Home >Opinion >Online-views >What next? Human rights credits?

A reminder has just arrived in my mailbox from the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights, flagging a United Nations annual forum that will run in Geneva over 16-18 November this year. The hard-driving, UK-based organization mentions a “rich array of urgent and cutting-edge issues of relevance to companies in diverse industry sectors".

The smörgåsbord of to-dos will include human rights related to small and medium enterprises, or SMEs, that often slip through the cracks as large businesses receive flak; human rights due diligence; worker protection; “land, corruption and human rights"; and “enhanced due diligence in conflict-affected areas". Alongside luminaries from the United Nations and non-governmental organizations, the gathering promises a line-up that will include talks by representation from executives of businesses such as The Coca-Cola Co., H&M, Statoil ASA, Unilever Plc and Rio Tinto Group.

Several businesses in the expanded list are directly and indirectly associated with human rights violations that range from violent interactions with communities in project areas and massive environmental degradation, to poor working conditions in supply chains, and manufacturing discriminatory products.

While it makes little sense to discuss human rights and business without the participation of business, such participation at prestigious, high-profile human rights gatherings usually coincides with, or follows, ramped-up human rights-friendly commentary from top executives after a particularly damning and, frequently, financially damaging episode concerning one or the other of the company’s arms. For, much documentary evidence exists of public relations platitudes and misleading annual reports promising grand constructs and practice of human rights in business, while human rights malpractices continue below the radar till they can. Usually, till an affected community decides it has had enough, or a watchdog scrapes together manpower and resources to highlight corporate infraction—that all too often piggybacks on corrupt and myopic governments.

It’s getting so cozy at these talk-fests that it makes me wonder when the next big thing in human rights will emerge.

How about human rights credits?

The hyper-real world of business has already spawned a global trade in carbon credits, one that clocked €45 billion in 2014. According to Point Carbon, the specialized energy business platform at Thomson Reuters, the market could see a 55% rise to nearly €70 billion in 2015.

The root of it lies in the Kyoto Protocol adopted by the UN in 1997. Instead of appreciating the no-brainer need for reducing emissions in this choked world, it was the politically correct cop-out that eventually legalized—and monetized—the logic that an efficient polluter, one that polluted less than its undertaking, would be able to sell that “surplus" as a carbon credit, an equivalency pegged to a tonne of carbon dioxide emission, at market rates to a polluter that polluted more than its target. The buyer-polluter effectively buys redemption. Individuals can trade in carbon credits too, trading redemption at profit and inadvertent loss.

Redemption is of course a human speciality. It has for long helped us bury our ugliness in diplomatic and politically correct semantics and self-serving nuance. Realizing the inevitability of war and accompanying brutality, the Geneva Conventions guide our way to kill each other more humanely, to not torture much—at least, visibly; that has led to the chilling corollary of torture that hides outward physical manifestation—to be polite to prisoners of war once the business of killing, offence and defence is done for a while. It is also no surprise that livestock—human food—is sought to be bred and killed in increasingly more humane ways. Killed nevertheless, though more compassionately—it’s the human way.

Here, I must confess to a streak of ghoulishness and return to human rights credits—call it HRC. All the talk of corporate respect for human rights naturally exists as there is not much of it at present: why fix something when it isn’t broken, twisted and, frequently, life-threatening? But the presence of smart “suits" with smart talk and rooting for smart solutions can sometimes birth the unexpected. HRC is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but a corporate social responsibility index that factors in human rights parameters is hardly a dream; it’s work-in-progress. From here, HRC is only a workable model away.

Forgive my cynical extremism in this month of festivals in the subcontinent, a time of renewal of corporate goals and profit. These aren’t necessarily dirty words. It’s just that humans—that includes humans who run businesses—often make it that way.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His previous books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

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