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Business & Human Rights

Business and Human Rights

Making human rights business as usual...


The impact of business corporations on international human rights has become a key focus in recent years. As Western businesses 'globalize' their operations, many are investing in, or sourcing inputs for their products from, countries that either lack adequate domestic legal expressions of international human rights norms or fail to enforce these laws. China--a serious violator of international human rights--has become a key business destination for Western firms.

Many businesses have found it very difficult to do business in China without participating in that country's program of forced labour by political and other prisoners--the infamous Chinese 'gulag' factory system. A number of nations have introduced 'export processing zones' (EPZs) designed to encourage foreign investment and have sought to uphold the international competitiveness of these zones by actively supporting moves by businesses to suppress unionization and maintain placid and inexpensive workforces.

The means employed to repress workers often violate international--and sometimes domestic--labour law. In still other instances, overseas suppliers of Western firms rely on child labour, some of it forced, to produce consumer goods for Western consumers. Most contentious of all has been the apparent business complicity with human rights abuses by states. For example, human rights groups accused Shell in Nigeria of financing military operations in Ogoniland and arming Nigerian soldiers.

Meanwhile, in October 1996, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning British Petroleum for apprently financing units of the Colombian armed forces--a group notorious for human rights abuses--to protect a pipeline. Companies operating in Burma have also been harshly criticized for their involvement with that nation's highly repressive military regime and for their complicity with human rights abuses in that country.

In 1996, CLAIHR commenced a business and human rights project. In association with the International Centre for Human Rights and Democractic Development, CLAIHR prepared two studies on the issue in 1997. The studies were motivated by two principal concerns.

First, as globalization proceeds, businesses are increasingly investing in countries with poor human rights records. As noted above, in some instances, businesses have been accused of complicity and even active participation in human rights abuses. The first study sought to determine whether Canadian businesses are taking steps to minimize the likelihood of violating international human rights norms by adopting corporate codes of conduct.

Second, present Canadian government policy stresses that trade and investment fuel respect for international human rights. The second study analyzes this position and examines a series of strategies available to consumers, shareholders, governments and workers to ensure that overseas operations by Canadian businesses in fact have positive human rights consequences.