Human Rights and the Business Community
Robyn Kilpatrick, Chairperson of Amnesty International Hong Kong branch, was the Foundation's guest speaker on 8 January 1997. This is a summarised version of her speech.
Human rights is something that affects us all. The promotion and protection of human rights can no longer be left to a few grassroots activists, but must be a cause embraced by all strata of society. Human rights abuses have traditionally been thought of as problems created by governments and therefore only solveable by govenments. But it is now widely recognised that the business community has a powerful economic influence which also translates into considerable political and even cultural influence. Business leaders serve as powerful role models in the community and this is very apparent in Hong Kong with the announcement of the Chief Executive Designate - Tung Che-hwa. We feel that human rights is everybody's business.
The challenges for all those involved in human rights have never been greater, as we have seen the commitment to ensure human rights protection eroded, especially in this region as the stampede to trade with countries such as China, Indonesia and Burma has never been more frenetic. We have increasing hypocrisy by Western leaders when it comes to human rights protection with the now infamous quote "trade and positive engagement'. It is quite incredible that many business people are now buying into this phrase. In China thousands remain under some form of administrative detention, security of person is becoming an increasing concern of business people travelling into China, and in Indonesia the country continues to be ruled by a supposedly democratically elected government that seems intent on stifling freedom of the press and other fundamental freedoms.
Human rights education is a vital area of work and it is an area where the Hong Kong Government gives little resources. It now allocates just over a paltry HK$1 per person on human rights education. It is imperative for the Government to take a more proactive approach in this area as otherwise we will continue to have discrimination against the mentally ill, the disabled and other marginalised groups in our society. But the Government has traditionally left this to the non-governmental organisations. In fact, Amnesty International Hong Kong (AIH) has been able to fund a human rights education programme in Hong Kong only through the generosity of Norwegian School children who contributed money to this cause. The local business community still seems to be reluctant to support the cause of human rights. Human rights for many is still associated with politics - not the basic principles that are so important for all of us in Hong Kong, especially the business community, such as the rule of law, a free press and an independent judiciary. In fact, most companies depend for efficiency on social stability and the rule of law. The rapid spread of corruption and the breakdown of essential social services will threaten most business. So upholding human rights should certainly be in the self interest of the business community.
With the cooperation of the Hong Kong Arts Centre and other organisations, AIH is trying to arrange screenings of many thought provoking human rights documentaries, as it seems due to editorial self-censorship we are not having a chance to view these. Right now we are having a very interesting debate on whether human rights is a western concept. This is a veiw that is put forward by many in power, especially in this region, but for the many Asian activists I have had the privilege to work with, a bowl of rice can never justify torture.
Business people can really make a difference to human rights, especially in the region where money is power. Many human rights groups take no position on trade embargoes, but we ask that business groups make human rights part of their portfolio. We are encouraged by the marketing initiatives of companies such as Reeboks. Reeboks has drawn up Human Rights Production Standards, which sets out working conditions in developing countries. When a consumer boycott was organised against the use of child labour in making their jeans, Levi's found that bad human rights makes bad business. The bottom line is that taking a stance on human rights need not necessarily affect the profit margin.
We hope to encourage people in Hong Kong to join the struggle to protect all people's rights. We need to develop a human rights culture within Hong Kong and we can only do that with the help of people like you. The silence or indifference of many just means suffering or exploitation. As the great US civil rights leader Martin Luther King stated: "We shall have to repent in this generation, not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people, but for the appalling silence of the good people."
The above summary has not been vetted by the speaker. It does not necessarily represent the views of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation.