Opening Address: SAHRC Conference on Business and Transparency
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I would like to thank each of you, for the time you have taken to share your expertise, insights and experience with the Human Rights Commission. This conference is an important step in effecting our Constitutional-legislative mandate in relation to the right to information. Section 50 of the Promotion of Access to Information Act provides that ‘A requester must be given access to any record of a private body if (a) that record is required for the exercise or protection of any right.’ This conference will feed into the Commission’s broader mandate in relation to business accountability for human rights, as articulated in our Constitution, in international law and in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (“Protect, Respect and Remedy”).
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, woven from the devastation of World War 2, asserts ‘freedom from fear and want’. It inspired the possibility of creating a world at peace, free from the hate, greed and fear associated with war. It notes that ‘Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized’ (Article 28). The vision of the Universal Declaration asserts the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights - civil, economic, social and cultural rights (including environmental and labour rights). Sadly, the current social and international order has not enabled the rights and freedoms in the Declaration to be realised. Instead, it has entrenched obscene levels of wealth for a few, while the majority of the earth’s citizens face deepening levels of unemployment, precarious employment, poverty, inequality, violence, war, death from preventable disease and diminished social security.
While UN treaties and resolutions recognise socio-economic necessities such as water, sanitation, health, education, food security as human rights, the General Agreement on Trade in Services and many bilateral trade agreements, assert an opposing paradigm: that these are not rights but are commodities, to be bought and sold on the open market. The companies, which use and often pollute water, expect to do so with little or no payment to the countries from which they profit. They pay less per kilolitre of water than households, even poor households, who for one reason or another fall outside the indigent registers. Even seed is patented by global corporations, who own much of SA’s maize seed. The fact that patented seed cannot be stored and re-used has significant implications for SA’s farmers as well as for the safety and price of food. Research indicates that over 80% of people who are black and poor, are food insecure.
The role and responsibility of financial and business institutions in the financial crisis highlighted the need for compliance with human rights obligations such as transparent and accountable. The impact of speculation on basic human rights such as food have led many to support the call for a tax on financial transactions, including Members of the European Parliament, who recently voted in support of what campaigners describe as the “Robin Hood Tax”. In SA, the TRC process raised the question of Business collusion with Apartheid but was not fully explored. In democratic SA, Government’s arms deal raised the question of how easily global arms corporations, with the support of their governments, could re-orient our country’s priorities and corrupt powerful leaders. Marikana has focused attention on police brutality and on the labour and social conditions of those working for Lonmin. It opened the critical debate of how the mining industry can break with its past to uphold human rights.
Apartheid spatial geography still maintains a stranglehold, preventing the realisation of rights for many within apartheid era homelands, townships and informal settlements. This entrenched structural reality points to the need to evaluate what it will take to transform SA’s racial and gendered inequalities in land ownership and wealth. In this regard, the Commission is pleased to have as keynote speaker, Minister Trevor Manuel, Minister in the Presidency for National Planning. The recent Competition Commission ruling on the construction industry and before that, the bread-fixing ruling, provides a significant backdrop for his address on ‘fighting corruption with transparency in the business Sector’.
The lack of transparency is both a global phenomenon– it includes the Bhopal disaster; the refusal to accept scientific research about climate change, the health impacts of tobacco, asbestos and the pollution of air, land and water by industry (including mining companies and agribusiness). However, there is growing recognition of the benefits of transparency, regulation and accountability to good business practice. Today’s sessions on Business and Development; Corporate Secrecy, Information and Power as well as that on Corporate Social Responsibility, will expand on benefits and best practice.
The bottom line is vitally important to business. SA’s Government uses tens of billions of public funds to contract private companies every year. The Commission’s hearings on water and sanitation revealed that many contracted companies do not provide or maintain the services for which they have received taxpayer money. Communities are important stakeholders whose trust is essential, yet levels of frustration have reached boiling point in many parts of our country. The Government departments that contract out a wide variety of services have a responsibility to regulate the minimum norms needed to meet human rights standards. Corruption has to have consequences for both corrupter and corruptee.
In an era in which human rights activists from Beijing, Egypt, Tunisia and Wall Street utilise the internet in organising and reporting, the recent revelations by Edward Snowden, of the scale of US state surveillance raise significant challenge to the right to privacy (encapsulated in SA’s Protection of Personal Information Bill). The ethics of local and global business who sell personal information are also under scrutiny. The panellists in the sessions on ‘Privacy and freedom of information’ and on ‘Whistle-blowing’ will lead us in discussing these questions in the context of a deeply entrenched culture of secrecy. Many, including the Commission have raised concerns about the constitutionality of the recently passed Protection of State Information Bill. (The Commission has written to the President asking that he refer it to the Constitutional Court for guidance on constitutionality).
I want to conclude by paying tribute to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who inspires all of us. This year’s Mandela Day, focuses on Madiba’s words ‘It’s in your hands’: It is possible to recognise the dignity that our Constitution says is ‘inherent’ to every single one of us and to realise dignity as a substantive right in the Bill of Rights. There is the promise of our full humanity. I thank you and look forward to listening to and learning from you.
SAHRC Deputy Chair