Friday, February 08, 2008

How can we stop corporations abusing human rights?

What to do about companies that break national laws and international standards while demonstrating contempt for the systems that are supposed to hold them to account?

This is a question I have tried to address in a chapter on corporate accountability written for a book that has just been published called: "Global Obligations for the Right to Food".

Here's a blurb from the publicity:

Global Obligations for the Right to Food
Edited by George Kent

"Global Obligations for the Right to Food offers an in-depth look at the urgent need for global responsibility. In this timely work, George Kent and a group of experts address issues of corporate accountability, children’s right to food, and public access to seeds. As persistent inequalities lead to increasing levels of under nutrition on the one hand, and a growing pandemic of obesity on the other hand, Global Obligations for the Right to Food brings much needed attention to this very complex issue."—

David Clark, Legal Officer Nutrition Section UNICEF, New York

A child may be born into a poor country, but not into a poor world. If global human rights are to be meaningful, they must be universal. Global Obligations for the Right to Food assesses the nature and depth of the global responsibility to ensure adequate food for the world's population.

While governments have primary responsibility for assuring the right to food for people under national jurisdictions, we as a global community all have some responsibilities as well. Global Obligations for the Right to Food explores the various actions that should be taken by governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals to ensure that all people of the world have access to adequate food.

George Kent is professor of political science at the University of Hawai’i, and the author of several books, including Children in the International Political Economy and Freedom from Want: The Human Right to Adequate Food.

This book was prepared by a Task Force of the Working Group on Nutrition, Ethics, and Human Rights of the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition. The Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research of Tokyo and Honolulu provided financial assistance.

Table of Contents:

Preface by George Kent

• Chapter One: Global Obligations by George Kent

• Chapter Two: Extraterritorial Obligations: A Response to Globalization by Rolf Künnemann and Sandra Ratjen

• Chapter Three: International Legal Dimensions of the Right to Food by Federica Donati and Margret Vidar

• Chapter Four: Holding Corporations Accountable in Relation to the Right to Food by Mike Brady

• Chapter Five: International Legal Obligations for Infants' Right to Food by Arun Gupta

• Chapter Six: Global Action against Worms, Malaria, and Measles by Michael Latham

• Chapter Seven: Public Access to Seeds and the Human Right to Adequate Food by Marc Cohen and Anitha Ramanna

• Chapter Eight: Global Support for School Feeding by S. Vivek

• Chapter Nine: Reflections by George Kent

• Chapter Ten: Recommendations by Mike Brady, Marc Cohen, Federica Donati, Arun Gupta, George Kent, Rolf Künnemann

The book is available in Baby Milk Action's on-line Virtual Shop. Click here.

As you might expect, I draw heavily on my experience of the baby food issue and the great advantage we have in this area with the international marketing standards adopted by the World Health Assembly. Yet, as we know only too well, these standards only have an impact when they are implemented and enforced in national measures or backed by consumer campaigns such as the Nestlé boycott. Companies do not follow the voluntarily. They attempt to weaken implementation, promoting codes of conduct instead of legislation, and disrespect those measures that are put in place.

There needs to be enforcement, but pitched against some of the world's most powerful corporations, how is this achieved? Nestlé has been fined for breaking national measures, but has shrugged off the fines as inconsequential.

Governments, particularly those in poorer, developing countries, are under economic pressure to treat corporations favourably and so do not always take the action to protect their citizens that we would hope.

So human rights are abused.

In the chapter I argue that the global community of nations has a collective responsibility to
hold corporations to account and, particularly as transnational corporations grow ever more powerful, has to provide protection when individual nations fail to do so.

The legal basis for this argument using existing human rights norms and other standards is explored along with the practical methods that could be used to hold corporations to account at the global level.

Well worth a read.

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