‘In the best interests of the child’: now, that’s true corporate responsibility

By Désirée Abrahams

I haven’t written a blog for ages. It’s mostly down to me being a lot busier since becoming a Mum; however, last week I saw something that got my juices flowing, and just had to find time to put this down and share it.

Last week, during my stroll, I saw this.

toy_gunI couldn’t believe my eyes. Right in front of me was a boy (I’m guessing around 9 years old), with his Mum and presumably sibling (in the pram) walking down the road, brandishing a toy gun, which actually looks like an imitation firearm from afar. I was horrified.

Horrified - that a mother would allow her son to have it and play with it.

Horrified - that she would let him take it out in public.

And lastly, and probably most of all, horrified that they still exist!

I remember growing up during the 80s and hearing debates about toy guns and the bad/ long-lasting effect it had on children.  I thought the debates were had - won by the ‘anti’ lobby - and it remained a thing of the past.  In the 21st century, what does a child need a toy gun for? Aren’t there enough things for children to play with these days? Surely there is more stuff out there than ever before, as manufacturers find ways to invent and reinvent new things? 

This got me thinking and I went on a fact-finding mission.  How many toy guns could I see for sale in the shops on the high street?  Which shops were they sold in?  And how much did they sell for?

From my brief sample in an area that will remain undisclosed, you can purchase toy guns for as little as a £1, and they are everywhere.  And I’m not just talking about the water-gun types in colourful colours; most, like the one in the photo, look like miniature versions of real guns.

On the legal front, the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 in the UK restricts the manufacture, importation and sale of such products.  Within the same piece of legislation, children under 18 are banned from purchasing what’s considered ‘non-realistic imitation guns.’  So we can only hope that the boy in the photo wasn’t sold it in a shop, in the UK.

Which begs the question of ‘responsibility’? Who has the lion share of responsibility – parents/carers or the companies that manufacture, import, advertise and sell such products?

While most would agree that parents or carers should ultimately have the lion’s share of responsibility, photos like this one suggest that maybe it’s time some companies really got to grips with ‘corporate responsibility.’  I’m talking about genuine ‘corporate responsibility.’ The type of actions that society would consider as the right thing to do; in essence, business decisions and actions that are driven by concepts such as ‘do no harm’[1] or better still, for those companies whose products or services affect children, business practice that is guided by the ‘best interests of the child.’

I’ve always thought that the Children’s Rights and Business Principles was a great idea. A set of guiding principles laying the foundations for what companies should aim to do to meet best practice and useful recommendations if they want to go beyond that.

However, after last week’s observation, I realise the value of it even more, and believe that companies need to crank up efforts to integrate a child rights perspective into their business decisions, operations and relationships.  In particular, those that develop products and services targeted at children should consider how it potentially impacts children in a variety of ways.  For example, there is merit in assessing any potential adverse impact on a child’s psychological health arising from interaction with a product or service, as well as making sure it won’t harm them physically.  The toy gun in the photo which could pass for an imitation firearm most likely passed numerous product safety tests; however, surely the most damaging aspect to any children playing with it is the potential negative and long-lasting impacts it will have on their mental health?

For companies, it’s all too easy to say that they respond to consumer demands. In my view, companies that manufacturer and/or sell stuff for children have a real opportunity to assert their corporate responsibility and actually be responsible. Companies can say: ‘No; we won’t manufacturer or sell X, Y or Z because we believe that it would not be in the ‘best interests of the child.’ 

Now that would be true ‘corporate responsibility’!

FYI: Information on the Children’s Rights and Business Principles can be found at UNICEF’s, UN Global Compact’s or Save the Children’s websites. 

[1] As advocated by the former UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie in the 'UN Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework' (2008) and subsequent, 'Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights' (2011) for its implementation.
20 April 2014

Business and Human Rights in the MENA region

By Graham Minter

An invitation from the American University of Beirut’s Olayan School of Business to speak at a regional CSR conference earlier this month provided an opportunity to assess how far the business and human rights agenda has penetrated the Middle East and North Africa.  It was a good reality check.

In two days of lively discussion about responsible business in the region, human rights were hardly mentioned.  Indeed, if I had not raised the subject, it might not have featured at all.  That is not to say that businesses in the region are oblivious of human rights issues, or at least of economic rights.  It is just that these issues are seen through a developmental, rather than a human rights, lens.  There were some excellent stories about company activities aimed at improving access to education and health, empowering women, creating jobs and fighting poverty.  Many businesses also have mechanisms in place to fight corruption, at least in their own business dealings.

But the lack of a human rights focus means that these challenges tended to be viewed from the angle of the business, rather than the people affected.  Nor was there much appetite to discuss political rights, despite the controversy over the role of communications companies in last year’s unrest in Egypt, or the role of businesses in conflict-affected, or post-conflict, areas.  Apart from a thought-provoking keynote speech by the Lebanese Minister of Economy and Trade, there was no evidence of government engagement during the discussions.

The programme was thoughtfully put together and excellently organized by the Director of the University’s CSR Initiative, Professor Dima Jamali.  As more governments and companies develop policies and processes to apply the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, it is probably only a matter of time before human rights assume a more prominent place in discussions in the region about responsible business practices.  The issue is already on the University’s agenda, as is the need for greater government engagement alongside business and civil society.

23 May 2012

Human Rights and Banks

By Graham Minter

Last month, the chief executive of Barclays, Bob Diamond, gave the inaugural BBC Today Business Lecture.  Banks, he said, must be better citizens if they are to win back the public’s trust.  They have to focus on the interests of the customers, clients and communities that they serve.  Banks, he explained, have a vital role to play in creating jobs and economic growth.  But they needed to restore public trust: “no taxpayer money should ever again be put at risk to rescue a failed or failing bank”.

Also last month, we learned that Barclays have teamed up with Credit Suisse, UBS and UniCredit, with the support of the University of Zurich, to form the Thun Group and develop a “practical application guide to operationalising the UN Guiding Principles” on human rights and business in universal banks.

At the same time a Strategic Review of the Equator Principles (EP) is under way and is addressing, among other things, the scope of the Principles, climate change, reporting and transparency and proposals on how to integrate the new IFC Performance Standards language on social risks, stakeholder engagement and human rights into EP III.

The potential for banks to have a positive or negative impact on human rights has long been recognised.  But the current global economic downturn, with its huge impact on the economic rights of millions of people,  and the fact that the banking sector has been seen by many to be largely responsible for triggering it, has broadened the debate and given “corporate responsibility”, when applied to banks, a whole new meaning.  

Do the tools exist to ensure that Bob Diamond’s laudable aspirations can be realised?  The Equator Principles, in their current form, are clearly not designed to prevent banks from having major adverse impacts on human rights at a global level by engaging in irresponsible operations in   financial markets.  While the UN Guiding Principles make it clear that businesses “should avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities”, developing a due diligence approach that covers the whole range of ways in which banks impact on human rights, not to mention the provision of remediation to those affected, is a mind-boggling challenge.  So we wish the Thun Group well! 

As for States, they have to decide to what extent they can rely on banks to address these issues themselves, through codes of conduct and such like, and to what extent new or amended regulation will be required.  It seems inevitable that action will be needed on both fronts.  Bob Diamond said in his speech that strong banks wanted strong regulation.  However, in the UK at least, the response of much of the banking sector to the recommendations in the Independent Commission on Banking  report suggests that there is still some way to go before   the sector, as a whole, is ready  to  face up fully to the challenge. 

2 December 2011

Marking Universal Children’s Day 2011 – a time for the Children’s Rights and Business Principles

By Désirée Abrahams

In August, a few UK magazines ran the ‘Oh Lola!’ advert which featured Dakota Fanning holding a bottle of Marc Jacob’s ‘Oh Lola’ perfume in what ‘some’ believed to be a sexually provocative pose. ‘Some’ in this context happened to be four people who complained to the Advertising Standards Agency. Despite four not being a significant number, the Agency acted swiftly and issued a ban to all UK advertisers not to run the advert.

Unsurprisingly, Coty UK, the makers of the perfume challenged the decision, claiming that the image was ‘similar to many other edgy images in those magazines’.  Of course, how ‘edgy’ is defined is open to interpretation, and I’m sure there are equal numbers of people who do not think it is ‘inappropriate’ compared to those that do, if the blog responses on the various newspapers that have covered this story is anything to go by.

However, strip away the issue and let’s focus on what happened.

The photographer, advertiser and relevant entourage were willing to shoot and create such an image.

The perfume manufacturer was willing to agree on such an image.

The publishing houses were willing to print such an image.  Responding to the ASA, the Sunday Times said: ‘Their publication was marketed to adults with an interest in cutting edge fashion and that any sexual connotations that may have been associated with the ad would be reduced because of that target audience.’

All of the companies involved have corporate responsibility departments, Codes of Conduct, annual CSR statements and personnel, who no doubt, are committed to improving their company’s CSR performance.

However, what we have here is a case of business and its responsibility to respect human rights, and specifically the rights of the child, in action.

Had any of the companies involved decided to consider and assess any potential harmful impacts arising from the selected photo image, it’s probable that they would have opted to select the other photo of Dakota Fanning sporting the perfume bottle by her cheek. And, in light of the ASA’s assessment findings, it’s unlikely they would have banned that particular image.

Following the six year mandate of the former UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie, many companies now openly acknowledge that they have a responsibility to respect human rights, and recognize the importance of assessing the human rights impacts of their existing and planned activities.

Thankfully, the Children’s Rights and Business Principles, a joint UNICEF, UN Global Compact and Save the Children initiative will arrive next year on the back of the UN Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework and the Guiding Principles for its implementation.

Going forward, companies will have a clear marker on what society expects them to do in relation to children’s rights, and how they can ensure their activities do not adversely harm the rights of the child, intentionally or unintentionally.

*Universal Children’s Day is celebrated on 20th November, every year. The date marks the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959) and the Convention of the Rights of the Child (1989) by the UN General Assembly.

20 November 2011

The media and human rights: Is there a role for governments?

By Graham Minter

Lucy Amis has usefully drawn attention to the failure of parts of the media industry to live up to its role in advancing the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and indeed the recent instances of abuse of the right to privacy.

For governments, this poses difficult dilemmas.  Is more regulation part of the answer?  The UN Guiding Principles make it clear that States have a duty to protect against human rights abuses by business enterprises through effective policies, legislation, regulations and adjudication.   

The problem is that any government move to introduce more regulation to protect the individual from human rights abuses by the media risks exposing that government to accusations that it is seeking to muzzle the press and restrict freedom of expression. 

Last year, a government in Latin America sought, no doubt with the best of intentions, to introduce a new law against racism and discrimination, including provision for fines, suspension of licences and removal of immunity for offending media and journalists.  This caused an outcry from the press, a hunger strike, protest marches and criticism from the Inter-American Press Association. 

The risk of government action being counter-productive is of course even greater when the government concerned has a poor human rights record. 

In most industry sectors, companies are very reluctant to criticize the human rights record of their competitors.  Recent events in the UK have shown that this is not the case in the media industry, where competitors played a key role in exposing the activities of parts of News International, contributing to the closure of the newspaper regarded as the leading offender. 

Clearly, governments must perform their key role of law enforcement.  But this is one industry in which even the most ardent advocates of regulation might conclude that market forces are more likely to produce results than more regulation.

1 November 2011

Coming to the table – a time for media firms to respect human rights?

By Lucy Amis

The media provide an essential vehicle for freedom of expression globally. Media companies can also be justifiably proud of the ‘fourth estate’ function journalists have fulfilled for generations in publicising human rights abuses by governments and others. More recently, the media’s scope has extended to shining a spotlight on instances of human rights wrongdoing by multinational companies - ranging from allegations of mining or oil firms fuelling conflict, retail brands exploiting child labour, pharmaceutical firms conducting unethical clinical trials, through to alleged charges that internet companies have divulged the names of political dissidents to government regimes.

This year, the media’s role in advancing and promoting human rights has never seemed more relevant, as we witnessed the Arab Spring uprisings unfold, and realised the invaluable contribution of satellite and on-line broadcasting in furthering the democracy movements.

Yet until the News International phone-hacking scandal resurfaced this year, it could be said that we had lost sight of the fact that media organisations are major multinational businesses, just as capable of committing human rights abuses when poorly governed, as any other business. What was the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone if not a violation of the right to privacy?

Following the News of the World’s closure on 4 July 2011, there has been some coverage of the potential for charges to be brought against News Corporation under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in relation to alleged acts of bribery of public officials by News International staff in the UK. Much less however has been written about the relevance to News Corporation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, or the newly updated and closely aligned, OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

The Guiding Principles stipulate among other things that companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, and should act with due diligence to avoid infringing the rights of others and  address any adverse impacts with which they are involved. In a week that has seen a third of News Corporation’s shareholders vote against Rupert Murdoch’s son, James Murdoch’s re-election to the board, calls for robust independent oversight of the business, and the company agreeing to a £2 million settlement to Milly Dowler’s family, the Guiding Principles could not be more relevant.

Both the UN Guiding Principles and the OECD Guidelines specifically call on companies to make a policy commitment to respect human rights; to carry out human rights due diligence in order to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their human rights impacts; and to provide for or co-operate through legitimate processes, in the remediation of any adverse human rights impacts they cause or to which they contribute.

Responding to these new emerging expectations, many global household names in the extractives, apparel, telecommunications and even the banking and financial services sectors can now point to an explicit human rights policy statement. But what of the media industry?

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that those newspapers that campaign for the abolition of human rights laws and standards, and encourage a negative perception of human rights among their readers, should have fallen behind the curve in this emerging area of responsible corporate practice. But how many of the others, less ideologically opposed to human rights, can honestly claim to have made a corporate policy commitment? How many of them carry out human rights due diligence, or intend to do so? And how many media giants communicate publicly about how they address their human rights impacts?

In the wake of the phone-hacking scandal that triggered international reverberations in the industry, is it not time for media companies to start demonstrating their corporate responsibility to respect human rights by carrying out human rights due diligence? We think it is.

26 October 2011


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