Wednesday, August 13, 2003

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Absurdity squared at the United Nations

According to the Financial Times, the U.N. Human Rights Commission wants to expand its zone of operations:

International companies could find their activities subject to investigation and censure by United Nations human rights officials under principles expected to be adopted on Wednesday in Geneva.

The UN's draft Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations asserts that companies should be subject to the kind of enforcement procedures at the UN Commission for Human Rights previously applied only to nation states.

Another FT story provides some additional background.

I have every confidence that the human rights commission -- with a membership that includes the People's Republic of China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe will be fully equipped to handle corporate abuses.

[Isn't your sarcasm misplaced? Surely some good must come of this?--ed.] On the contrary, my off-the-cuff instinct is that this proposal is an unmitigated disaster.

First, it undercuts the pre-existing U.N. effort to improve worker conditions.

Second, it distracts the (admittedly pretty useless) Human Rights Commission from the far-more-prevalent phenomenon of government abuses of human rights.

Third, it opens the door for all kinds of U.N. mischief in regulating multinational corporations, when the demand for such regulation is vastly overstated and the supply of other international governmental organizations regulating MNC behavior is quite healthy. The draft statement includes the following point:

new international human rights issues and concerns are continually emerging and that transnational corporations and other business enterprises often are related to these issues and concerns, such that further standard-setting and implementation are required at this time and in the future

What's to stop the International Criminal Court from becoming involved?

Finally, the draft convention seems perfectly designed to permit NGOs to file as many complaints as humanly possible in order to require multinationals to respond. The reporting requirements (see section H of the agreement) on corporations are not insignificant.

Congratulations to the U.N. for devising an arrangement that will undercut its stated goals while simultaneously convincing more Americans that the U.N. is not a serious institution.

What a colossal blunder.

posted by Dan on 08.13.03 at 12:38 PM


I'm not so sure you can call this one a blunder. The current commission members seem to have deftly sidetracked the work of the commission by increasing its scope with no proportionate increase in resources and adroitly defused criticism by adopting a policy that is a favorite of many on the left of the world political spectrum. Gumming up the works with a raft of additional complaints seems to be the cherry on top.

If I was a commissioner from a country with a load of more traditional human rights abuses I did not want to see the light of day, I would consider this a pretty nice piece of work.

posted by: etc. on 08.13.03 at 12:38 PM [permalink]

etc. is right. There's no reason to think this is a blunder given the values of UN bureaucrats and UN member states. It's probably rational pursuit of their goals.

posted by: pj on 08.13.03 at 12:38 PM [permalink]

For whatever it may be worth, one day the rotating membership of the UN Human rights commission will be Sweden, Canada, Mexico, USA, Ausralia, or some other similar composition, and the representatives will chart a course that seems much more reasonable.

posted by: etc. on 08.13.03 at 12:38 PM [permalink]

I'm not sure why this is a blunder. It seems, simply, to be a step toward greater oversight of multi-national corporations when they overlap with human rights norms. A reasonable objective, albeit one which will not, perhaps, be of great import.

It does not conflict with the Global Compact, but rather builds off of it. I tend to agree these things should be consolidated, but there are things the Global Compact is not meant to do, and it's probably appropriate that the Commission move into those gaps.

It does not "distract" the Commission from governmental abuses. The draft explicitly says that states are primarily responsible for human rights abuses. There's no reason to assume that a draft initiative which explicitly notes the primacy of state violations is some sort of blundering tangent.

The model is of the oversight the Commission already gives, and it is contradictory to both accuse the Commission of being too soft in its current work but then imply this new initiative will impose all sorts of onerous obligations, all the way to the red herring of a reference to the ICC. Is the Commission too soft or too onerous?

The Commission probably is a bit too soft, but what it does effectively is help develop norms and standards on a consensual basis, and give some degree of criticism to those who violate these norms. In many ways, the Commission has become somewhat tangential to the human rights regime, but it still plays an important role as a location from within "the temple of states" that -- in certain political contexts -- will criticize/shame state violations.

This criticism seem to me to be fairly unreasonable and quite certainly hyperbolic.

For what it's worth.

posted by: Anthony Chase on 08.13.03 at 12:38 PM [permalink]

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