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A Review of 'Corporate Social and Human Rights Responsibilities: Global, Legal and Management Perspectives'

Submitted by: Elaine Cohen

Posted: Aug 22, 2011 – 05:42 PM EST

Series: Book Reviews

Tags: human rights, csr, corporate social responsibility, law, jobs

 
Elaine

Review by CSRwire Contributing Writer Elaine Cohen

Edited by Karin Buhmann, Lynn Roseberry and Mette Morsing

Published by Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN: 978-0-230-23089-7.

Book cover

Description

Corporate Social and Human Rights Responsibilities: Global, Legal and Management Perspectives – what has the law to do with Corporate Social Responsibility? Do Business Responsibilities for Human Rights (BRHR, with an acronym introduced in the book) differ from CSR? This book challenges the separation between CSR and law. It also demonstrates that BRHR may be gradually separating from CSR through emphasis on state obligations. Authors from around the world discuss how businesses engage in CSR and human rights, and how governments and intergovernmental organizations may support businesses in taking responsibility.

In this book, you will find a group of exciting chapters written by management scholars, lawyers, CSR practitioners and business ethicists. Drawing on cases from around the world, they want to set a new agenda regarding divergence and convergence between CSR, BRHR, and the law.

Commentary

The interrelation between CSR and law is a fascinating subject and one which many have written about. It's kind of chicken and egg, inferring on the practice of CSR a potential to drive standards which ultimately level the playing field for entire sectors and markets while understanding the power of law has the potential to drive more responsible practices of business which have previously been considered entirely voluntary. Some say CSR and the law are completely opposed. Some say they feed each other. Most companies do not understand the complexities of human rights in relation to their business and have tended to associate human rights with governments rather than businesses, despite the many connection points between what businesses do and how this affects people and societies. Partly as a result of the strong focus placed on human rights through the work of John Ruggie and the Protect, Respect, Remedy framework, more businesses now understand a human rights position is an essential part of their CSR framework.  

Corporate Social and Human Rights Responsibilities adds a set of perspectives to this entire field, which is still in evolution—and some are quite fascinating and far-reaching for business. The book is a compilation of contributions that were developed for the CSR, Business Responsibilities for Human Rights and International Law Conference, organized by the University of Copenhagen in 2008, supported by the CSR-progressive Danish government. This was an attempt to strengthen the legal influence of CSR on management decisions while retaining the fundamental principle of CSR as a voluntary management policy. (Sort of having your cake and eating it too.) This was also at a time when the Danish Government introduced the pioneering Financial Statements Act in which large companies were required to report on sustainability or provide reasons for not doing so. The contributors in this volume include international lawyers, economists, investment management specialists, accomplished academics and a representative of Danish commerce—an impressive group delivering an equally impressive set of informative, thought-provoking papers.

The book is in three parts: first, an overview of the relationship between law and CSR including discussion of the United Nations Global Compact and the Human Rights Framework developed by John Ruggie; second, regional examples about the way businesses adopt responsibilities for human rights as part of CSR; and third, a view on law and management with CSR Codes of Conduct and more.

An important concept which falls somewhere between CSR and the law is "reflexive law" which, in layman's language, is the way law promotes industry self-regulation, e.g. requiring companies to disclose on sustainability but not prescribing the performance standards they should adhere to (such as the Danish Financial Act mentioned above). This is also the principle upon which the UN Global Compact rests (though it is not a legally binding framework): beyond a declaration to uphold principles, the key commitment companies make is to publish an annual report of their progress. Andreas Rasche, Professor in Business and Society at Warwick Business School, makes the point that criticism of the Global Compact is based on a misunderstanding of the mandate of the UNGC and classifies the UNGC as a "necessary supplement" to more existing and emerging regulatory efforts in the business environment linking business and civil society through learning events, dialogue events and partnership projects and acting as a "moral compass." He describes the UNGC as the largest corporate citizenship initiative in terms of size while admitting there are almost no "empirical insights on the implementation of tem principles in corporations."

Karin Buhman, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Copenhagen, writes about multi-stakeholder public-private regulatory forums, of which the UNGC is one, which function at the level above national lawmaking. She writes that while such bodies are clearly not conventional law-making institutions, they do have normative ambitions. She also points to the UNGC's "reflexive" approach as one of the ingredients in its success. 

In another piece, Jette S. Knudsen, Associate Professor at Copenhagen University, looks at the organization of CSR as a means of corporate control (subtitled "From do-gooding to mainstream?"). Using HP and Ben and Jerry's as core examples, with some reference to IBM, Nike and others, Knudson looks at offensive CSR (clear link to business strategy) and defensive CSR (no clear link to business strategy), the role of boards in shaping the CSR agenda and position of CSR management within companies. Ultimately, he shows CSR will grow in importance to boards, and CSR managers need to be much more "business savvy." No surprises there.

One of the more fascinating articles is by Dominique Bé, deputy head of the European Social Fund, who compares the way human rights are reflected and upheld in corporate Codes of Conduct and International Framework Agreements (IFAs). The first IFA was between Danone and the International Union of Food (IUF) back in 1988 in which agreements on social responsibility and employee rights were reaffirmed. IFAs are not collective agreements, though they are often established with union bodies. However, there is no legal requirement for companies to sign an IFA. Most IFAs therefore build on the commitment of signatory MNEs to respect them worldwide, over and above adherence to national regulations – a kind of voluntary acceptance of a legally binding agreement, going beyond the unilateral nature of corporate Codes of Conduct.

Another interesting article by Lauren Caplan, counsel to an investment company, refers to the way CSR considerations are or are not integrated into the process of raising capital. The author notes the lack of disclosure in corporate social responsibility reports on risks relating to corporate social responsibility. No surprises there either.

All in all, the book Corporate Social and Human Rights Responsibilities does what it promises and more. It provides some engaging perspectives on CSR, human rights and the law, as well as some detailed discussion of the finer issues most CSR practitioners would be wise to have on their radar.

About Elaine Cohen

Elaine Cohen is a Sustainability Consultant and Reporter at Beyond Business and blogger on sustainability reporting and author of CSR for HR: A necessary business partnership to advance responsible business practices

For more information on Corporate Social and Human Rights Responsibilities and options to purchase, please visit CSRwire's Books Page.

This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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