Interview with Mary Robinson 10/31/08
Human Rights and Corruption
2008 is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights do you view corruption as a threat to this vision?
Very much so. I was very keen to ensure that we made good links during this year with the many chapters of Transparency International that are tackling corruption and the human rights people on the ground who are addressing the violations of human rights. There is a real overlap. When we launched the Elders campaign Every Human Has Rights, which is on the website http://www.everyhumanhasrights.org, Cobus de Swardt [Managing Director of Transparency International] came to Cape Town for it. Huguette Labelle [Chair of Transparency International] and I are members of the board of the Global Compact and we had said that this was the year to encourage more linking between human rights and corruption because corruption links to huge violations of human rights.
The Elders has a mission to “support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair”, does corruption represent a hurdle to this and do you have any plans to tackle it?
I think we would see it as being implicit in our approach of being humble. That is how Nelson Mandela wonderfully instructed us at our planning meeting. He said to be humble and reach out and listen to those who feel invisible, that feel isolated, that feel voiceless in society and who are victims of corruption. These are the people who need to have a voice and be understood. These very people who suffer from corruption, whether it is corruption in the health service, corruption in the police, or corruption in governments of rich countries with large poor populations because the resources are being siphoned away. So I feel we have a very strong encouragement to speak out against corruption and the Elders intend to be good strong moral voices on all of these issues.
There is a school of thought that globalisation equals unscrupulous multi-national corporations for whom the bottom line is the only guiding principle. To what extent is this the case? Do you think that the growing awareness of corporate social responsibility and the birth of such voluntary initiatives as the UN Global Compact are making corporations see what role they can play in driving positive change?
I’m slow to characterise globalisation as being necessarily negative. At the moment, when we talk about globalisation we are talking about economic globalisation by and large and that is weighted in favour of the rich countries. But there are opportunities in the context of globalisation. On 16 October this year, 116.9 million people stood up in a 24 hour period against poverty. That is a huge mobilisation and if we can build on that strength, it’s the strength of numbers.
I think the Global Compact provides a framework that is quite weak in its standards, but we have ways of strengthening it. The board of the Global Compact has decided to have committees. I chair the Human Rights Working Group, Huguette Labelle chairs the Anti-corruption Working Group, and there is now a labour one that we’ve formed. That provides the beginnings of bringing good practices into a voluntary arrangement, which is what the Global Compact is.
I am interested in how we can have the mandates of John Ruggie become, over the next three years, an operational mandate on the duty of states to protect their people from violations by what we call non-state actors, which includes business. It is more than just “do no harm”, you must find out what is the impact of your business, are you in violations of human rights? If you are bribing in poor countries and getting away with it, you are not respecting human rights.
Interview by Michael Sidwell, Transparency International