Corporations as a Force for Human Rights

By Maura Sokol

On November 15th, 2017, Georgetown University Law Center’s Human Rights Institute hosted a panel discussion on business and human rights. Monitored by Professor Mitt Regan, representatives from major corporations, the Responsible Business Alliance, and the federal government spoke about how better business practices can have an impact on human rights across the globe. Although there is international cooperation in the area of human rights, protection from the harmful impacts of business operations still varies widely. Because there is no global regulator to ensure that everyone enjoys the same basic levels of protection, there is a major governance gap in human rights. This gap is now being addressed in part by businesses, who have taken a new approach to viewing their companies as having an obligation to respect certain human rights, regardless of local laws.

Genevieve Taft-Vazquez is a Director in the Global Workplace Rights department for the Coca Cola Company, and discussed how Coca Cola has tried to move from a supply chain evaluation to a deeper look at the whole value chain of Coca Cola production and manufacturing. Coca Cola works under a franchise model, and they previously focused on ensuring respect for human rights with their independent bottlers by providing Guiding Principles for their suppliers. The company has moved to a more comprehensive approach, looking at agricultural production, advertising sponsors, human rights due diligence for mergers and acquisitions, and evaluating the implications of buying land for new bottling sites.

Katie Shay, Legal Counsel on Business and Human Rights for Oath (formerly Yahoo), discussed the issues of privacy and freedom of expression. These are the main human rights issues of concern for this type of major internet company. Oath maintains data on their users that local governments would like to access, and Oath is the gatekeeper between the information and government actors. To protect privacy rights, Oath tries to provide notice to the user in most cases. In other situations, where governments would like content to be removed, Oath works to ensure that the request was legal if the content is not in violation of Oath’s own policies on permissible content. Working with local governments in this way can be a tricky task, as the consequence of being non-compliant is often that their services will be blocked in the country at issue.

Carlos Busquets works for the Responsible Business Alliance, a group of tech companies that came together to work on human rights issues (the group has now opened up to other companies as well). The companies came together to agree on a common Code of Conduct for businesses to address a number of human rights issues. One key issue in the tech industry is the use of forced labor. A 2013 report revealed that 30-40% of those working in electronics are working under forced labor conditions. The RBA came to the conclusion that it was not enough for electronics companies to say they do not want their products made by those under forced labor; companies have to make sure that the ways workers find themselves in a forced labor situation are no longer present. Companies must then go a step further to try and change the very market that creates incentives for workers to be abused in such a way. The RBA created a set of due diligence tools for companies to use to combat practices and improve the issue and to create a market for ethical recruitment.

Jenny Stein is the Acting Team Leader for the Internet Freedom and Business and Human Rights team in the Office of Multilateral and Global Affairs within the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State. Ms. Stein’s team approaches business and human rights as a continuously evolving paradigm. The Bureau promotes human rights generally and also addresses critical issue areas, such as Burma, North Korea, and Bangladesh in the past. They work bilaterally with governments as well as with multilateral organizations such as the UN Human Rights Counsel. Major focuses currently include trying to advance accountability and transparency, and how to guide companies on their human rights responsibilities and conduct outside of the US. 

Three guiding principles in human rights law are to protect, respect, and provide remedies. Many believe that this third pillar is underdeveloped, and the panel spent some time discussing the development of remedies. Conventionally, there are two types of remedies, judicial and nonjudicial. An example of the possibilities of judicial remedies includes the current Supreme Court case of Jesner v. Arab Bank, in which the Supreme Court will address the question of whether companies can be sued abroad for human rights abuses. An example of a nonjudicial remedy is the system of complaints that can be made through the U.S. State Department if a business violates one of the OECD guidelines. However, the panelists encouraged the audience to think more broadly about the concept of remedy, and to ask ourselves: how can we remedy the broader issue, and not just an individual case? This is an ongoing and evolving issue in human rights law, and one that businesses are working to address.