I have just joined the call for a binding international treaty to address corporate human rights abuses!
The United Nations Human Rights Council is meeting at the moment (10 – 27 June) and an international civil society campaign is calling for it to set up a Working Group to draft this treaty.
There is a place on the sign-up form asking ‘Why do you feel a treaty to address corporate human rights abuses is needed?’
My short answer is:
Corporations are becoming ever more economically and politically powerful and governments are not keeping up. Indeed, sometimes governments are being co-opted by executives to protect corporate interests. We need collective action to ensure business operates under a set of rules agreed by governments through a democratic and transparent process, to protect our rights. Human rights should come before corporate interests.
Here’s my long answer explaining why this is needed to protect mothers and babies from the likes of Nestlé and Danone:
Baby Milk Action is pleased to support this treaty initiative.
We have demonstrated that non-binding initiatives such as the UN Global Compact and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises are ineffective. We have been pursuing complaints regarding Nestlé’s systematic abuses of human rights with these bodies to no effect. The UN Global Compact is promoted as an alternative to regulation, but it is worse than useless as it posts misleading reports from companies on its website without any form of checking and does not investigate reports of egregious violations when reported by Baby Milk Action. Rather than taking the action set out in the Global Compact Integrity Measures to review Nestlé’s inclusion on its website, the Global Compact Office has taken part in joint events with Nestlé and accepted it as a Patron Sponsor, demonstrating fundamental conflicts of interest.
Baby Milk Action was a member of the UN System Standing Committee on Nutrition Task Force on Global Obligations for the Right to Food. In the book produced by the Task Force, we highlighted that under existing human rights norms nation states have a responsibility to take collective action to hold corporations accountable for abuses of human rights and environmental standards. We proposed various methods by which this could be achieved through existing or new international institutions, as well as approaches to compel national governments to hold their corporations to account for their practices anywhere in the world.
As part of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), we have over 30 years of experience in monitoring corporations against marketing standards adopted through the UN system: the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly. There is no binding mechanism at the global level to hold corporations accountable for violating these measures (although there are instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child that give them weight in international law and are being used to remind governments of their responsibilities, and there have also been some attempts at European Union level to hold corporations to account for activities in third countries, with little success due to lack of satisfactory reporting mechanism).
Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child parents have the right to accurate information on nutrition, which entails stopping misinformation, including from breastmilk substitute companies which promote their products with misleading claims and aggressive marketing practices. Parents have the right to accurate, independent information, however they decide to feed their children. This should be from health workers who maintain their independence from companies with a vested interest in selling products. Babies fed on breastmilk substitutes are more likely to become sick than breastfed babies and, in conditions of poverty, are more likely to die. Those who use breastmilk substitutes have a right to accurate information on reducing risks. Globally, 800,000 under-5 deaths could be prevented every year through improved breastfeeding.
IBFAN has had some success in advocating national implementation of the International Code and Resolutions. Today over 70 countries have legislation implementing most or many of the provisions of the Code and Resolutions. From this experience we can demonstrate that companies can abide by the marketing requirements when they are forced to do so. Where regulations are not in place or are not monitored and enforced, systematic violations occur and have been documented by IBFAN. The most recent global monitoring report, Breaking the Rules, Stretching the Rules 2014, profiles 27 baby milk and feeding bottle companies. Questioned on the findings of systematic violations by Baby Milk Action at the Nestlé shareholder meeting on 10 April 2014, the response from the Nestlé Executive Board was that 90% of the violations are in line with Nestlé’s policies, demonstrating both the company’s failure to bring these into line with the requirements and the intention of executives to continue with practices that mislead parents and put babies at risk.
The International Code requires companies to ensure their practices at every level comply with its provisions independently of any other measures. However, most ignore this as a matter of policy, stating they follow national implementation, and then work to weaken national measures.
Corporations such as Nestlé and Danone (the biggest and second biggest baby food companies) are becoming ever more economically and politically powerful and governments are not keeping up. Indeed, sometimes governments are being co-opted by executives to protect corporate interests. We need collective action to ensure business operates under a set of rules agreed by governments through a democratic and transparent process, to protect our rights. Human rights should come before corporate interests.
Baby Milk Action
10 June 2014