Op-Ed: Business, Human Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility

4726912910_4656be2ac1_zBy Joseph Hong

In broad terms, we live in an era of increasing globalization and interconnectedness. However, among ever-changing global variables, human rights atrocities represent a shocking and enduring constant, challenging the promise of “never again.” The final frontier for inclusive worldwide progress has been comprised of mass crimes against humanity, from Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Darfur, to North Korea and Syria. In other words, the actual impact of corporate social responsibility is limited due to a lack of engagement and hope for a better world.

This is not to say that business has remained absent or antithetical towards human rights issues. Over the past few years the concept of corporate social responsibility has traveled lightyears towards progress. Today, many firms recognize that maximized and sustained shareholder value is inextricably linked to the health of various stakeholders in local and global business ecosystems. Principled labor relations, respect for consumer needs and minimal harm to the environment are common themes for companies who claim to uphold ethical business practices.

The cynic may point out that profits are tied to positive public perceptions and that there is a strong correlation between declining stock prices and negative press surrounding illegal or unethical business practices. But even a nominal endorsement of corporate social responsibility is still demonstrable progress that shows that business and human rights are not mutually exclusive.

At its best, social responsibility is perhaps embodied in social entrepreneurship and impact investing, where firms seek to simultaneously optimize economic, social and environmental returns in helping to eradicate global poverty. Best practices involve building the financial and technical capacity of underserved markets and scaling up the delivery of basic social services such as education, healthcare, water and food.

Nonetheless, the intersection of business and human rights is bounded in its current conceptual framework. And global society has light years to go in bridging the gap between ideal and reality — particularly when it comes to the scope and scale of corporate social responsibility in addressing cases of crimes against humanity, and not just seeking growth markets after the fact. This begs the question: What positive role can socially responsible business leaders play in protecting human rights and dignity?

In her book “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power points out that the dearth of policy solutions stems from a lack of political will, given the lack of interest and pressure from the American public. But business advocacy can fill this massive moral, economic, and political void of inaction — advocacy is where firms and individual business leaders acting in a private capacity can have real, demonstrable impact. Business inherently has a unique positioning to add value to global society in creating effective incentives for political leaders to act with moral courage. In terms of enlightened self-interest, preventing and stopping mass atrocities helps to remove stagnant barriers to global economic growth and unprecedented shared prosperity.

A recent example of a relative success story was in 2007 when the Armenian diaspora in America, a relatively small diaspora community of less than a million, hired lobbying firms to push for a non-binding resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives that officially recognized the Armenian genocide in 1915. Another example of social business engagement was divestment and boycotts to help end South African apartheid.

With regards to the current humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, Human Rights First runs a project called Stop the Atrocity Supply Chain. Socially responsible business leaders can push for political action in blacklisting and placing targeted sanctions on those companies and state entities from Russia, Iran, and North Korea that supply and finance mass atrocities in Syria. As for North Korea, an issue which I have worked on for many years, there is zero or negative political will to address North Korea’s human rights violations that have been going on for decades, including systematic torture, starvation, and repression, as well as a network of concentration camps. In February 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry stated, “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

As Augustine put it, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.” If the reduction of mass murder, starvation, enslavement, torture, rape, and persecution are to be incorporated into the criteria for assessing the metrics and impact of social responsibility, corporate foundations and philanthropic giving can no longer be the main applications of corporate engagement with global society. Business must become part of the solution in stopping oppressors and their enablers from acting with impunity. More comprehensive and ethical business engagement with the world today can help to stop mass atrocities tomorrow and improve the quality of humanity for decades or centuries to come.

Image credit: Flickr/calamity_photography

The writer is an MBA candidate at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. The views expressed are his own.

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