Multinationals urged to respect human rights

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The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which is meeting in Geneva, is discussing proposals which would oblige multinationals to respect human rights.

This content was published on March 30, 2004 - 14:42

A Swiss non-governmental organisation has called on commission members not to cave in to pressure from big business.

The Berne Declaration says international firms must not be allowed to evade their legal responsibilities towards employees and the environment.

The Human Rights Commission meeting is considering the “norms of the responsibility of trans-national companies and other business enterprises with respect to human rights”.

Adopted by the UN’s Sub-Commission for Human Rights in August last year, the norms - still at an early stage - bring together existing treaties and instruments on human rights and business practices, and explain how they can be applied to companies.

But the text of the agreement adds that it is up to individual states to ensure respect for the norms.

The document covers such topics as minimum salaries, transparency, corruption and sustainable development.

The Berne Declaration says that the norms go further than the voluntary initiatives that are already in force, such as the UN’s Global Compact, an agreement between the UN, private sector and civil society dating from 1999.

First step

But while the NGO welcomes the discussion as a first step towards creating human rights legislation for multinationals, it warns that the proposals risk being sidelined or weakened.

“The norms are threatened by the big economic lobbies who are putting pressure on governments,” said the Berne Declaration’s Florence Gerber.

“The Berne Declaration is not asking for the text to be adopted by the commission – it’s too early – but we are asking for it to be reworked and publicised so that all the parties concerned can give their opinion on it,” she told swissinfo.

She added that it was important that human rights and business was properly regulated.

“The problem with multinationals is that they are everywhere and often manage to escape their legal responsibilities, which instead often fall on the shoulders of their subsidiaries, subcontractors and suppliers,” said Gerber.

Swiss position

International reaction to the norms has so far been mixed. The Berne Declaration says some countries, including the United States, are against the proposals.

Jean-Daniel Vigny, who represents the foreign ministry at the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights – where Switzerland is an observer - says there is no official Swiss position.

He added, however, that the country would only sign up to norms that apply to other countries – not to companies.

But he said that Switzerland does support continuing discussion.

“Switzerland also wants to make sure, contrary to some countries that want to suppress this topic, that it remains on the agenda of the discussion of the sub-commission,” he told swissinfo.

The country is also a supporter of earlier human rights initiatives such as the Global Compact.

Multinationals

According to the Berne Declaration, some Swiss companies have given their support to the norms.

“Novartis and ABB are part of the Global Leader initiative created by Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and have shown themselves willing,” said Gerber.

“This group is made up of seven multinationals who decided in 2003 to respect the norms as they are, in order to make their own codes of behaviour.”

But Gerber says that not all Swiss multinationals have taken such measures.

“Nestlé isn’t as progressive, but is part of the Global Compact.”

When contacted by swissinfo, the food giant confirmed that it had integrated the guiding principles of the Global Compact into its business principles.

Spokesman Marcel Rubin said that it supported the protection of human rights within its sphere of influence, and ensured that its companies were not complicit in human rights abuses.

“But human rights and human rights applications rely on the government of the countries where we are established, and we are not able as a company to get involved in the local policies of the countries which host our companies and subsidiaries,” he told swissinfo.

The UN Commission on Human Rights is due to debate the norms in the coming weeks, as part of its 60th annual meeting.

The Berne Declaration says it would like to see a definite decision made by 2005 – as proposed by the sub-commission.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold

In brief

The Berne Declaration wants the UN Commission on Human Rights to ensure that its norms for human rights and businesses are not sidelined in upcoming discussions.

The norms apply to minimum salaries, transparency, the fight against corruption and the promotion of sustainable development.

The norms do not offer any legal framework, but would take existing initiatives and apply them to companies.

The text was elaborated by the Sub-Commission for Human Rights in 2003.

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