By Sir Geoffrey Chandler, Founder Chair, Amnesty International UK Business Group 1991-2001, and a former Director of Shell International.

April 2004


In a misleading and factually inaccurate statement the International Chamber of Commerce and the International Organisation of Employers attack the United Nations Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights. In what amounts to an extraordinary attack on international human rights standards, the ICC and IOE bring discredit to their own organisations and do a disservice to their members.

The first and most important paragraph of the Norms declares that 'States have the primary responsibility to respect, ensure respect for, prevent abuses of, and promote human rights recognised in international as well as national law, including ensuring that transnational corporations and other business enterprises respect human rights'.

However, corporate responsibility for human rights in relation to the treatment of employees, to conditions in their supply chains and to the communities in which they operate is today increasingly recognised by leading companies.  There is also growing understanding that in a world of conflict and human rights violations, the absence of appropriate policies can lead to action damaging to human rights and to corporate reputation, Shell's 1995 experience in Nigeria being the most notorious example of this.

Guidelines for appropriate conduct have been developed by intergovernmental or international organisations, of which the most notable are the United Nations Global Compact, the ILO Tripartite Declaration on Multinationals, and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.  These have assisted in creating awareness of the risks and responsibilities of business today, but only a minority of transnational corporations have joined the  Compact, the ILO covers only labour matters, and the OECD Guidelines have proved an inadequate mechanism for improving corporate behaviour.  None of the three has served to diminish the prevailing public distrust of companies or the belief that profit is put before principle.  Both the Global Compact and the OECD Guidelines state in very general terms that companies should respect human rights, but neither effectively explains what this means.  The Norms provide such an explanation.

The value of the Norms to business is that they distil, in a single comprehensive and authoritative document, the international human rights principles applicable to the whole range of business responsibilities for all businesses.  Their authority derives from the fact that they reflect, in a manner which assists their operationalising by companies, the internationally agreed instruments of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the core International Labour Organisation conventions, and the Human Rights Covenants on Civil and Political Rights as well as Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  The body which has endorsed them, the United Nations Sub-Commission  on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, is an expert body which in the 50 years of its existence has been responsible for preparing a number of the most important human rights standard-setting instruments.     

The Norms are not legally binding, other than for those issues, such as the prohibition of slavery, already the subject of international and national law.  But because they represent the behaviour expected of corporations by the international community, they are, unlike the Global Compact, the ILO declaration and the OECD Guidelines, more than voluntary.  They provide a template against which corporations can measure their own codes and the basis for a level playing field so that the better performers are not undermined by the worse.

Contrary to the ICC/IOE assertions, the development of the Norms was an open and consultative process involving four public hearings to which both the ICC and IOE were invited and at which representatives of business, trade unions, NGOs and the academic world were involved in re-shaping the document.  The Norms in no way supplant or derogate from the human rights responsibilities of governments, but explicitly state that the responsibilities of companies lie 'within their respective spheres of activity and influence'.  They do not 'privatise human rights', but assist companies to implement the injunction in the Universal Declaration which calls on 'all individuals and organs of society' to respect and support such rights.

Far from representing a 'negative approach to business', the Norms provide an opportunity for companies to demonstrate their adherence to the values of society.  A significant group of European transnational companies is currently road-testing the Norms in their own operations, seeing them as an 'important contribution'.

The distortions and factual inaccuracies of the ICC/IOE document portray a dangerous lack of understanding of the world in which companies operate today and of the risks with which they are confronted.  The ICC/IOE document seems to reflect a view that some of the most powerful actors in the world, that is businesses, should be immune from international human rights attention.  It is an exercise in irresponsibility which can only be damaging to the interests of the companies these organisations are supposed to serve.

The Norms deserve serious continuing discussion by both governments and companies as providing a basis on which companies can operate responsibly and profitably in the 21st century.