As business interests become ever more global, business itself can play a large role in determining whether basic human decency and justice are respected. In developing countries with weak legal systems that role too often has been overlooked in the rush to exploit resources and turn a profit.
It's heartening, therefore, to see multinational companies join forces with human rights organizations to draw up a set of standards designed to shape responsible corporate behavior in the developing world. The firms involved in this effort include such titans as Chevron, Texaco, Shell, and Freeport-McMoRan.
These companies have long experience dealing with all kinds of regimes, and some of them in the past have been implicated in human rights abuses in places like Nigeria's oil-rich delta. Among the standards they've agreed to: instructing security personnel they hire to use only the minimum force necessary to protect company property, pushing for investigation of alleged abuses by security people or local government forces, noninterference with peaceful demonstrations, and tolerance of collective bargaining efforts by workers.
These directives, while admirable, carry no force of law. They were devised with the help of the US State Department and the British Foreign Office. But they're voluntary. Washington and London have made no commitment to monitor compliance.
The human-rights community, however, will doubtless keep a close eye on corporate behavior. Infractions will soon be known across the globe - as should notable instances of adherence to the code. The result ought to be increased pressure on all global businesses to respect human rights.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright summarized the dynamic that should prevail: "The best-run companies realize they must pay attention ... to universal standards of human rights, and that in addressing these needs and standards, there is no necessary conflict between profit and principle."
Indeed, in the long run there should be a convergence.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society