Human rights, specific good and faith groups
ICCR, Alliance members have investments in businesses that are not always kosher
An interesting development in the international ethical investment space came about even as developments in Tamil Nadu over the Sterlite-related violence, an ongoing study of ethics versus earnings, splashed across much of the world. A loose conglomerate called the Investor Alliance of Human Rights, which represents about $2 trillion of investment heft, formally took wing in end-May.
It’s led by a US-based organization active in corporate advocacy, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), an influential grouping of multi-denominational church organizations that engage with businesses on a wide range of issues including social, environmental and governance. Church organizations in the US and Europe are, through various funds, major investors in business. ICCR makes no secret of its influence with Fortune 500 companies, for instance.
It brings a similar approach to the Alliance, which currently lists several dozen organizations, including asset managers and state pension funds to labour unions and faith-based institutions. So, Aviva Investors Global Services Ltd—its parent is a key member of the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark initiative tracked by this column—finds common cause with the Benedictine Coalition for Responsible Investment, Calvert Research and Investment with the Christian Brothers Investment Services, and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and Rhode Island Treasury with United Church Funds and Wetherby Asset Management.
The largely North American Alliance has some European reach with French and Dutch organizations on board. And this, along with its stated missions that go far beyond territorial United States or nations of Europe—besides the increasing number of business and human rights-oriented coalitions that are now bona fide global phenomena—is the reason why Indian businesses, with finance and capital investment sourced from across the world, should be paying attention. The Alliance’s stated “urgent action” causes include addressing forced labour in global supply chains, tracking and reporting on conflict minerals, and protecting human rights defenders.
There are caveats, of course. Do-gooders don’t always do good, or consistently at any rate. ICCR and Alliance members have investments in businesses that are not always kosher: Several Fortune 500 companies have been outed as major human rights offenders. Even closer home, as it were, practices aren’t always consistent.
Take the Church of England, which divested £3.8 million worth of Vedanta Resources Plc stock in 2010, and has since blackballed it, citing issues with Vedanta businesses globally, including various Sterlite operations. “We are not satisfied that Vedanta has shown, or is likely in future to show, the level of respect for human rights of local communities that we expect,” the Church of England announced in a statement at the time and added that investing in Vedanta “would be inconsistent” with the Church’s “ethical investment policy”.
But it had no problem, evidently, with the stock of Royal Dutch Shell, in which it had invested nearly £33 million according to its 2012 annual report. By then the culpability of the company for its Nigeria subsidiary harming the livelihoods of fisherfolk and subsistence farmers in the Niger Delta, through two oil spills in 2008, had become clear. At the time Shell had allegedly offered £4,000 to the affected communities.
In 2015, Shell agreed to pay them £55 million in an out-of-court settlement.
The Church of England also had little problem with BP, investing over £22 million in its stock that year, two years after the company was pressured by the US administration to establish a $20 billion compensation fund for a massive oil spill from a rig it had leased in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a disaster over which the company exhibited shabby public relations and slackness for ready ownership of responsibility.
Faith-based organizations and the Church of England have struggled to “reconcile questions of morality and mammon,” as an article last year in the Financial Times colourfully put it. So when a moral majority such as the Investor Alliance on Human Rights comes calling, one may need to accept a balance of specific-good and the greater good.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include “Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India”, “Red Sun “and “Highway 39”. This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.
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