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Late in 1997, Amnesty International produced a report entitled, Human Rights Principles for Companies:  an Introduction.  We have reproduced the core recommendations here.  For further information, contact your nearest Amnesty International Office ( Amnesty Online ).

Multinational companies have a responsibility to contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights. In an increasingly globalised world economy, their decisions and actions impact directly on governmental policies and on the enjoyment of human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls on "every individual and every organ of society" to play its part in securing universal observance of human rights. Companies and financial institutions are organs of society, and as their operations come under scrutiny around the world, this is increasingly demanded by consumers, shareholders and the communities with whom they interact.

All companies have a direct responsibility to respect human rights in their own operations. Their employees and other people with whom they work are entitled to rights such as freedom from discrimination, the right to life and security, freedom from slavery, freedom of association, including the right to form trade unions, and fair working conditions. Particular care needs to be taken by companies to ensure that their security arrangements do not lead to human rights abuses. Those companies making arms or other military or security equipment also need to help ensure that their products are not used to violate human rights.

Amnesty International believes that the business community also has a wider responsibility - moral and legal - to use its influence to promote respect for human rights. A multinational company's reputation will be increasingly affected by its response - in word and deed - to the violation of human rights and the defence of such rights. Violations of human rights may contribute to civil instability and to uncertainty in the investment climate, but even where this is not the case, companies should not be silent witnesses.

Multinational companies have a responsibility to use their influence to try to stop violations of human rights by governments or armed political groups in the countries in which they operate. Large companies regularly try to influence governments' tax and trade policies, their labour laws and environmental rules. The silence of powerful business interests in the face of injustice is not neutral. Companies may argue that they should not take action in these areas because to do so would be to interfere in domestic politics or offend the values of other cultures.

However, the international community has decided, through a variety of covenants and agreements, that the promotion and protection of inherent human rights transcends national and cultural boundaries. Amnesty International has therefore developed an introductory set of human rights principles, based on international standards, to assist companies in developing their role in situations of human rights violations or the potential for such violations. These are outlined below.

Responsibility for Operations: Personnel Practices & Policies
Standards relating to labour rights have been developed by a variety of international organizations, notably the International Labour Organisation (ILO). These include such matters as health and safety, freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, non-discrimination, disciplinary practices, avoidance of child labour and avoidance of forced labour.

On complex and sensitive personnel issues such as child labour, companies would find it useful to consult relevant specialists and non-governmental organizations familiar with the implementation of particular ILO Conventions. Amnesty International does not usually undertake specialist work on such issues, but does promote respect for international human rights standards which underpin such labour rights.

The performance of a company's contractors, suppliers and partners (whether government, governmental agencies or otherwise) is perceived to reflect on the performance of the company. The general public does not draw a line between them. It is therefore in companies' own interests to promote similar standards through all third parties who act with them or on their behalf.

Security Arrangements
Violence and instability in many countries today have led companies to defend their personnel and property by armed guards and/or by arrangements with state security forces. These arrangements have sometimes directly contributed to human rights violations, such as assaults involving excessive force used against peaceful demonstrators.

The reputation of a company itself can also be at stake in such situations. A company should therefore ensure that its own personnel and any security forces engaged by them should be properly trained in and committed to respect of international guidelines and standards for the use of force, in particular the United Nations (UN) Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

These standards set strict limitations on when force and firearms can be used, and require a reporting and review process if it becomes necessary in any instance to use minimum force. Companies should develop their own safeguards consistent with these international standards if they need to call in or contract with state security forces or establish the company's own security force to protect staff and property. These should include safeguards to prevent excessive use of force, as well as torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Companies should make public the terms of any such contracts, and take positive steps to ensure that any training or equipment provided by them to public or private security personnel is not used to violate human rights. Rules should include provisions concerning who may carry arms, what the company may supply in kind to any security personnel, and the amount and nature of the control and influence exerted by the company over security personnel.

All company security personnel should be trained to respect the rights of the local community. No information should be passed to security forces which could be used to target individuals for extrajudicial killings, "disappearances", torture or arbitrary arrest. Companies should also, when recruiting security staff, screen backgrounds for any previous involvement in human rights violations and decline to hire any person determined to have been responsible for serious human rights violations such as extrajudicial or indiscriminate killings, "disappearances", torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or arbitrary arrests and detention of political opponents.

Any security staff should be dismissed if they are discovered after a fair hearing to have committed such violations.

Responsibility for Promoting & Upholding Human Rights Standards
Companies should co-operate in creating an environment where human rights are understood and respected.

Companies may operate in countries where there is a high level of human rights violations or where legislation, governmental practice or other constraints make it imperative to address specific abuses and devise innovative ways of promoting respect for human rights. For example, if an employee of the company or one of its sub-contractors is arbitrarily arrested, strong protests should be made to the highest levels of government, and the company should actively pursue the employee's release.

Human rights are designed to protect the inherent dignity of the human person, regardless of her or his culture or background, and by their very nature are universal. They cannot be considered an encroachment upon national sovereignty. Without respect for these human rights, the rule of law is undermined.

The inherent rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been further elaborated over more than three decades in international law and standards, including treaties and other instruments adopted at the regional level. These rights cover civil, political, economic, cultural and social activities and are regarded not only as universal, but also as indivisible and interdependent. Multinational companies should adhere to these international standards even if national laws do not specify them. They should recognize that all states are required to enforce certain treaties which set a global framework of legal protection (a list of important treaties is included in the Appendix).

Approaches are likely to be different in different situations, but a clear indication of concern for human rights and a willingness to initiate discussions with those in authority and with business partners is essential. Multinational companies can improve their ability to promote human rights by:

  • developing an explicit company policy on human rights
  • providing effective training for their managers and their staff in international human rights standards (preferably with input and assistance from appropriate non-governmental organizations)
  • consulting non-governmental organizations (including Amnesty International) on the level and nature of human rights abuses in different countries
  • establishing a clear framework for assessing the potential impact on human rights of all the company's and its sub-contractors? operations.

Implementation & Monitoring
The primary responsibility for monitoring company policies and practices lies with the company itself. However, all systems for monitoring compliance with voluntary corporate codes of behaviour should be credible and their reports should be independently verifiable.

There is an analogy between financial and quality audits, and the need for social audits. Companies maintain their own internal financial and quality controls which are periodically verified by outside independent auditors in order to ensure their integrity. Similarly, while companies should have internal social auditing procedures by which they can determine the degree of compliance with the organization's code of conduct, there should also be periodic independent verification of these procedures and the reports they generate. In this there is also a role for other stake holders, such as independent employee associations and trade unions, non-governmental organizations or members of the local community in which the company operates, in order to give greater transparency and credibility to the operation.

In those few countries where independent human rights or humanitarian groups are refused entry and there is therefore no possibility of any legitimate external monitoring, public opinion might suspect abusive practices. It is therefore in the interest of companies to encourage such governments to allow access to intergovernmental bodies, international humanitarian organizations and international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.

Amnesty International
Amnesty International is a world-wide campaigning movement that works to promote all the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international standards.

In particular, Amnesty International campaigns to free all prisoners of conscience; ensure fair and prompt trials for political prisoners; abolish the death penalty, torture and other cruel treatment of prisoners; end political killings and "disappearances"; and oppose human rights abuses by opposition groups.

Amnesty International neither supports nor opposes punitive measures such as economic or other sanctions, disinvestment or boycotts, but in specific instances may oppose military, security and police transfers which contribute to serious human rights abuses. Such transfers could include equipment, technology, training or personnel, as well as financial and logistical support for such transfers.

Amnesty International is impartial and independent of any government, political persuasion or religious creed. It does not support or oppose any government or political system, nor support or oppose the views of the victims whose rights it seeks to protect.

Company policy on human rights.

  1. All companies should adopt an explicit company policy on human rights which includes public support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Companies should establish procedures to ensure that all operations are examined for their potential impact on human rights, and safeguards to ensure that company staff are never complicit in human rights abuses. The company policy should enable discussion with the authorities at local, provincial and national levels of specific cases of human rights violations and the need for safeguards to protect human rights. It should enable the establishment of programs for the effective human rights education and training of all employees within the company and encourage collective action in business associations to promote respect for international human rights standards.

  2. Security. All companies should ensure that any security arrangements protect human rights and are consistent with international standards for law enforcement. Any security personnel employed or contracted should be adequately trained. Procedures should be consistent with the United Nations (UN) Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. They should include measures to prevent excessive force, as well as torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Companies should develop clear rules for calling in or contracting with state security forces and for not hiring security personnel who have been responsible for serious human rights violations. Any complaint about security procedures or personnel should be promptly and independently investigated. Companies which supply military, security or police products or services should take stringent steps to prevent those products and services from being misused to commit human rights violations.

  3. Community engagement. All companies should take reasonable steps to ensure that their operations do not have a negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights by the communities in which they operate. This should include a willingness to meet with community leaders and voluntary organizations to discuss the role of the company within the broader community. Companies should seek to support activities and organizations which promote human rights, for example by supporting education, training or citizenship programs which incorporate human rights issues and organizations which defend human rights.

  4. Freedom from discrimination. All companies should ensure that their policies and practices prevent discrimination based on ethnic origin, sex, colour, language, national or social origin, economic status, religion, political or other conscientiously held beliefs, birth or other status. This should include recruitment, promotion, remuneration, working conditions, customer relations and the practices of contractors, suppliers and partners. It should include measures to deal with sexual or racial harassment, and to prohibit national, racial or religious hatred.

  5. Freedom from slavery. All companies should ensure that their policies and practices prohibit the use of chattel slaves, forced labour, bonded child labourers or coerced prison labour. This should include ensuring that suppliers, partners or contractors do not use such labour.

  6. Health and safety. All companies should ensure that their policies and practices provide for safe and healthy working conditions and products. The company should not engage in or support the use of corporal punishment, mental or physical coercion, or verbal abuse

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