UK/UN: Amnesty International calls on British Government not to de-railbusiness ethics moves at UN

In a letter to Jack Straw, the organisations called on the British government to support the UN Norms on the Responsibilities of Trans-national Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with regard to Human Rights (the Norms), at this crucial stage of decision-making on their future.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

'Any attempt to de-rail the Norms, in particular any referral of the Norms back to the UN Sub-Commission which was unanimous in its approval of them last August, would effectively turn back the clock on years of progress on corporate social responsibility.

'Several leading UK companies are already 'road-testing' the Norms in their UK and international operations, indicating potentially huge business community support if the Norms are allowed time for dissemination and trial.

'We view the Norms as a litmus test of the UK government's commitment to improving the social, developmental and environmental impacts of companies.'

This is the first time the Commission, normally an arena for criticism of nation-states' human rights performance, will discuss business' role in the protection of human rights. There has been considerable controversy around what the Norms would actually mean for companies in practice and some in the business community have voiced fears that the Norms will lead to unreasonable regulations and penalties for companies that fail to meet the standards set.

What the Norms actually do is set out in a single, succinct statement, a coherent and comprehensive list of the existing human rights obligations of companies - for example in the Convention Against Torture, the UN Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, and the OECD Convention on Bribery of Public Officials. The Norms do not create new legal obligations, but simply codify how existing international law is relevant to companies.

Amnesty International believes that the Norms will assist companies that want to improve their human rights performance by providing a tool for assessing risks associated with human rights issues. The will also provide a level playing field for competition among businesses and help create a stable environment for business, especially in developing markets where the risk of becoming complicit in human rights abuses can be high.

In December 2003, a group of seven multinational companies, including Barclays and National Grid Transco, launched the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights, whose aim is to 'road-test' the Norms as a tool for businesses to use when faced with the conceptual and practical difficulties of implementing human rights principles at country level.

Kate Allen concluded:

'The Norms should be seen as an opportunity for companies, rather than a threat.

'It is clear that governments need more time to consider and consult on this issue. We urge the UK Government to call on the Commission to ensure that the Norms are for the moment widely disseminated and discussed by all interested parties, including governments, businesses, trade unions and NGOs.'

The letter to Jack Straw was sent by the Directors and Chief Executives of Amnesty International UK, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth (England, Wales and Northern Ireland), the New Economics Foundation, Oxfam UK, Traidcraft and WWF-UK.

Amnesty International UK published a booklet on the Norms, including the core principles of international human rights law that are drawn on, in April 2003 - read it online at: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/images/ul/u2/UN_norms_Business_final_aw.pdf .

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