Saturday, June 13, 2009

Buzz No 2: Complicity aka the Ostrich Defense

Buzz number 2 from the Global Compact meetings in Istanbul : Complicity.
Websters definition: com·plic·i·ty
1 : association or participation in or as if in a wrongful act 2 : an instance of complicity

So here you will understand that complicity always has an association with something negative or wrong. Like, its bad, ok ? And in the context of sustainabilty, and human rights in particular, complicity is an important concept. And one which came up several times in the course of discussions on labor standards and human rights at the Global Compact Human Rights Working Group Meetings last week in Istanbul. This reminds me of a fashion show with the theme of sustainability that my client comme il faut staged last year. All the models in the fashion show walked the walk with their hands over their ears, eyes and mouth, denouncing corporate and even consumer attitudes. Hear not, speak not, see not. As though what we ignore doesn’t exist.


This has been pretty much the attitude of corporations over the years in relation to human rights in their operations and their supply chains, and the way the products they produce are used. The assumption was that if you outsourced it, it was no longer your responsibility. If you sold it, it was the buyer's responsibility. If you passed on the responsibility, then you were left with none. Well, the concept of complicity blows this notion right off the validity radar.

Let's take a first look at what is expected of corporations with respect to human rights. The mother document for human rights is of course the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. This was approved in 1948. Ever read it? Did you know that you had ALL THOSE rights, just be virtue of being you? I would be a little interested, if I were you. (I proposed that the UN add the right to a daily serving of Chunky Monkey, but the High Commissioner has yet to pronounce on that one). I had to smile at the recent Marks and Spencer plc CR Report 2009 which states on page 38: "Our employment policies meet the requirements of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Sorry, M&S. The UDHR is not an Employee Handbook. For a start, it doesn’t contain dates of all the office parties for the next 5 years. Wonder how many of the M&S Human Resources team actually read the UDHR . Still, full marks for good intentions, eh ? (oops, bad pun, get it ?)

What M&S should have referred to is the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Adopted in 1998, this " is an expression of commitment by governments, employers' and workers' organizations to uphold basic human values - values that are vital to our social and economic lives." The ILO declaration is based on 8 conventions "that should be considered as fundamental because they protect basic workers rights".
These are:

  • Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining
  • The elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor
  • The effective abolition of child labor
  • The elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation

The Labor Principles of the Global Compact ( principles 3 – 6) are the expression of these principles with regard to the responsibility of businesses. But then, you all knew that, right ?

So what does this mean for corporations and where does complicity come in to the picture?
Well, this post by Christine Arena, author of the High Purpose Company, one of the best books around and worth a read, makes reference to the $15.5million settlement by Royal Dutch Shell who was accused of complicity in the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and others in Nigeria. Shell didn’t actually order the executions nor is there any evidence to suggest they were directly involved. But there is plenty of evidence, including letters of thanks to those who made ole Ken's life a little difficult, to suggest that Shell not only knew what was going on but privately encouraged the oppression of the Ogoni tribe's opposition to Shell's activities in Ogoniland.

Another example: Nike's Indonesia Manager, then John Woodman, is quoted as saying back in 1994, when asked about problems at the company's subcontracted plants. "I don't know that I need to know," he explained. "It's not within our scope to investigate.". This was termed "The Ostrich Defense". Wonder why?! Nike's tune is a somewhat different now of course. And there are many more examples and many more quotes. But I gotta end this long post sometime before the end of this century, and I think I have made my point.

There are clear frameworks for upholding human and labor rights in all parts of a business's operations. Corporations must make it their business to know, and be responsible for, and account for, what goes on in their supply chains. And I have just skimmed the surface of this complex subject.

But back to complicity. This is a good piece by Amnesty International. If you are really keen. When you think that there are STILL 12.3 million people in forced labor, and STILL 218 million, yes, 218 million kids, in child labor, then you kinda get that complicity still plays a role in our supply chains around the world.

Next post. Chunky Monkey. Oops, sorry, not. Something else from Istanbul. Betcha can't wait to find out, right ?

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm based in Israel. Visit our website at:

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Good article Elaine (as always). I think the concept of complicity is the one category big enough to include everyone at some point in everything. We talk a lot these days about connections, and a flat planet. Certainly the economic crises provided a good picture as to how connected we all are, whether we know it or not; whether we want it or not. And although we cannot be omniscient or omnipresent to be aware of all our connections, when wrong is exposed, we do have a responsibility to address it. If we do not, then I think we merit inclusion or even a passive collusion in the act itself (can collusion be passive?).

For me, as a consumer, it comes down to 'if I know or suspect, then I am responsible'. Now, watch me try to hide my head in the sand to avoid giving up brands I like.... Like Chunky Monkey (not a brand I know, but I wanted to work it in somehow)?

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