For the first time, the United Nations is to adopt a code of conduct for business. A proposal to regulate international businesses and their human rights, labour and environmental standards will be put to the 53-nation UN Human Rights Commission for a vote in March 2004. This measure brings together the fundamental principles and objectives already set out by institutions and conventions that underpin international law governing human and labour rights, development, the environment and commerce. It is based on the idea that businesses, in particular multinationals, should assume social and environmental responsibilities because they have become so powerful.
The absence of global government no longer means that global regulation is impossible. Corporate governance is not the subject of worldwide legislation but certain universal principles are already apparent with differences in practice related to local culture and economic history. Corporate scandals and pressure from investors make control and transparency imperative.
In the same way, other issues of growing importance vary in their urgency according to the sector and the country: the environment, human rights, human resources, social involvement or relationships with clients and suppliers. There are an infinite number of variations on these themes. Each business is naturally free to set its own priorities, always mindful that it is being watched attentively by observers who are ever more prepared to act. It is clear that corporate social responsibility does not come after nor before business; the two are inseparable.
The market has progressively endowed itself with mechanisms of sanction, positive and negative, affecting the conduct of business before legal measures have been imposed. The remarkable growth of social investment funds is an illustration. Corporate social rating is a new instrument but one with great potential.