Corporate social responsibility and the right to connect

Vince Chadwick in conversation with Michael Thurston
Photo of US Consul General to Melbourne, Michael Thurston
On Friday 22 July 2011, Monash University’s Castan Centre for Human Rights Law Annual Conference was held in Melbourne. US Consul General Michael Thurston addressed the topic ‘Corporate Social Responsibility and the Right to Connect’. Following the speech RightNow editor Vince Chadwick spoke with Michael Thurston at the US Consulate.

RN: What is the ‘right to connect’? It was born out of a speech given in February 2011 by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, but where are its roots? Is it grounded in the First Amendment? Or is it a stand-alone right?

[US Consul General Michael Thurston]: No, it wouldn’t be a stand-alone right. I’m not a constitutional law expert but for me it’s a part of freedom of speech, it’s how we speak. Freedom of speech can cover a lot of things; printed material, what’s spoken, dance, freedom of expression. So for me it fits into that. It’s a means of conveying that communication, much of which is protected.

In your remarks this morning you said that in Australia we value freedom of speech as highly as you do in the US. That’s a big statement because usually it is assumed no one takes freedom of speech as seriously as Americans. To an American-trained lawyer looking at Australia, what do you make of our legal culture around freedom of speech?

When I speak of Australians valuing free speech as much as Americans, I’m speaking to Australian people as individuals. I think the general perception amongst Australians is that they are free to speak their mind.

In Europe you cannot say ethnically offensive things to somebody, while in the US it’s protected speech. I’m not speaking to those particulars. It’s my general ability to be able to say something without a government coming to visit me in the middle of the night because they didn’t like what I said.

I think the general perception amongst Australians is that they are free to speak their mind.

You also called US companies ‘our first line of diplomacy’. What did you mean by that?

It’s the sense that most Americans are not going to meet with an Australian diplomat, but they might be familiar with Ugg Boots. In terms of common understanding and visibility your businesses often have much more visibility than a diplomat. They represent their countries, sometimes more than we realise.

I think you really see that in developing counties. They see [a company] as not just a business, but as an American business, or European business, or Australian business. So they’ll often have certain expectations.

Most people will have more to do with Coca-Cola than with an American diplomat. So if various corporates with that kind of visibility also have a sense of corporate responsibility, that goes a long way.

Most people will have more to do with Coca-Cola than with an American diplomat.

There is a website called Killer Coke, which depicts the alleged cooperation between Coca Cola and local paramilitary groups who are involved in violently breaking up union activity in places like Colombia.

How does it sit with you as a diplomat to have these companies – who are ultimately answerable to shareholders, rather than government – being the first encounter people have with America and American values?

It typically sits with me just fine, as long as they are operating within the rule of law of the country they are operating in, and of the United States. If we can work with them to develop a sense of corporate responsibility so that they get involved with health clinics for their workers or football fields, something, that’s a good thing.

Certainly if a company’s out there involved in activities that are found to be illegal – either in that country or this country – that’s something else.

You mentioned in your speech the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act which exists in the US, and there have been successful prosecutions under that.

The US has probably been more active in prosecuting under that than any other country. A number of countries have now put those things on the books, but the enforcement is variable.

The US has been very active, and where we can show it we’ve had trials with criminal penalties for people who have been found to be operating overseas in a manner that’s contrary to US law.

Another question this morning was what happens when the right thing is not the same as the smart thing financially? You articulated the idea – based on your experience in South Africa – that workers themselves are not too worried what’s motivating the company, provided they are getting an outcome. My question is should we be concerned that companies are willing to shift when there is a financial imperative but not a moral one?

You know that gets a little too philosophical. If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a noise? If a company does something that benefits a worker because they feel they need to do it for the economic bottom line as opposed to feeling it’s the greater good for society, what’s the difference to that worker?

Health care, HIV/AIDS counselling, testing, treatment – these companies [in South Africa] were self-insuring and paying for the treatment of their staff.

If people are living as opposed to dying I’m sure they’re a lot less concerned that the company is doing it either because they’re just really altruistic or whether they’re doing it because it’s economically more viable to keep their skilled workers alive than to keep having them die and having to recruit and retrain over and over and over.

It’d be nice in society if everybody did the right thing because it was the right thing to do, but maybe we’re not there yet. Maybe not everybody’s there yet. So sometimes you convince people to do it because it’s the smart thing to do.

You tell me, what’s the difference in outcome to that worker whether or not they do it because it’s the right thing or the smart thing?

It’d be nice in society if everybody did the right thing because it was the right thing to do, but maybe we’re not there yet.

Well, one of the ideas I struggled with was the example you gave in South Africa, where people were dying and that was when the company realised it was time to keep these people alive, so they could work for the company…

Now this wasn’t an exploitive master-slave relationship. These were wage earners, under the new South Africa, with their own elected government, and they were getting good wages, good salaries and actually working in pretty decent conditions.

Another example came to mind while reading the submissions made by the Global Network Initiative to the ‘Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law “Global Internet Freedom and the Rule of Law, Part II”’ in March 2010. What if a US company has software and a totalitarian state says to them, ‘you can distribute your product here, but only if you take out the encryption system which prevents us reading –

Sounds like another one of those hypotheticals which has actually occurred.

You’re right. It’s a Saudi Arabia / Blackberry scenario. The right thing for the company financially is probably to compromise and forge a new market. But the right answer for the dissident, who has a knock on the door in the middle of the night, might be different. Do you see the discrepancy?

It’s not our role to be the conscience of all corporate activity. Our role is to try and help them understand what might be better in a society. But we can’t make everybody do something. You can’t make them do anything, [but] you can try to urge and suggest as a society.

You talk about a government as though it’s something in the abstract – it’s not. Government is the representative of the society.

You are wanting to go very philosophical. And certainly I understand there’s a difference between the bottom line. Is that company breaking a law in doing that? You may be breaking the law, but whether that’s morally correct or not does not necessarily have legal ramifications.

It’s not our role to be the conscience of all corporate activity.

It does jar certainly.

You’re asking me to address philosophical issues, and on a personal basis I may have positions about philosophy, but that’s hard to address in the abstract or even with the example you’re giving. I’d have to ask, is that company breaking a law by doing something like that? Are they breaking US law? Are they breaking Saudi law if they choose to do it? And I don’t know, I can’t answer that question for you.

You may be breaking the law, but whether that’s morally correct or not does not necessarily have legal ramifications.

This is what US technology companies are asking as well. They are saying ‘look we see this tension between the consequences of our actions, but we recognise that at the moment, we’ve got a sort of impunity potentially’.

Well some companies step back from it. Google did. Some others probably have. So you make a decision. And again, whether it’s legal or illegal, moral or immoral, they’re not always the same thing. Correct, not correct, the right thing, the smart thing…

Whether it’s legal or illegal, moral or immoral, they’re not always the same thing.

The News of the World scandal seems an interesting example of corporate social responsibility. Those at the top claim they didn’t know, reporters claim they were compelled, while those who ordered the hacking have left with confidential payouts. Is there a problem for corporate social responsibility where we create this kind of vacuum? How do we hold the corporation responsible?

We? It’s society that may hold them responsible, it’s not necessarily governments. Society is making a call right now in Great Britain. People aren’t happy with certain activity or conduct that’s occurred, they’re outraged, and as a result there have been actions, such as Parliamentary hearings.

Look, clearly people weren’t happy with that and they can vote with their dollar. People can influence corporations a lot more than governments can at times. If people don’t buy that newspaper they’re helping that corporation make a decision about its conduct.

People can influence corporations a lot more than governments can at times.

Where do shareholders sit in your conception of corporate social responsibility?

In the US and other countries shareholders have gotten very active in what they expect or demand of their corporations. Shareholders certainly have an opportunity to play a role in how their corporation does business.

We describe corporate entities as though they’re this thing, out there. A corporate entity is made up of CEOs and individuals that make it and run it. And they’re answerable to shareholders and boards and directors and others. It’s not this anonymous entity out there. So those people can be held to account for their conduct.

You were involved in Iraq in an Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in Diyala Province.

There was an article in The New Yorker recently, which was the result of a year’s worth of investigative journalism, about third-country national workers. In one case a Fijian woman was told she could go to Dubai and earn top dollar. Instead she was sent to Iraq, and she had to stay there. Did you see any evidence of third-country nationals in your time in Iraq?

There were lots of third-country contractors doing a variety of work. I didn’t see a lot of them where I was based. Certainly there were some around, but I didn’t really know too much about what they were doing or who they were.

US Rep. Christopher Shays (R), who was on the Commission –

You’re going into something which I really can’t comment on. I know it’s an interesting topic, but what am I going to know about it? We were mostly spending our time with US soldiers and out with Iraqi civilians.

Are you going to ask me the question ‘is it morally wrong to enslave somebody? Or legally wrong to enslave somebody and make them do something they don’t wanna do?’ Well, of course it is, if that’s what you are trying to get to ask me. And I don’t think anybody I know would knowingly countenance that kind of conduct. In fact we would be against that kind of conduct. It would be reprehensible. We would not support it, we would not encourage it, and in many instances it might be subject to criminal prosecution.

The reason I’m asking is that we are talking about social responsibility and corporate social responsibility and the way that these corporations operate, and –

And you want to know, does the US also have a certain corporate responsibility?

Yes.

You know what, we really do. And it gets really tiresome the way people want to paint the United States into all sorts of corners. If you would rather have China leading the world, go for it.

We’re out there trying to argue that the internet needs to be free and open for everybody to use. I think that’s a good position for us to take. I’m proud of us taking that position. President Obama has been active on that issue, pushing it in places and with people who aren’t always happy to hear about it, like in China.

If you would rather have China leading the world, go for it.

I think the United States is very responsible. I think the United States is one of our great powers out there – and maybe you can argue how many there are. I’m very proud of how responsible we are, and what we try to do across an incredibly broad range of topics.

Is anybody else doing more about people trafficking on a global basis? Trying to stop it, trying to educate people about trafficking and the horror of that. Who’s doing more? Tell me about it. You hearing from China on that issue? You hearing from India? You hearing from Brazil? Who else is doing anything on these issues which sometimes will upset people? The answer is you’re not hearing it from anybody else. Not on that global scale. Whether it’s trafficking in people, [or] trying to stop all sorts of international ills.

I think the United States is one of our great powers out there.

The United States is not a perfect place – there are none – but we have some really strong ideals, and we strive towards those ideals. Sometimes we don’t always get there as fast as we want, we don’t always get there the way we want, but we continue to move towards them. And that’s one of the things that I think makes the United States great is that we’re striving towards always being better than we are. You know, we’re trying, and that’s we’re gonna keep doing, is trying.

The United States is not a perfect place – there are none.

What could the digital revolution bring to places that you’ve been posted in the past, like Rwanda for example?

Almost with everything there’s the capability to use things in ways that they weren’t intended for, and not always for the good. That’s something you have to protect against.

In places like Rwanda, they would like to see themselves connected to the outside world and a centre of computer technology because they see that as an opportunity to uplift their people. It can help bring them things that we take for granted.

Almost with everything there’s the capability to use things in ways that they weren’t intended for, and not always for the good.

Mobile phone use in Africa has jumped the West. They don’t do wires, it’s too expensive. Put up a few cell towers and all of a sudden people are stepping it up to a new level of economics. They’re finding out what the price for peanuts per kilo in the market in such a place was, then [deciding] where they are going to send their product. They’re using those phones in very real ways every day to try and better their lives.

In [treating] HIV AIDS they were using mobile phones as a way of transmitting patient records. Records are incredibly important in the treatment of HIV AIDS because you have to know when people were last treated, how much medication etc. They don’t have hospitals that everybody can come into, but they have to be able to put that health information together. They were using mobile phone technology to do it in ways that in the West we’d never imagined using it.

Contrast that with China, and you said in your speech that at the moment China can sustain a totalitarian approach to cyber space, with economic growth. But you said that in the future its internet censorship will form ‘a noose’ around its neck. When do you see that happening?

It’s hard to say. The Chinese government and the Chinese people have gone through a remarkable journey to get to where they are when you consider where they were fifty years ago. It’s incredible where they are and where they can be, but they still have a lot of people to lift out of poverty. It is still a third-world or developing country in terms of average distribution of income. They recognise that, and they’re working on it really hard.

I don’t think you’d find anybody who has greater respect for what they are trying to do than us. I think China has the potential to be a great example of good, but a lot of it requires taking on a certain responsibility.

In China, you have a government that works really hard to stay ahead of the wants and aspirations of its people. The Chinese people are becoming increasingly well-educated, well-travelled. They know what’s out there, what they have, and what they’d like to have.

Chinese people are making increasing demands. In the last couple of years you are hearing more and more reports out of China where newspapers are demanding more transparency from the government on corruption trials. Who would have thought that would have happened ten years ago? And the Chinese government is responding.

Increasingly Chinese people are making demands for safer workplaces, for greater rights as workers. We’re not doing that from the outside. They’re making those requests and demands.

I think China has the potential to be a great example of good, but a lot of it requires taking on a certain responsibility.

Another interesting thing to come out of the talk today was the transparency issue. As the Pentagon Papers Case showed, there is a line between state discretion and people’s right to know.

Arguably we never would have known about CIA black sites if strict restraints had existed on reporting state activity.

I don’t know that it’s ever going to be a fine line. I think in an open and free society that’s something that always has to be watched closely, and hopefully you have officials who are answerable to the public, who keep an eye on that and try to find that balance.

I think there probably is going to remain a tension, but that’s good. There needs to be a discussion and a debate about what’s properly considered non-disclosable and what should be disclosed. That’s something we need to discuss and not just accept.

And we do have that discussion in the US, we do have that debate. We have laws where if you think that something should be out in the open, you can challenge it, and take it to court. Under the Freedom of Information Act if a court agrees with you, you can force the publication of these things. And it happens. And I think that’s an important safeguard.

There needs to be a discussion and a debate about what’s properly considered non-disclosable and what should be disclosed.

Finally, you’ve spoken about trying to understand ‘the story of Australia’. What do you tell Americans about the story of Australia?

It’s not that different than the United States. Australia is on a journey. Obviously you’re a different country, you started from a different point, but you’re on a journey. You’re people that have a history that they’re very proud of. You have a history in the west that would be very similar to western US history in some regards.

If you look at west of the Rockies in the United States, and you look at what was going on in Australia at a similar time in the 1800s, some very similar sorts of things were happening.

What Australians value is just not that different from what Americans value: the importance of family, the importance of doing the right thing. They might differ – just like Americans may differ – on what the right thing is, but the idea of doing the right thing is very important.

People are willing to work pretty hard for what they get here. They don’t expect the government to give them everything. They look out for their neighbours, they look out for one another. That’s a strong similarity.

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