WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM WEF 2002, NEW YORK CITY, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, SECRETARY-GENERAL IRENE KHAN

Non-governmental organizations were once forced to get their message across with posters and protests outside the World Economic Forum meetings. But in recent years, they have become forum participants themselves. Amnesty International was one of the first; it has attended the annual meeting for the last three years. However, this was the first time that Secretary-General Irene Khan participated herself, since she had just joined the human rights group last summer. A Harvard-educated Bangladeshi who worked on the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for two decades, Khan has spent much of her career working with the poor and displaced in developing countries--those on the opposite end of the spectrum from the high-powered executives and political leaders she mingled with at the forum. NEWSWEEK's Jennifer Barrett spoke with Secretary-General Khan about what she hoped to achieve at the World Economic Forum meeting, and whether fellow participants were receptive to her message.

NEWSWEEK: What was your impression of the World Economic Forum's conference?

Irene Khan: There was certainly a greater awareness of the social pressures that are affecting the way business looks at its work. There was clearly an interest in the social and economic impact of globalization. There was lot of dissension last year in Davos with all the protesters. This year, there was a greater participation of NGOs in the conference itself. We are hoping that the interest companies are showing in these issues will lead to a gradual opening up to the NGOs at this conference because I think they would want to hear our voices. It's important our voices are heard.

What were you hoping to accomplish here?

For Amnesty International, the key message we brought to the forum is that companies have a legal and moral responsibility to uphold human rights in their own area of operations and, more broadly, for the whole community in which they work. We have been pressing for accountability. Corporations have to be held accountable for their responsibility to uphold human rights. We were hoping to get the message across that accountability is not something to give when times are good then retract when times are bad. There are ethical guidelines of society that corporations must uphold at all times, under all circumstances. Society at large has expectations in terms of human rights on which corporations must deliver. They can't hide behind the governments and say we are just doing business for the sake of business because they are often more powerful than the governments and they can influence them. There is a strong feeling that corporations today are very important social actors. They have the power and they enjoy the benefits. But with that power comes responsibility.

How would you hold companies accountable?

First of all, corporations need to make a commitment at the highest level that they see this is as a responsibility, and then make sure that the message goes through all their operations. They should have policies and procedures and then independent verification that they are doing it. It is not enough that they say they are doing it.

Were you successful in getting your message through to conference participants?

A number of companies came up to me and gave me their cards after I spoke on a panel about security and human rights. They said 'What you said makes a lot of sense.' About half-a-dozen of them came up to me--I don't want to give names because it's a sensitive subject--but there were chief executives of big, well-known companies who said 'Please, come and talk to us.' It's quite clear that it [human rights] makes an impact. That's a message that people need, and are willing, to hear. The question on one panel was whether it is the role of companies to save the world. One answer was: 'If you don't save the world, you certainly won't save your business.' It is important to promote human rights and those societies that protect those rights will have a stable environment in which businesses can prosper.

Do you think Amnesty International and other NGOs have made much progress in being treated as important players in the forum?

Definitely, compared to what the situation was four years ago when there was just a very small token NGO presence. Certainly the number has grown over the years and certainly there is much more interest in getting us involved and giving us the space to be heard. I hope it will continue. I think constructive dialogue is important and it is mutually beneficial. Companies need to build bridges with civil society, and to understand why there are people protesting along the barricades, so they understand the impact of their own actions.

Which do you think is more effective in making sure your message is heard and affecting change: the protests outside or the dialogue inside the conference? What role does each play?

We take a range of means to get the message out. We participate in constructive dialogue with companies and we try to convince them. We also expose them, we shame them and we hold them publicly accountable if we have evidence that they have violated human rights. We also work with other NGOs to put pressure on companies to change their behavior. Some engage in public dialogue, others are on the barricade. People have the right to choose. There were a lot of protesters here--some were probably members of Amnesty International. But we were also inside because we believe in engaging people.

What are you hoping to see at future World Economic Forum meetings?

What would be ideal is if there could be more interaction between those raising social issues and those who hold economic power. For both sides, I think it would be very helpful to have a bridge between the two. It is in the interest of all of us who want a stable and prosperous world that we need to close the divide between those who have economic power and those who feel they are being excluded by globalization, which is going on at a tremendous speed. There is a group of 40,000 [including high-level representatives from Amnesty International] at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, right now in a very different kind of environment. And then there is a very exclusive group of a few thousand in New York. Yet, there is no bridge between these groups. As long as you have these social issues unresolved, you cannot talk about prosperity for the few. At the end of day, we should not be talking about profits but about people.