In early June there were news stories on the financial payment made as a “humanitarian gesture” by Shell to the families of Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others who were executed by the state as a consequence of what many see as their protests against the oil company’s business practices in Nigeria.

Reading stories about human rights abuses by companies, it is easy to fall into the trap of demonising business and all associated with it. Having worked with both businesses and NGOs, I find the good, bad and the ugly exist in both. One of the darker jokes about the post-tsunami relief and rehabilitation efforts is that it resulted in two groups of people – the TVs and the TBs, i.e. tsunami victims and tsunami beneficiaries.

In my work I have frequently encountered extraordinary and unconditional grace, goodness and kindness in people. However, if I were to probe, I would find that these same people harbour views that disregard or deny human rights. This is not because they want to be abusers, but because they are ignorant of what constitutes abuse. An example is the issue of child labour. I have heard people defend their decision to employ children as an act of charity which helps support a poor family.

I believe in engaging with and educating businesses. Companies are trying to get their act together – corporate social responsibility is very much in. But managers are trying to do this without a sufficient or right understanding of why CSR is needed/important. My suggestion is an introductory workshop on human rights. Executives would begin to see that they are as much affected by human rights abuse as the poor are.
The premise for such a workshop is fairly simple. Businesses would be more supportive of human rights initiatives when the people who run/manage the business have a right understanding of what human rights are, their impact on all people and on the bottom line.