The politics of resources redefined™
The politics of resources redefined™
The politics of resources redefined™
The politics of resources redefined™
The politics of resources redefined™
The politics of resources redefined™
The politics of resources redefined™

‘Companies rarely innocent bystanders’: Q&A with Irene Khan

The former head of Amnesty International argues binding human rights regulations are needed to convert corporate “bad guys”

Until the end of 2009, Irene Khan was Secretary General of Amnesty International, one of the world’s leading and widely respected campaign groups on human rights. She led Amnesty for eight years, focusing among other issues on the role of the corporate sector in promoting human rights.

Her new book ‘The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights’ (W. W. Norton & Co, 2009) argues that current efforts to reduce global poverty through economic growth fail to consider the human rights of the poor. ‘The Unheard Truth’ presents poverty as a human rights crisis, rather than merely an economic condition, and examines various implications of this view. Among these, she argues, is the frequent failure of natural resource extraction in poor countries to improve the human rights condition of local people.

Critical Resource caught up with her to find out more.

Critical Resource: In The Unheard Truth, the chapter on multinational companies and their relation to human rights focuses exclusively on oil and mining companies. Why did you choose to look at these industries in particular? Would you say that oil and mining firms are less (or more) respectful of human rights than firms in other sectors – or is any difference because they operate in countries where oil and minerals are located, which is where human rights abuses are more widespread?

Irene Khan: Countries rich in oil and minerals are also often conflict-ridden, poverty-stricken and ruled by undemocratic, corrupt and oppressive regimes with appalling human rights records. But companies are rarely innocent bystanders in such situations. They have been known to take advantage of internal conflict – sometimes even to instigate violence – to further their own commercial interests, supporting one side against another, and so worsening and prolonging the insecurity. They may support or otherwise cooperate with the security forces to suppress popular protest. And they knowingly pay revenues into the coffers of corrupt states – revenue which is then diverted by the ruling elite to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor population, and to sustain military and security services so that they can remain in power.

Critical Resource: The chapter argues that multinational oil and mining companies are in part responsible for human rights abuses in countries such as Chad, the DRC and Nigeria. Do you see any merit in companies’ arguments that the focus of international human rights activism should nonetheless be on the governments of these countries, rather than on foreign investors?

Irene Khan: 
Of course governments of these countries bear the primary responsibility for human rights violations, and a lot of attention is focused on them. But that’s no excuse to ignore what companies are doing. Unless we focus both on governments and companies simultaneously it will be hard to bring about change.

Critical Resource: You argue that binding rules on human rights should be imposed on multinational companies by their home countries. How politically likely is this now as an outcome? John Ruggie, the UN special representative on business and human rights, for example, has himself made a case against the proposed UN human rights ‘norms’ for business.

Irene Khan: The tide is turning in favour of corporate accountability for human rights. Ruggie himself has argued that while states have the responsibility to protect human rights, companies have the duty to respect all human rights in their operations and activities. His position has been received favorably the UN member states and big business. A duty cannot be an optional add-on – if it is to have any meaning it must be binding and applicable to all companies. The recent financial crisis has also highlighted the damage that can happen when business is allowed to operate without a regulatory framework. I think this is a good time politically to press for binding rules.

Critical Resource: Do you see any merit in voluntary initiatives to improve the human rights performance of companies such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative or the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights? Also if John Ruggie’s call for more human rights ‘due diligence’ by companies is widely implemented won’t that be a strong driver of improved performance in this area? 

Irene Khan: Any system works best when there is compliance and there is no doubt that voluntary codes can help to raise standards of corporate behaviour. But they cannot be the sole or even the principal means. Experience has shown that voluntary codes are for the willing – and the challenge is to convert “the bad guys”. That’s why we need global standards backed by enforcement through national and/or international legal systems. Voluntary codes would complement and enhance such a binding system.

Critical Resource: Extractive companies based in non-OECD countries such as China and India are becoming increasingly active internationally and are often facing criticism over their human rights performance. Would you say such firms are a force for bad in terms of human rights protection – or is there an upside? 

Irene Khan: As more and more companies from emerging economies enter the extractive sector with very different policies and practices on human rights, there is growing realization on the part of the more established companies that the best way to create a level playing field is through global standards on corporate accountability. So, in a perverse way the arrival of companies from non-OECD countries has furthered the business case for binding global standards.

Critical Resource: How much attention do you expect Amnesty to pay to the human rights performance of extractive companies going forward? Will it likely remain a prominent focus of campaigns?

Irene Khan: It will be a high priority for some time to come. Amnesty International has just launched a long-term campaign on poverty and human rights, called Demand Dignity. A key element of that campaign is to pursue corporate accountability of the extractive industry in some of the poorest countries of the world.


Photo: World Economic Forum (CC-BY-SA)