It has been a decade since Ken Saro-Wiwa was convicted in an unfair trial and executed with eight others in retaliation for protesting Shell Oils operations in Nigeria. That same year, 1995, the international spotlight fell on American clothier The Gap for deplorable working conditions in its supplier factories in El Salvador.
Both companies paid a price: Shell soon faced a lawsuit (still pending) in a U.S. court for alleged complicity in the executions; The Gap confronted nationwide picketing of its stores, which ended only when the company agreed to the demands of anti-sweatshop activists.
These were watershed moments. Many multinational corporations, worried about the costs and consequences for their brand names if they were blamed for the human rights impact of their business practices, woke up and took notice. In response to their critics, some of the companies in the line of fire adopted human rights policies. Others, seeing the writing on the wall, preemptively did the same. Many prominent companies have now adopted voluntary codes of business conduct that include respect for basic human rights.
Because voluntary commitments are insufficient in themselves to prevent corporate implication in human rights abuses, there have been increasingly frequent calls for binding standards. Indeed, regulations already have begun to emerge in some sectors on some issues, but coverage and enforcement is spotty, far short of the kind of comprehensive framework many believe is necessary. Multinational corporations have long responded to calls for any kind of binding human rights standards with the claim that self regulation or voluntary guidelines are enough. But there are signs that this opposition may be beginning to change.
In private, some multinational executives have started to question whether industrys antagonism to regulation makes sense when it comes to human rights. They realize that only binding standards can ensure a level playing field and that, increasingly, the choice facing them is not between adopting voluntary codes of conduct and doing nothing. It is a choice between continuing to compete on an uneven, ever-shifting playing field and participating in the creation of universally binding and enforceable rules that apply equally to all companies.
For most corporations, having clear, consistent rules would be preferable to being subjected to unfair competition and a confusing mix of standards that provides little guidance to companies and little comfort for victims of human rights abuse.
This essay argues that enforceable global standards are desirable, inevitable, and, contrary to received wisdom, good for business.