Rethinking Public-Private Partnerships for Ethical Outcomes

| November 2015
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This past week, I had the privilege of serving as one of the roundtable co-chairs for the annual Student Conference on U.S. Affairs (SCUSA), which is hosted and run by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The theme for SCUSA 67 was “Confronting Inequality: Wealth, Rights and Power”–a topic that directly aligns with issues that CCEIA and the journal are interested in. The Russia roundtable addressed questions about inequalities in present-day Russia, such as income inequality, discrimination against minority groups, and inequities in treatment based on gender, ethnicity, religion and other factors–and wrestled with two additional points: 1) should these points be of concern to the United States, either on humanitarian/moral grounds or because they might engender instability in Russia which would then negatively affect U.S. interests; and 2) what should the United States be prepared to do?

Usually, the default reaction is to push for governmental action: imposition of sanctions and/or high-level diplomatic intercession and pressure to push, encourage or cajole for action. However, in the case of Russia, several factors come into play. The first is that the punitive menu that Western governments are prepared to bring into play has already largely been exhausted, given existing sanctions imposed because of the events in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. In contrast to the situation in the early 1990s, when Russian officials were looking for guidance and approval from the West, today there is far less interest in Moscow in emulating Western models. And because Russian help is still desired in some areas (such as making the Iran nuclear deal work) and there is little interest in provoking negative Russian reactions elsewhere (such as accelerating the crisis in Eastern Europe), the United States government must consider what additional punitive measures it might wish to impose with an evaluation of the costs it is willing to pay.

This would seem to set up a binary choice when it comes to promoting human rights: either acceptance of the status quo, or attempts to impose change. The students, however, were drawn to the example of the Sullivan Principles–where the emphasis on promoting social change is taken up by companies which voluntarily agree to enforce certain standards and practices. Without waiting for a country’s legal system to make changes or alterations, a company, via its own corporate policies, can offer benefits, recognition or protections to its employees who might be marginalized by government policies. Given the contentious nature of the U.S.-Russia diplomatic, government-to-government relationship, but also given the realities of Russian firms wanting to partner with and do business with Western counterparts, the students speculated whether this might not be a more suitable, appropriate arena for action on those concerns.

It is an approach that is neither foolproof nor certain. American firms and the American market are not the only game in town for Russia; and, as with other countries, the desire to engage in profitable economic relations may trump any willingness on the part of U.S firms competing for opportunities with Asian and European companies to use corporate social responsibility policies as a way to encourage evolutionary change in a more liberal direction. Yet, if state-to-state diplomacy is leading to a dead-end for pursuing human rights change, is it time to consider whether the private sector may have more of an impact?

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Category: Blog, International Law and Human Rights

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