By Sophie Richardson
"We try to be as apolitical as possible. We've never been a lobbying group....we are not comfortable making public pronouncements."
You might be surprised to know that these comments were made by senior public relations officials of one of America's largest companies, one with a very public profile that includes lobbying, negotiations over human rights issues like labor conditions, a clear corporate social responsibility policy, and sponsoring the Olympic Games.
You'd probably be less surprised to know that he was talking about his company's conscious choice not to press the Chinese government over abuses taking place in relation to 2008 Beijing Games launching this Friday, August 8. Yet neither he nor his company is alone in taking such a cowardly position. Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has met with many of the main Olympic sponsors and suppliers, all of which profess great interest in corporate social responsibility and human rights. But without exception, they are all putting their considerable public relations and lobbying muscle towards ducking any social responsibility for sponsoring Games in one of the more repressive Olympic host countries in recent memory.
The twelve highest-level corporate benefactors of the Beijing Games, known as the TOP sponsors are Atos Origin, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Kodak, Lenovo, McDonald's, Omega (Swatch Group), Panasonic (Matsushita), Samsung, and Visa. These companies are effectively paying for the Games, having collectively contributed approximately $866 million for the privilege of sponsorship. That gives them, on average, $73 million reasons each to speak out, yet they refuse to do so about human rights abuses directly related to these Games, including the forced eviction of Chinese citizens from their homes to make way for new Olympic venues, the exploitation of migrant workers who built these venues, and the jailing of activists who courageously denounced such abuses.
Some of the most prevalent human rights abuses in China are not so far removed from the quotidian difficulties businesses face. The poor flow of information, particularly about unrest or disasters, is bad for business. That the legal system is stacked in favor of local power-holders and against individuals is bad for business. The failure to tolerate critical debate, which is essential both for governance and innovation, is bad for business. The sponsors may soon learn that government-fanned waves of nationalism are about as bad for business as you can get in China. The sponsors are only shooting themselves in the foot--and paying to do so!--if they fail to take these issues on directly.
As it turns out, the lofty sounding "corporate social responsibility" promises, which these companies deploy to reassure the world that they will lift all boats, are actually applied only to very specific groups -- typically, those who work for the sponsors in China. "Our commitment to human rights is...how we treat our employees," said one company; quoth another, "...we need to define our role narrowly." In other words, the companies want you to believe they're doing the greatest good for the common man, but when relations with the Chinese government and access to the huge Chinese market may be at stake by virtue of raising controversial issues, don't expect much.
One sponsor was so keen to dissociate the subject of Tibet from the Olympics that he told us, "In the context of the Olympics, Tibet is not relevant. None of the Olympics takes place in Tibet. The Games are not in Tibet." Clearly he had not read the memo noting his company's sponsorship of the Olympic Torch relay, which went through Lhasa, Tibet's capital, during an ongoing crackdown on Tibetan protestors.
It's been remarkable, too, to hear corporations that spend millions of dollars a year lobbying capitals, and, on average, $73 million per company to sponsor the Games, utter things like, "We sell [products], we are not in the business of politics" and, "We do not get [involved] in the policies of foreign governments" -- especially while in the next breath they plead that the human rights community recognize the corporations' need to "ensure good relations with the government."
Of course, companies fight bitterly with governments all the time, over taxes, regulation, and anything else that suits them.
Worst of all are those who have essentially given up before they've even started: "The Chinese think that corporate sponsors do not have a dog in this fight [about human rights]," said one executive in a meeting with Human Rights Watch. If "What is said in Vegas stays in Vegas," as another vice president said to us, it's no wonder -- but it's also a self-fulfilling prophecy.
No one expects companies to focus on rights exclusively in the way human rights organizations do. No one expects companies to be heedless of profits or business opportunities. But Olympic sponsors have not only an opportunity but a duty to speak out about human rights abuses in China, since these abuses violate the Olympic Charter, the human rights pledges made by Beijing when bidding for the Games, and, most important, the principles upon which their own corporate social responsibility policies are built.
Even if these companies care more about their own interests, rather than principles, they still have plenty of reasons to seize this opportunity to make China a more attractive place to do business.
Sophie Richardson is the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.