The False Promise of an International Business and Human Rights Treaty

Transnational or other corporations that exploit children need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and also punished by consumers.
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Child labor is a scourge that tragically robs children of their childhood, their health, and their future. It is a global problem, and one that requires international cooperation to pressure governments to institute economic reforms and impose and enforce sound labor standards. In many cases, national laws protecting children need to be strengthened. Transnational or other corporations that exploit children need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and also punished by consumers.

Unfortunately, some of the states with the world's worst child labor records are promoting promulgation of a new UN business and human rights treaty that, while unlikely to have any impact on victims, will obscure their own corruption and irresponsibility in a fog of anti-free enterprise rhetoric. Given the tendency of abusive states to foster meaningless global human rights legislation and institutions, it can be assumed their support is part of a strategy of obfuscation.

On 26 June, the United National Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to "establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group with the mandate to elaborate an international legally binding instrument on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with respect to human rights." The aim of the treaty would be to "clarify the obligations of transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights," and to provide remedies in such cases where domestic jurisdiction cannot do so.

The measure was co-sponsored by Ecuador, a country where "children, in particular indigenous children and Afro-descendants, are engaged in the worst forms of child labor, including hazardous forms of agriculture and dangerous street work," according to the US Department of Labor. Child labor is prohibited by the Ecuadorian constitution; if that is not strong enough to protect vulnerable children, will a UN treaty with Geneva-based monitors be more effective?

Supporters of a new treaty include India and Pakistan, both of which scored "zero" on the Child Labor Index, thus having records that are among the world's worst regarding "the prevalence, gravity and impunity of child labor under the age of 15... which directly or indirectly limits or damages a child's mental, physical, social or psychological development." Supporters Congo and Ethiopia are among the world's 12 worst abusers, while China is ranked 13th. Children in Indonesia and Vietnam are at "extreme risk," while "high risk" Russia and Venezuela were also on board.

Of the 20 members of the Human Rights Council supporting new global "human rights" regulation of transnational businesses, only four respect human rights principles enough to be ranked as free countries by Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization. On the other hand, all 14 of the states opposing the resolution are free, and only one, Romania, has a serious problem with child labor. Other problems that are the focus of treaty advocates, like pollution, toxic dumping, discrimination and harm to indigenous lands, have also been addressed more effectively in democratic states.

John G. Ruggie, who produced the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and was UN special representative on the issue, warned that "business and human rights is not so discrete an issue area as to lend itself to a single set of detailed treaty obligations." He said it was "hard to imagine [such a treaty] providing a basis for meaningful legal action." He recommended avoiding "largely symbolic gestures, of little practical use to real people in real places." "From the vantage point of victims," he said, "an all-encompassing business and human rights treaty... is a profound deception."

Nonetheless, more than 500 nongovernmental organizations, promoting a false contradiction between free enterprise and human rights, lobbied for passage of the resolution, claiming opposition meant being subservient to "corporate actors" and their "public relations strategies." The Friends of the Earth Europe accused the European Union of "standing up for corporate interests instead of human rights." The NGO propaganda evidently scared numerous states into abstaining from the Human Rights Council vote, allowing the measure to pass. Human Rights Watch, a leading US-based NGO, said the proposal was "too narrow," faulting it for not also dealing with national and other businesses "that should also be required to respect human rights."

As Ruggie said, an international treaty on business and human rights won't have much effect on the practices of transnational corporations. But it will give states that fail to protect their citizens an opportunity to hide their failures behind ideological slogans. And by diluting attention to fundamental rights, it will also further weaken the capacity of the international human rights system to hold governments to norms by which citizens can be empowered to solve complex problems like child labor through democratic processes. Aaron Rhodes is a co-founder of the Freedom Rights Project and president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993-2007.

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