Professor David Scheffer: Corporations Have Responsibility to Human Rights

Professor at Northwest University David Scheffer said corporate responsibility needs to be a part of the national conversation. Photo by Jason Jiang.
Professor at Northwest University David Scheffer said corporate responsibility needs to be a part of the national conversation. Photo by Jason Jiang.

The evolution of corporate law has pushed companies to be more accountable to the public on the national and international scale said David Scheffer, professor of law at Northwest University and director for the Center for International Human Rights.

“I’d say this is a stage in the development of law and corporate practice that’s about 20 years old now,” Scheffer said at the School of Business’ “Business and Human Rights Lecture” this Tuesday in the Konover Auditorium.

The idea of holding corporations legally responsible for their influence on the social well being of society emerged in the 1990’s when the Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreign citizens to pursue U.S. based violations of human rights abroad, came into its own.

Scheffer said this law awakened corporation consciousness to the tremendous impact human rights claims could have on their public image and finances. This awareness resulted in a newfound “culture of compliance,” forcing businesses to place a premium on rights, respect and remedy through self enforced “soft law.”

“Namely, do good, do not do evil,” Scheffer said.

This culture was further solidified in 2000 with the formation of the United Nations Global Compact, through which over 7,000 corporations from 45 countries pledged to follow 10 principles of good business by preserving human rights, fair labor practices, the environment and ending corrupt practices.

“You would think that that’s great news, it shows progress,” he said. “Well, it’s really not enough.”

In order for corporate responsibility to be taken farther, it needs to be part of the national discussion.

“I think we don’t yet really have a middle ground to work with on this,” Scheffer said. “No one’s talking about this in presidential elections, I can tell you that.”

Some businesses, however, are taking matters into their own hands. In light of Indiana’s proposed “religious freedom” law, believed by many to enable overt discrimination against the LGBT community by vendors, Angie’s List and Apple have both publicly questioned their plans to expand into the state.

“It just shows how, even on a corporate level, that corporations don’t just sit back and accept all of this,” Scheffer said.

Caroline Kaeb, UConn’s first assistant professor for business and human rights, said she knew she wanted to go into the field as a student at Northwest University after Scheffer’s first lecture.

“It really was right then and there that I was inspired by human rights,” Kaeb said. “David is a true visionary, a true pioneering mind in human policy research.”

Scheffer said the world’s youth is at least partially responsible for the cultural shift needed to further encourage corporate responsibility. He said Ira Glass’ interview with several Wall Street traders fresh out of the recession in 2008 on NPR best demonstrated the “astonishingly frank and atrociously hideous” perspectives of many already in the business world.

“These young traders saw themselves as the smart ones, the masters of the universe,” he said. “Our colleagues in business, when you present them with a human rights policy, you get deer eyes.”

This disconnect was demonstrated by numerous students in the audience, who made it clear they were “only there for class” and didn’t have much to say on the subject of human rights in their chosen field.

Scheffer, at least, made it equally clear that this cannot stand.

“My life has been focused for 25 years on how to prevent atrocities, so I’m afraid I enter this with a certain mindset,” said Scheffer, who served as a U.S. war crimes ambassador. “I don’t care if you don’t make a lot of money, but I do care if you fail ethically.”

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