MM 2001: Human Rights - Research

December 21, 2000

Big business learns to care
Persuading large corporations to promote human rights

Transnational companies under fire from human rights campaigners have changed their policies and their practice after a study by Tom Sorrel of Essex University's Human Rights Centre.

His study of large extraction companies - gas, oil and minerals - took the form of negotiation between groups such as Amnesty International and Oxfam and company representatives.

Sorrel acted as go-between, presenting to the corporations the NGOs' agenda for change. "These are difficult companies to bring pressure to bear on. Often they do not have retail outlets, so they are not susceptible to consumer pressure," Sorrel explains.

"But one company went from doing nothing about human rights to being extremely active in human rights training in the countries in which it is involved."

This process of engagement will act as a pointer for a future in which large corporations are not only held responsible for human rights abuses among their workforce - using slave or child labour, for example - but also one in which they can be increasingly influential in promoting human rights, Sorrel argues.

"If a company has a big investment in, say, oil production in a country with a very bad human rights record, there is no reason why the company cannot go to a government and protest at the human rights abuses, and it is a surprisingly potent approach."

Judicial reform in Ukraine and Russia
Police, judges and penal reformers join Notts project

Russian and Ukrainian criminals will benefit most from four-year projects at Nottingham University's Human Rights Law Centre.

The two schemes, funded by Britain's Department for International Development, support reform of justice systems to recognise criminals' human rights. They involve bringing Russians and Ukrainians to Nottingham for short courses.

In Russia, they work with non-governmental organisations that monitor the state's treatment of prisoners, training them in investigation and campaigning.

In Ukraine, the emphasis is on creating a human rights culture among probation officers, police, judges and prison inspectors.

That involves everything from establishing an ethos of humane punishment and rehabilitation to creating new structures to ensure fair trials, says centre co-director and project leader Patrick Twomey.

"The mindset about punishment in Ukraine and Russia is totally different from Western Europe. The Council of Europe had great difficulty in persuading them to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty.

"You have to be realistic about the differences. If you had 12 people sharing a cell in Britain you would say this amounts to degrading treatment. But in Ukraine, you look at the conditions outside and say, these people have food, they have shelter, maybe this is OK."

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