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‘Understanding Human Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility’

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By Godwin Anyebe

The issue of human rights and corporate social responsibility (CSR) has grown to be a source of concern in Nigeria and the region of West Africa. Reason being that, most companies that operate in Nigeria and the region of West Africa outrightly violates the norms and convention of human rights as it relates to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

While belief in the sanctity of human life has ancient precedents in many religions of the world, the idea of human rights, that is, the notion that a human being has a set of inviolable rights simply on grounds of being human, began during the era of renaissance humanism in the early modern period.

On the other hand, analysts believe that the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) had it background from the days of struggle where court permitted the piano manufacturer to buy an adjoining tract of land to be used for a church, library, and school for its employees. In this case, the court saw ‘improved employee relations’ as a major benefit accruing to the company.

However, Checks by The Daily Times revealed that most of the companies that operates in Nigeria and the region of Africa don’t always adhere strictly to the norms and convention of global human rights as it relate to corporate social responsibility (CSR). Further investigation revealed that there are actually three categories of companies involved – some Asian transnationals which have little or no respect for human rights or business sustainability principles both in their corporate country of origin as well as in the host country.

Another group comprised some (emphasis on some) multinationals that apply double standards. Which mean, for instance, better employment conditions for their expatriate staff with same qualifications, experience and productivity level compared with local employee or when an environmental and waste disposal policies differ between their operations located in Europe or United States of America and those in Africa. The last category is the large national companies who often do not have any knowledge of CSR and human rights.

Speaking on this issue, Mr. Eustace Onuegbu President of International Network for Corporate Social Responsibility (INCSR) and the CEO of De Bernards Consulting Ltd said; “as a matter of fact, a number of regulatory agencies in Nigeria do not have any CSR/sustainability programme in place. That means that not only the regulatory agency probably is inefficient but also the companies that are being regulated. We are presently working out an intervention programme for one of such organisations in the maritime sector, hoping that the change of administration will facilitate the process.”

According to him, as you can see, there was need to sensitise the corporate community operating in the region, policy makers who are completely at a loss most times on these serious fundamental human rights issues and global best practices in CSR and the public on their rights.

“To achieve this, he continued, I initiated the international conferences on Business and Human Rights in Africa, which is just the start of a sustained sensitisation programme aimed at making Africa a better place to live and work. In the words of the late Nelson Mandela, “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

He stated that, “there are three different schools of thought on this matter – those who believe that CSR and Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) are two separate processes within an organisation, others who consider Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) as an integral part of CSR and the last group that believes that HRDD is a higher level business risk assessment process. I need to clarify a few things here. The fact of the matter is that CSR has evolved over the years to include national and international human rights norms.

“The meaning and value of CSR differs in various contexts, depending on local factors including culture, environmental conditions and the legal framework but the basics remain the same anywhere in the world. In the past, CSR was only understood to mean philanthropy where an organisation, irrespective of how it makes its profit, would give some back to the social as I earlier explained. This is what most organisations still practice in Africa including the emerging markets like Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya – this is very unfortunate.”

In another development, while reacting on CSR resolving issues between host communities and organisations, the convener of coalition against corrupt practice, Comrade Debo Adeniran said;”there is a difference between conducting a site CSR audit and conducting a business impact assessment for an organisation. The site audit checks the employment policies, waste disposal systems, etc. while the business impact assessment actually checks the real impact an organisation’s business activities have on the community and other stakeholders.

‘They include the process of acquiring the land being used for a factory, farm and other businesses; employment opportunities for the host community; how the waste being disposed affect the health of the local community; what are actual and potential effects of gas being flared to the population in terms of health issues and economic loss; does the excess use of the road by suppliers affect or deteriorate the quality of that road or pose other risks in the community?

“Human Rights Manager, Nestle, and Dariam McBrain, Global Director of Sustainability at a time spoke about their approach to human rights issues beyond basic CSR. Each of these corporations emphasised the need to work with host communities, suppliers, CSR/HRs consultants, the civil society, governments and other key stakeholders to address business and human rights issues everywhere they do business.

“An example is Nestle’s engagement with FLA (civil society group) in Ivory Coast to combat child labour. Only through such collaborative work would organisations be able to resolve any issues with host communities. Therefore, effective CSR strategy, which includes audits and impact assessments, is a key to sustainable business”, he added.

On how government can ensure that corporate organisations make full disclosure on CSR activities, he pointed out that, “in a country like South Africa, CSR uniquely receives particular attention from a legislative point of view under Section 72(4) of the Companies Act. Regulation 43 also requires that all listed public companies, every state-owned company and any other company that has in any two of the previous five years scored above 500 points in terms of Regulation 26(2), must appoint a social and ethics committee. So a lot has been done in this direction in South Africa and that’s why we find it a lot easier to work with organisations there.”

According to him, in a country like Nigeria, the only way is to ensure compliance of existing legislations and introduce others in line with global best practices such as in South Africa, which will provide for things like the annual CSR assessments. Through such assessments, like I said earlier, organisations will be able to find out what risks their activities may pose to their stakeholders.

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The government will then ensure that they act to mitigate against such risks. Companies on the other hand will save costs on litigation, absenteeism, labour issues, sanctions, etc. thereby improving productivity and being able to compete in the global marketplace.

“Also, all regulatory agencies such as the Nigerian Stock Exchange, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, the Nigerian Airports Authority, among others, should require their members and suppliers to meet global best practices on CSR considering the time it takes in this part of the world to amend the legislations and the politics involved. I, however, have my reservation on the proposed CSR Bill especially with regards to non-inclusion of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as one of the reference points for the proposed CSR Commission.” He noted.

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Ihesiulo Grace

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