas in place that are documented to be the most oppressive regimes ever, responsible for the most notoriously hideous crimes against humanity. In fact, Private Sector, acted violently against those that want to bring better government and human rights, just to protect own greedy personal and corporate business interests. In many instance, the Private Sector in so doing not only abused laws, corrupted officials and supported criminalities in foreign nations, but in fact undermined their own in the process and acted against own nation political and National security interests . Private, dedicated NGO's are the better flag bearer for this cause.

New York, USA
December 8, 2008

Ron in New York writes:

As globalization and privatization mature; the role of the private sector in Human Rights will grow larger. The UN Global Compact recognizes this important role and works closely with the private and NGO sectors to ensure that Universal Human Rights standards are adopted, maintained and upheld.

California, USA
December 8, 2008

Aldendeshe in California writes:

@ Ron in NY said: The U.N. Global Compact recognizesãã The U.N. failed in its mission completely. For 40 years it stood by watching while members of the U.N. not only discarded the U.N. Charters they agreed and signed on to, but in fact committed atrocities against own populations and that of other member nations, all can be prosecuted under war crimes laws, but the U.N looked the other way while massacres raged for decade. It is now an obsolete Organization that has been reduced into a tool for colonials to justify illegal occupations. It must be disbanded and not relied upon by descent nations. This is not an Org that can be trusted with human Rights Issues. Non profit NGOs are far more responsive and active in dealing with right abuses.


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