Corporate responsibility -
What does it mean for humanitarian action?
by Gilles Carbonnier and Marie-Servane Desjonquères
Oil companies in conflict zones usually
rely on armies or private security companies to protect their
staff and facilities.
The ICRC has recently entered into a dialogue with companies
operating in conflict zones. The aim is to promote the fundamental
humanitarian principles among these influential actors in order
to ensure greater protection for war-affected populations.
Diamonds for love, not war" was a slogan launched on
14 February, Valentine's day, to accompany a campaign conducted
by several non-governmental organizations to ban "conflict
diamonds". The international community is taking a growing
interest in the role of economic players in armed conflicts.
Several studies have revealed that the revenues generated
by mining or oil can be a factor in conflict. Moreover, certain
companies have become global giants following the recent waves
of mergers and acquisitions. In 2000, for example, the profits
of ExxonMobil exceeded the gross national product of Angola,
Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo put together.
In this era of the "global village", an event taking
place in a remote corner of the planet can be instantly relayed
to Paris, London or New York. The behaviour and activities
of companies around the world face unprecedented levels of
scrutiny. In this context, the concept of corporate social
responsibility (CSR) is taking on special importance. According
to its advocates, CSR requires attention to the impact of
economic activities on all stakeholders, such as employees,
local communities and suppliers, and not just on shareholders.
Against this backdrop, a number of companies have adopted
voluntary codes of conduct and financed "social development"
programmes in the communities in which they operate. For example,
the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights promoted
by the British and American governments encourages mining
and oil companies to respect and promote respect for human
rights and international humanitarian law (IHL).
Different goals, common interests?
Let's be realistic: the main aim of businesses is and remains
to make a profit. Nevertheless, various factors have prompted
them to consider seriously their social responsibility and
to establish a dialogue with humanitarian organizations.
First, a business is anxious to preserve its reputation.
One of the reason why corporations have committed themselves
to respect a series of recognized international standards
is to minimize the risk of recurrent blots on their reputation.
Second, the nature of some activities (oil, ores) implies
long-term investment in conflict zones (for example, Indonesia,
southern Caucasus and West Africa). To ensure the durability
of their operations and the security of their staff, companies
have every interest in developing harmonious relations with
the local communities. Last but not least, litigation against
companies operating in conflict zones is on the increase.
Several companies are having to respond to accusations of
active or passive collusion in the abuse of human rights in
Nigeria or in Indonesia.
For the ICRC, dialogue with the corporate world aims first
to obtain greater respect for humanitarian norms by the actors
involved in violence and, thereby, better protection of affected
populations. The dialogue concentrates on three main lines:
the promotion of IHL, notably among security personnel; raising
companies' awareness of the ICRC's specific concerns in the
field, in the hope that they will exercise a favourable influence
on the people with whom they deal; and the exchange of information
on such issues as the socio-economic situation, public services,
As with its traditional interlocutors, the ICRC passes no
judgements on companies. It strives to extend the reach of
its humanitarian message by engaging in a constructive dialogue
with all those who have an influence on the lives of victims.
The dialogue does not just stop at company directors. It involves
other parties, such as union leaders and professional associations.
This enables the ICRC to better assess the economic dimension
of a given situation, and thus to improve the analysis which
helps it define its programmes.
Source: Committee for Development Aid, OECD http://www.oecd.org/dac/stats/
Relations between the business world and humanitarian agencies
still run into well-established stereotypes: on the one hand,
the idealistic and naïve humanitarian, and on the other,
the grasping, arrogant and profit-hungry businessman. This
is why improving mutual understanding is so important.
In initiating contacts with the corporate world, the ICRC
is anxious to avoid certain pitfalls. It is making sure that
the dialogue is not used for publicity purposes that could
have a negative effect on its humanitarian action in the field.
At the same time, the ICRC is stepping up its efforts with
regard to the states signatories to the Geneva Conventions
- whose responsibility it is to ensure respect for IHL - and
is supporting national and international initiatives to promote
"corporate humanitarian responsibility".
The distinction between the different components of the Movement
is generally little understood by economic actors. The strategy
in relation to the private sector adopted by the Council of
Delegates in November 2001 is therefore a welcome development.
The strategy calls on the Movement "to intensify the
dialogue" with companies "on the humanitarian impact
of their activities" and to establish ethical criteria
in the selection of partners. Some companies already have
established a partnership with a component of the Movement.
If one such company has installations in a country at war
that are considered as military targets by a party to the
conflict, then the risk of confusion may jeopardize the ICRC's
capacity to act on behalf of the victims. The new strategy
should lead to greater coherence in such matters.
All the companies and associations contacted by the ICRC
in the last two years have agreed to establish a dialogue
along these lines and at high level. Many of them have expressed
the desire to better understand fundamental humanitarian principles
better, notably in relation to their security personnel. The
ICRC intends to focus on the most relevant aspects of IHL
and their operational implications. In Colombia, for instance,
the emphasis is on the protection of civilians, the prohibition
of forced displacements and the principle of proportionality.
Certain companies have agreed to draft specific clauses on
respect for IHL in contracts concluded with the private or
public forces which take care of their security.
The ICRC initiative falls well within the framework of the
Movement's strategy. Constructive exchanges have taken place
on this note with several National Societies. Ultimately,
closer ties with the corporate world can only reinforce the
Movement's capacity to serve the victims of humanitarian crises.
Gilles Carbonnier and Marie-Servane
Gilles Carbonnier and Marie-Servane Desjonquères coordinate
ICRC relations with the public sector.
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