Not Our Business

Business leaders are wrong to claim that they have no role to play in China's human rights record

During a recent public speech in London on the future of China, a businessman with significant interests in that country was asked what role the foreign business community could play in fostering political reform and respect for human rights there. He responded, “I am not a politician. I don’t imagine that I will be involved in any way.” 

This was a curious response given that during his talk he had spoken sympathetically about the need for democratic reform and the lack of human rights in China, specifically pointing out that Chinese citizens are unable to speak freely.

The foreign business community appears to have adopted a policy of non-interference on political reform and human rights in China. Foreign businesses have been reluctant to get involved even when they are responsible for aiding political repression. For instance, Yahoo! bears responsibility for providing the Chinese government with information that led to the jailing of a handful of Chinese dissidents who used their Yahoo! accounts to exercise freedom of expression. 

Why does the foreign business community assume that it has no role to play in promoting political reform and respect for human rights? When Sir Geoffrey Chandler, co-founder of the Amnesty International UK Business Group, began seeking to engage the business community in the early 1990s, he faced a difficult task. He described writing to “chairmen of 50 or 60 major UK transnational companies, most of whom I knew personally, asking if we could come and discuss human rights. The answers were polite but negative: human rights — then seen by all to be the civil and political rights which had led to Amnesty’s founding — were for governments, not for companies.” 

Amnesty International challenges these assumptions, stating it believes that “the business community also has a wider responsibility — moral and legal — to use its influence to promote respect for human rights.” The establishment of the position of UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Business and the UN Global Compact are based on the premise that businesses have an important role to play in promoting respect for human rights. As John Ruggie, the UN Special Rapporteur for Business and Human Rights, noted, “There are few, if any, internationally recognised rights business cannot impact.”

Moreover, a number of companies have shown that it is possible for the business community to promote reform. Reebok has used its Human Rights Award to support activists such as Li Dan, a Chinese HIV/Aids campaigner, and speak out against repression. The US-China Business Council created a grant-making programme to promote the rule of law in China. More than 90 grants have been awarded, including projects addressing village elections, freedom of information, and labour rights. 

We should encourage more UK companies to develop these kinds of initiatives. Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has initiated an inquiry on business and human rights. This kind of initiative will, one hopes, make it harder for business leaders to claim that there is no role for them to play. 

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