Human Rights and Business in Emerging Economies

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Human Rights and Business in Emerging Economies

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Friday, July 19, 2013 - 3:45pm

CAMPAIGN: GE Citizenship

CONTENT: Article

Good citizenship at GE is about enabling positive changes in the world around us, while at the same time respecting human rights. We believe that support for human rights is both a responsibility and a sound business strategy, and in fact many of GE’s businesses offer products and services that enable human rights, including our Water, Energy, and Healthcare operations.

GE sees business opportunities in many different and challenging environments, each with unique human rights issues. In some emerging markets, weak or repressive governments may pose particular challenges to respecting human rights. National laws may conflict with internationally recognized human rights standards, putting global business entities in the difficult position of having to choose between complying with local laws and respecting fundamental human rights. There may also be a lack of viable local business partners that conduct business ethically and in conformance with recognized human rights norms. And transitional economies may not have a robust civil society or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) capable of holding companies and the government accountable for respecting and protecting human rights. These issues cannot be overlooked or ignored as companies like GE seek to grow in emerging markets.

While countries with weak or repressive governments present challenges for business, no country has a perfect human rights record. To address this, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights aims to guide business entities operating in all types of environments. This is especially useful when operating in countries with weak or repressive governments.

GE’s Approach: Operational Respect for Human Rights

GE promotes respect for fundamental human rights and views it as a key component of responsible corporate citizenship. Accordingly, GE was a founding member of the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights (GBI) and an active participant in the six-year process to develop the UN Guiding Principles.

The UN Guiding Principles provide clarity and guidance for both national governments and businesses on their respective roles in addressing human rights, states’ duty to protect human rights and business entities’ responsibility to respect those rights. GE applies the UN Guiding Principles, and we have a clear commitment to not infringe on human rights and to avoid contributing to human rights abuses. We integrate due diligence, audit protocols, reporting and the use of grievance systems into our commercial operations, and we strive to conduct business in a way that avoids negatively effecting human rights.

GE’s human rights initiatives go beyond “doing no harm” as outlined in the UN Guiding Principles. This can be seen in our Statement of Principles on Human Rights, which states how we seek to promote respect for human rights through our employees, through our interactions with direct business partners, in our products, and in the communities where we operate.

In an ideal situation, states can help businesses respect human rights by establishing clear legal standards and enforcement practices. Likewise, businesses can help the state protect human rights by being strong advocates for human rights, and by providing products and services that promote the realization of human rights at the base of the pyramid. Even when operating in challenging environments, businesses have an opportunity to make a positive contribution to quality of life, sustainability and human rights, but they have to undertake due diligence and be thoughtful in doing so. In GE’s case, we see the opportunity to advance human rights through both our philanthropy and our business operations in such settings.


Transitional Economy Example: Myanmar

There are few places with greater opportunities to improve the quality of life, sustainability and human rights than in Myanmar (Burma). The legacy of its military regime is visible in crumbling infrastructure, in devastated education and health systems, and in the country’s status as the least developed in Southeast Asia. The government has a history of violating human rights, and widespread and systemic corruption has filled a vacuum created by the absence or suppression of institutions vital for ethical commercial transactions based on rule of law. At the same time, the country is undergoing dramatic change. Reform is occurring in nearly every aspect of commercial, social and government operations, with a recent transition to a civilian government and steps toward democratization that included elections on April 1, 2012, and the release of 730 prisoners of conscience. These changes have encouraged the lifting of U.S. and international sanctions that isolated the country from the wider world for more than a decade.

Myanmar continues to face human rights–related challenges. In addition to a history of abuse and ongoing corruption, repressive old laws coexist with new and enlightened laws, while the government struggles with implementation and enforcement of both new and old statutes. The country faces ethnic tensions, outright civil war and grave human rights abuses committed by factions of the military and by armed ethnic groups. Other difficulties include a lack of land rights and a history of land expropriation. Labor rights are being addressed by new legislation, but problems remain, in areas including child and forced labor. All of these issues present significant challenges to doing business in the countrywithout contributing to human rights abuses.

GE’s Actions in Myanmar

With the lifting of sanctions, we revised our policy to permit lawful GE business activities in Myanmar. We are in the early stages of learning about and engaging with Myanmar, approaching with caution and exploring how best to move forward in a way that navigates this challenging environment. To help us respect and promote human rights while doing business in Myanmar, our interactions are based on the UN Guiding Principles as well as our own understanding of the responsibility to respect human rights developed over years of work on the subject. Our actions must be thoughtful, measured and undertaken only after adequate due diligence appropriate to the circumstances.

To this end, we are engaging with the government and asking tough questions, listening to its responses and sharing best practices. GE executives have visited the country on several occasions to conduct due diligence, meeting with local government officials and engaging with international and local NGOs, civil society and business leaders in the country. Through this process, we have witnessed a willingness of government leaders to support international standards, and we continue to be proactive and vigilant about operating consistently with GE policy. It is important for us to understand the country context and the risks involved with operating there, so that we do not inadvertently infringe on human rights or contribute to violating the rights of others.

In addition to ensuring that we do not infringe on human rights ourselves, GE has the capacity to help advance the realization of human rights and can help Myanmar in its quest to become a responsible member of the world community. As John Morrison of the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) notes, companies like GE can serve as examples and leaders in establishing expectations of government protection of and business respect for human rights. In support of just that, in June 2013 GE announced a $7 million CSR commitment to the country of Myanmar, which includes healthcare equipment and training, work on developing an electricity plan for the country, as well as leadership-development training and capacity building in rule-of-law training.  This is part of a broader GE effort to actively encourage initiatives to advance the rule of law and promote respect for human rights in all our interactions with the government and our potential business partners in Myanmar.

GE also promotes human rights through the work of the GE Foundation, and by improving infrastructure and human well-being through our products and services. One example of this is our work to improve the crumbling health system in Myanmar by supplying equipment, funding and training. After conversations with the Ministry of Health identified concerns about infant, maternal and child mortality, the GE Foundation established a partnership with Jhpiego, part of John’s Hopkins University and began supporting a training program to address the spread of infection in hospitals, which particularly targets mothers and their children. Meanwhile, our commercial operations provide needed equipment for existing and new hospitals. In these ways, we are helping Myanmar reach its United Nations Millennium Development Goal to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health.

Collaboration Is Needed

Concerns about human rights must be addressed through multi-stakeholder efforts. Mark Nordstrom, GE’s senior labor and employment counsel, notes that “Human rights concerns are a shared responsibility.” Responsibility is shared between GE and governments, as well as with other business entities and civil society. To support collective understanding and efforts, the GE Foundation supports the work of the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) in Myanmar by funding an Oil, Gas and Mining sector human rights risk-assessment that will be publically available. IHRB is helping to ensure that existing and new investments in Myanmar are consistent with international human rights standards and best practices through a multiyear project that involves business entities, civil society and governments. The IHRB collects and shares best practices that can be used to build the capacity of businesses, civil society and governments to promote human rights.

GE works to promote respect for fundamental human rights, and we view this effort as a key component of responsible corporate citizenship. While it’s not always easy, we expect our work in Myanmar to demonstrate how by relying on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as a framework for noninfringement, and on our own goal to promote human rights, it is possible to responsibly engage in challenging environments .

For more information on GE’s Human Rights perspectives, click here.

CAMPAIGN: GE Citizenship

CONTENT: Article