Earlier this week I went to a corporate social responsibility (CSR) seminar to sharpen my appreciation of the subject. The discussion quickly established that basic human rights are the foundation of CSR at operations around the world.
The seminar was sponsored by the Mining Association of Canada (MAC) and the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA). A broad range of stakeholders were present – industry, non-governmental organizations (NGO), academic and religious. Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty International, gave the keynote speech.
For some reason presenters from the federal government were pulled from the program at the last minute. They missed a wonderful opportunity to dialog with others about the 'whats' and 'hows' of successful CSR. Shame on the Canadian government for its refusal to participate at a time there are important bills on this subject before Parliament and the roles of federal departments such as CIDA are under review.
So what did I learn?
There are a lot of thoughtful people concerned with CSR. Those who took part in the panels had much to say, not only about where the problems lie, but also about how to fix them. Only one solution eluded them, and I will get to that later.
I learned that human rights form the basis of every successful CSR effort. UN special representative John Ruggie was widely quoted on the subject. He posits that human rights rest on three pillars: protect, respect and remedy.
I learned that part of respecting and protecting human rights involves protection of the environment. If the land, air and water is degraded, the health of local people and their ability to grow food, conduct business and survive is also degraded.
I learned that human rights and poverty have a corresponding relationship. The worse the human rights record of a particular country, the greater the level of poverty among its residents. The ruling and wealthy classes maintain power by abusing the human rights of other citizens. They deny them access to education, health care, land tenure and business ownership.
In African and South American countries there are governance gaps, meaning the state does not or cannot step in to correct wrongful acts by companies. The government tacitly sanctions such acts, and there is no judicial mechanism for victims to seek reparation.
This is the problem that eluded the seminar participants: How to bridge these governance gaps. A solution lies in the complex evolution of national sovereignty, social expectations, international law and global prosecution of wrong-doers. Change will take time, and if humanity is determined to support the human rights of all its peoples, it may come sooner rather than later.