Politics of Poverty

Dear UN: Time to rein in corporate power

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UN canning.jpg
Vegetable canning factory in Maseru. Lesotho's soil is ideal for growing asparagus, a vegetable that can be easily marketed in Europe. As the food supply chain stretches across the globe, it's essential to demand that corporations be transparent, accountable, and responsible for safeguarding human rights and well-being. Photo: UN Photo/George Frayne

The UN Forum on Business and Human Rights takes place in Geneva this week. This forum presents an opportunity to celebrate advances in corporate accountability, and to demand more: more human rights, more reins on corporate power, more responsibility.


This is the first in a series of blogs about the forum that exposes the role of corporations in global economics and society, and demands better. Notes the author: “We cannot let a small group of corporations run by largely white men determine policy and thus impact the lives of billions of people—we must rein in corporate power.”


First, the good news: On the occasion of the 10th Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights, the corporate accountability movement can look back to a decade of action, and celebrate some notable achievements.

For example, more companies and investors are taking up the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights; some states are enacting various forms of mandatory human rights due diligence; and investors are increasingly incorporating more of the S (for Social) in their ESG criteria (Environmental, Social, and Governance).

However, are we as advocates winning some battles but losing the fight?

But there is also a steady flow of bad news. While Wall Street and the market enjoy booming stock valuations, workers and communities around the world struggle to make ends meet in a global pandemic. At least 20.8 million people are still being exploited through forced labor in the private economy—with agricultural and poverty wages being a key driver.

2020 set a record for the most legal attacks on people defending their homes, land and livelihoods and ecosystems vital for biodiversity and the climate related to resource exploitation by the private sector. When it comes to diversity and representation, only 6% of the S&P 500 (the largest companies in the US) have female CEOs; and only 11% have people of color at the helm.

In addition, despite a raging climate crisis, corporate commitments to net-zero emissions are not based in reality, and may will undoubtedly rely on taking over massive swathes of land that will further displace communities and create multiple human rights impacts.

The shadow of these threats looms only larger: As corporate power grows, it limits the ability of states to hold companies accountable, and threatens the business and human rights movement. Rights-holders remain on the sidelines as corporations fail to respect their rights and engage them directly. As civic space shrinks, we are seeing an increase in attacks on human rights defenders and rights violations.

Historically marginalized populations increasingly find themselves without a voice, and without recourse. Women, in particular, remain invisible in the business and human rights agenda. The implementation of Free, Prior and Informed Consent is absent in business land deals.

Is there hope for the next decade?

While we have the duty (and the inclination) to remain stubborn optimists, we do need to say that the business sector needs to deliver more radical change and accountability.

What then should the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, and the movement at large, be prioritizing to move this agenda?

It’s heartening to see that the UN Working Group is now turning its attention to corporate political engagement and capture. Corporate political capture is the crux of why we have not made more progress. If we are not able to tackle corporate political capture—mainly through lobbying—all our efforts will be sidelined.

We must rein in corporate power and chip away at corporate capture by doing the following:

  • Analyze the impact of corporate capture on public policies, with a focus on power relations.
  • Be mindful of sectors that will feature heavily in certain topics, and be wary of their engagement and how they try to influence the process.
  • Work toward the dismantling of monopolies and monopsonies, and find economic alternatives in the sectors where concentration of power in a few companies is more acute.
  • Understand how capture happens: analyze and expose the backroom channels and relationships that make it possible.
  • Address the “financing of democracy” by focusing on and analyzing how campaigns, advertising, and candidates are being financed, and whose interests are really represented.
  • Start by focusing on sectors where human rights violations have a prevalent track record (e.g., the extractives industry).

Oxfam has highlighted this issue in numerous publications: The capture phenomenon: unmasking power, Dollars and Sense, and Corporate America: Protecting its own even if bad for business.

Corporate lobbying has become the go to solution for business to rig the rules.

But at the end of the day, it’s urgent to do more. We cannot let a small group of corporations run by largely white men determine policy and thus impact the lives of billions of people—we must rein in corporate power.

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