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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, infrastructure, etc.

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


New challenges

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.

Initial results

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 Desjonquères
Gilles Carbonnier and Marie-Servane Desjonquères coordinate ICRC relations with the public sector.

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