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Corporate Conduct


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California Global Corporate
Accountability Project

Forging New Links: Promoting and Protecting
Human Rights and the Environment

January 14, 1999 Roundtable
San Francisco, CA

The Roundtable Response

Reforming and Evaluating Corporate Practices

During this session, participants continued to stress the importance of integrating human rights and environmental protection rather than dealing with them as separate issues. The key issues raised by participants, presented below, are those concerning monitoring, evaluating, and reforming corporate practices, as well as some discussion on labor rights.

Dr. Owens Wiwa stated that corporations should have clear benchmarks to indicate whether they are violating human rights or environmental protection. These benchmarks, he argued, should be the same for every community: "We've been working... to get the companies to come forward and say that they will apply the same standards that they do locally internationally." Benchmarks ensure that corporate accountability will continue although a corporation might move its base of operations to a developing country. Benchmarks should encompass both human rights and environmental protection and should be clear and measurable. If corporations adopt benchmarks and follow them, governments will be pressured to also comply. Says Dr. Wiwa: "[The corporation] has to be able to let the government know that if you rape, or your soldiers rape women where they are working, if they kill people where they are working, this is unacceptable to our business code of ethics and we are not going to work there... That is a clear benchmark."

Benchmarks are similar to the idea of a corporate code of conduct. Activists agree that both of these tools usually arise as a response to pressure from organized movements, communities, NGOs and others concerned about human rights and environmental protection. However, one participant stated the concern that companies might use a corporate code of conduct as "greenwashing" without actually following its mandates: "I urge caution in the way we are looking at these codes and corporate attempts at self-regulation." Simply looking at international treaties and conventions on corporate accountability does not solve the problem because, as an activist stated, corporate interests are often supporting trade associations. It was suggested that the activist community must evaluate codes of conduct as well as pressure corporations to adopt them. One participant posed the question: "Are their codes hitting the mark in terms of what we think are the concerns on environment and human rights?"

Participants concluded that they must work to raise corporate codes of conduct up to an acceptable level of protection for human rights and the environment and act as watchdog to ensure that they follow the codes they have adopted. As one participant summed it up: "In 1999, even the best [in corporate codes of conduct] is just not good enough. So how can we work to raise standards while we watchdog?"

Monitoring Corporate Codes of Conduct

In talking about measuring corporate accountability, there was consensus that local people on-site in the country are the best suited for gathering information about a corporation's practices in that country. One participant summarized this idea: "On a broad range of issues, the best source of information going into a foreign country is the people there. We need to do a good job of saying, ‘If you can get us these things [information on corporate practices], we can really go to at for you, here.’" Dr. Owens Wiwa pointed out that activists and environmentalists in the communities need to be trained so that organizations can get the information they need to play the role of watchdog of corporations.

Workers’ Rights

Participants emphasized the distinction between human rights in general and worker’s rights more specifically. One participant explained an effort to bring together human rights and labor rights issues by petitioning a corporation to abide by the principles of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the International Labor Organization principles. He cautioned that a typical response is for the company to shut down the plant, a consequence which distinguishes strategies to protect labor rights from those to protect human rights in general. One participant stated his commitment to integrate human rights and labor rights: "I personally crusade to educate people in the human rights community about the International Labor Organization, a model where governments are only one of the three entities and where people come in their private capacities, business associations and workers associations."

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