"Some of the most powerful and sophisticated actors on the world stage today aren’t governments, they’re companies. While some global businesses show consideration for the people whose lives they touch, many don’t. Whether through incompetence or design, some companies seriously harm the communities around them, their own workers, and even the governments of the countries where they operate. […]
History’s long and growing catalogue of corporate human rights disasters shows how badly companies can go astray without proper regulation. Yet many companies fight to keep themselves free of oversight, as though it were an existential threat.”
-Chris Albin-Lackey, World Policy Blog.
Albin-Lackey includes some proposals of how governments could regulate MNCs. However, one problem with all of the proposals-as mentioned in the above quote- is that corporations often resist even the slightest attempt at regulation tooth and nail, as if it poses an existential threat. These attempts to thwart oversight are usually successful since MNCs are wealthier and more powerful that many of the world’s governments; even many western governments are being brought to heel by the immense wealth concentrated into the hands of these corporations.
The UN recently held meeting in Geneva. The topic of the meeting was free speech and cultural rights. The author of the linked article, Kenan Malik, served as an advisor. He wrote his thoughts about the meeting in his blog. Here is an excerpt:
“The UN’s record on free speech has, particularly in recent years, been abysmal, so it was a useful and fascinating discussion, illuminating many of the contemporary faultlines of free speech…
There were, however, serious differences between those, as one participant put it, who ‘took the human rights approach and those who adopt the First Amendment approach’…”
Kenan Malik also writes about two issues where the differences between the ‘First Amendment’ and the ‘Human Rights’ approaches are crucial. The first issue regards speech that is “morally repugnant” and advocates or incites “‘national, racial or religious hatred’ or ‘discrimination, hostility or violence’.” The second issue involves a demand by some social and cultural groups to retain control over their intellectual property.
To sum up some of the main points, the ‘First Amendment’ approach usually opposes any restriction on speech. While, the ‘Human Rights’ approach accepts some limitations on speech with the goal being the creation of a more functional society.
My thinking on this is that free speech, like any other right or liberty, has its limits. Both approaches have merit. The best approach would be a blend of the two approaches that Malik writes about, but more on this later.
About a week or so ago I posted a link to the State Department’s “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011: China.” I was reading through the report and a couple of passages stood out. These were taken from the section on workers’ rights:
"The law does not provide for freedom of association, as workers are not free to organize or join unions of their own choosing. Independent unions are illegal, and the right to strike is not protected in law." (Pg. 66)
"There is no legal obligation for employers to negotiate, and some employers refused to do so." (Pg. 66)
"Government officials took a more prominent role in resolving some labor disputes, although not necessarily in the favor of striking workers. For example, a four-day strike by 4,000 workers at a South Korean-owned handbag factory in Guangzhou’s Panyu District ended on June 23, when police arrested at least six workers, according to foreign press reports. The strike ended without workers winning any concessions on wages and conditions on which the walk-out was based." (Pg. 69)
I find this more than a little ironic that the US would include a lack of union rights in a report detailing China’s human rights abuses.
OK, so the US may not be as bad as China on this, but after recent events (Wisconsin) it seems that we may be moving in their direction. Over the last thirty years the power of unions has been systematically reduced, and now there are people on the right (Mitch Daniels) saying that public sector unions should go all together.
In an interesting bit of geo-political ‘I know you are but what am I?’ the US released a report surveying human rights by country. Needless to say the report was critical of China. So in turn, China released their own report about the US.
Here are links to each:
USA’s report: “2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: China”
China’s report: “Human Rights Record of the United States in 2011”
I haven’t completely read through them both yet, but I’ll post more when I do. This should be interesting.