Institute of the Weltethos Foundation
at the University of Tübingen

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Supply Chain Act – On Human Rights & Human Responsibilities

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An interview with Dr. Hannes Kuch, a Fellow of the Global Ethic Institute, about his research on assessing the Supply Chain Act with a view to the responsibilities and decisions of managers in corporate practice.
The interview was conducted by Mira Weiss of the Global Ethic Institute.

Question: The Reciprocity of Human Duties and Rights as a Basis for Examining and Assessing the Responsibilities, Decisions, and Leadership Practices of Boards and Executives.” The project has a rather long and complex working title – could you explain your project in a few sentences and in easy language?

Dr. Hannes Kuch: By ‘reciprocity’ we mean here the mutual conditional connection that exists between the realization of human rights and a living sense of human rights obligations, i.e. what Hans Küng calls human obligations. This idea gives rise to a specific standard of evaluation for the actions of corporate management. That is, of course, a very different yardstick than, for example, if you only put on business management glasses – or if you wrongly assume that human rights are only a matter for the United Nations or governments.

What do you see as the most important question you are pursuing in this work?

Dr. Hannes Kuch: What are the institutional ways and means for cultivating a human rights ethos? Focusing on institutions is more and different than abstract normative principles. It is also much more and different than the intentions or the character of individual managers. Ulrich Hemel emphasizes this very clearly: institutions shape attitudes, and attitudes pave the way for specific actions and make others more difficult. Good institutions shape good attitudes and thus promote potentially good actions, but the same is true of bad institutions, only with the signs reversed. With this in mind, the issue is, for example, the good and effective design of legal regulation. But it is also a matter of institutional forms such as multi-stakeholder initiatives, which play a very important role in transnational economic relations. In the longer term, my focus is on the question of a democratic business transformation of companies, for example by including all affected stakeholders on supervisory boards – so that not only owners and employees would be represented, but also environmental protection associations, consumer protection associations and, above all, human rights NGOs, which would of course be particularly important for the Global Ethic project. I’m also interested in discussions about new forms of corporate ownership, such as the current debate about responsible ownership as a new legal form.

In your exposé, you identify four “research gaps” that you have identified in the area of human rights obligations and the supply chain law. Would you briefly outline these?

Prof. Hannes Kuch: First, the debate on supply chain regulation is now so widely ramified that a systematic reconstruction of the central paradigms and strands of argumentation alone would be a research gap. Secondly, despite the really broad public debates, there still seem to be unresolved or even largely overlooked issues from a normative point of view. This concerns, for instance, the point that German companies are only obliged to respect the applicable law in the supplier countries. At least that is how the law can be understood, which is of course extremely problematic in terms of human rights. It’s almost like telling German companies: ‘Please truly respect local laws from now on!’ – whereas in many cases these laws are weak enough as it is, like minimum wage standards, for example. Obviously, there is still a gap – which brings me to the third point – in the practical implementation of the law: Here, empirical studies must be carried out in great detail to determine the extent to which the criticized shortcomings of the law actually have a negative impact. This relates, for example, to the widely criticized far-reaching restriction of the due diligence obligations to the first supplier, which clearly creates a loophole the size of a barn door for companies; for example, mailbox intermediaries could be created that simply pass on the primary products, and the law would be fulfilled, but only on paper. Fourth, there still seems to be a lack of practical suggestions for improving weak points in the legislation. This concerns, for example, how exactly the complaint mechanisms could be rendered more robust, for instance through channels external to the company or the guaranteed involvement of trade unions.

The human duties approach comes from Hans Küng. What does Küng demand from entrepreneurs in particular with this approach?

Prof. Hannes Kuch: Not to only follow the profit calculation, but to become aware of their own social responsibility. In principle, this responsibility is carried by every actor, including private individuals. But companies have a particularly strong responsibility because they can have a particularly large social and political influence and because they can cause severe damage to human rights – both far beyond national borders. For large corporations and multinationals, of course, this applies to a very different extent than for the small craft business in the neighborhood.

Would Küng have supported the approach of regulating human rights obligations at the legal level, when he explicitly spoke out against legal regulations?

Prof. Hannes Kuch: Küng was primarily concerned with the cultivation of an embodied human rights ethos. How this cultivation can succeed and what challenges one is confronted with is still a matter of controversy. In the meantime, it has become widely accepted that mere appeals and optimistic trust in voluntary self-commitment are not enough. This has been shown by social science research. The Merkel-led German government, for example, was dismayed to discover that a long-standing study it commissioned itself found that more than 80% of large German companies were not adequately fulfilling their human rights obligations – even though the companies knew full well that they were under scrutiny.

What does the Supply Chain Act mean for our social ethos-building?

Dr. Hannes Kuch: Hans Küng’s reservation about legal regulation was, among other things, that regulations could promote a ‘legalistic mentality.’ Such a mentality wants to stretch laws as much as possible or to specifically search them for loopholes. That can certainly be a threat. But the source of this mentality does not necessarily lie in the legal form as such, but much more in the broader economic context, especially the systemic constraints in our economic system. Given these imperatives, good laws may actually be more likely to reinforce a shared ethos: If one can be relatively certain, based on legal regulation, that competitors in one’s industry will not violate human rights norms, one’s own willingness to abide by those norms increases. On this basis, an ingrained attitude can develop over time.

What does Global Ethic mean for your project specifically? What does Global Ethic mean to you personally?

Dr. Hannes Kuch: For me and my project, Global Ethic means first of all recognizing to what extent alleged ‘Western’ accomplishments, such as the idea of universal human rights, were initiated and advanced by cross-cultural processes, for example by the slave uprising in Haiti in 1791, or by the influence of the criticism of indigenous actors of the then European society of estates, with which modern explorers and missionaries were confronted, especially in America. Above all, Global Ethic means to ask about the global entanglements in which European societies have been involved for a long time, since the slave trade, colonialism and the subsequent exploitation of the global South. This results in an obligation to develop solidarity with the social movements and struggles from the global South – and also to engage philosophically with theorists from this part of the world. With this in mind, we must work to strengthen a transnational public sphere and a ‘buttom up cosmopolitanism’. The World Social Forums have been significant in this regard, and the upcoming ‘Global Assembly’ in Frankfurt 2023/2024 could be another important step in the right direction.

About the author:

Dr. Hannes Kuch is Interim Professor of Social Philosophy at Goethe University Frankfurt and recently completed his Fellowship on “Business, Human Rights and Responsibility” at the Global Ethic Institute in Tübingen.