Expert panelists who attended the recent The Economist Sustainability Week forum strongly maintained that as human rights issues occur across countries, supply chains and industries, the work of protecting and respecting human rights should take priority for individuals, corporations, and governments alike.
Collective action on human rights has to be the building block to whatever solution we agree on—it is always easier to solve a problem when everyone works together, stressed Chris Southworth, secretary general of the International Chamber of Commerce UK. “The responsibility sits with NGOs as much as it does business—we all have to step up to the plate and adapt the way we work.”
Benefits of collaboration
Southworth added that the positive impact corporations can have on society was exemplified by the business community’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. “Be it the automotive industry repurposing factories to create ventilators or the fashion industry turning their talents to creating much-needed PPE, companies and businesses rallied to meet those needs and fill the gap that governments and public health could not,” he pointed out.”
It was unanimously acknowledged during The Economist virtual summit that regulation and policy must reflect the benefits of collaboration, and that to bring about positive change, all views should be included, discriminative policies eradicated, and unrelated personal agendas set aside.
Exclusion instead of partnership
Yet, it was found during the prestigious summit that the tobacco industry is not only excluded from the Covid-19 vaccination program of some governments but is also barred from collaborating with government agencies, NGOs and even agencies of the United Nations (UN) in pushing for the global human rights agenda.
“The best way to protect human rights is to follow the United Nation’s Guiding Principles (UNGPs) framework which applies to both states and businesses,” averred Suzanne Wise, senior vice president corporate affairs and communications of Japan Tobacco Inc. (JTI).
”The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals call for increased partnerships, yet in contrast to this, some UN agencies and organizations call to exclude certain industries from such partnerships. In doing so, they exclude over 100 million people from the tobacco industry alone, including 40 million farmers.”
ARISE in action
IN spite of this exclusion, JTI has successfully placed 60,000 children in education through its ARISE program and conducted over 345,000 routine on-the-ground observation visits to farmers in 2020 alone, which all contribute to the company’s continual effort to achieve the highest standards of human rights across its global operations.
According to Oxfam, Covid-19 caused inequality to rise in virtually every country on earth with the number of people living in poverty increasing from 200 million to 500 million in 2020 alone.
“The number of people at risk of human rights violations grew alongside them. To tackle this problem head on, the need for governments and corporations, including the tobacco industry, to collaborate, has never been stronger,” said Wise.
“We urge governments and policymakers to recognize that the world does not turn in isolation, and that human rights must be fought for by all organizations, together, not only by a selected few,” she proposed. “By coming together to achieve a common goal, there are many millions of people, including 40 million farmers, who will benefit.”
In the Philippines, the plan of government, through its health department, to bar industries from tobacco, infant milk formula, soda, and beer from participating in vaccine procurement was heavily criticized by lawmakers and policymakers as discriminatory and unlawful. The ensuing uproar forced government to rethink the plan.