Business & Human Rights book list

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    Attention book club organizers:

    The Toronto Business and Human Rights group of Amnesty International Canada has developed a book club reading list with discussion questions that we hope will be of interest to book clubs in the GTA.

    In the following document you will find five reviewed books, each with discussion questions, followed by summaries for another eight recommended books. All books reviewed are on the subject of business/corporate activities and human rights. We hope you find a book among those listed that is of interest to your group and hope it sparks some thoughtful dialogue.

    To learn more about our group please visit

    Finally, we would appreciate any feedback users may have regarding books selected, discussion questions or suggestions for other business and human rights books.


    Erinn Graham-Barter

    Member, Toronto Business and Human Rights Group

    Amnesty International Canada, Toronto


    Amnesty International Canada – Business and Human Rights Group: book list

    1. Levi’s Children: Coming to Terms with Human Rights in the Global Marketplace, Karl Schoenberger

    2. The Corporation: the pathological pursuit of profit and power, Joel Bakan

    3. A Long Way Gone – Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah

    4. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

    5. The Secret River, Kate Grenville

    Additional recommended reading

    6. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair

    7. When Corporations Rule the World, David C Korten

    8. The Economic Horror, Vivian Forrester

    9. The Constant Gardener, John le Carre

    10. Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights by Thom Hartmann

    11. Making a Killing: How and Why Corporations Use Armed Force to do Business, Madelaine Drohan

    12. Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild

    13. Animal’s People, Indra Sinha


    Levi’s Children: Coming to Terms with Human Rights in the Global Marketplace

    Author: Karl Schoenberger


    Using the case study of Levi Strauss & Company, Schoenberger explores the issue of corporate social responsibility (CSR) among multinational corporations – the notion that corporations have a responsibility to behave within a set of ethical guidelines. Schoenberger details the rise of CSR with the globalization of production, provides a solid foundation for the basic tenants of social responsibility for those new to the concept, and considers some hot button issues such as corporation involvement in China and Burma through the lens of Levi’s actions.

    Questions for reflection and further investigation

    1. Do you agree with the notion of corporate social responsibility? Do ethics have a place in business operations? What are the responsibilities of national and local governments?

    2. Is there an inherent conflict when organizations such as the United Nations and human rights watchdogs work with corporations towards corporate social responsibility?

    3. Is corporate social responsibility working? Is the public looking for information on the practices of companies or is it just a small percentage of people that is aware and interested? Will the general public change their behaviour depending on corporate actions?

    The Corporation: the pathological pursuit of profit and power

    Author: Joel Bakan


    Over the last 150 years the corporation has risen from relative obscurity to become the world’s dominant economic institution. Eminent Canadian law professor and legal theorist Joel Bakan contends that today’s corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies.

    In this revolutionary assessment of the history, character, and globalization of the modern business corporation, Bakan backs his premise with the following observations:

    – The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue relentlessly and without exception its own economic self-interest, regardless of the harmful consequences it might cause to others.

    – The corporation’s unbridled self-interest victimizes individuals, society, and, when it goes awry, even shareholders and can cause corporations to self-destruct, as recent Wall Street scandals reveal.

    – Governments have freed the corporation, despite its flawed character, from legal constraints through deregulation and granted it ever greater authority over society through privatization.

    But Bakan believes change is possible and he outlines a far-reaching program of achievable reforms through legal regulation and democratic control.

    Featuring in-depth interviews with such wide-ranging figures as Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, business guru Peter Drucker, and cultural critic Noam Chomsky, The Corporation is an extraordinary work that will educate and enlighten students, CEOs, whistle-blowers, power brokers, pawns, pundits, and politicians alike.

    Questions for reflection and further investigation:

    1. Given the legal restrictions, do you think it’s possible for corporations to be socially responsible? If yes, how? If not, why not?

    2. Externalities are generally the negative result of corporations putting generating wealth before all else. Discuss current examples of the damage done by this concept.

    4. In Chapter 5 Balkan discusses the “Nag Factor”. What has been (or is) your own experience with and response to the “Nag Factor”?

    5. Bakan ends on an optimistic note. Do you share this optimism? Why? Why not?

    A Long Way Gone – Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

    Author: Ishael Beah


    What does war look like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Child soldiers have been profiled by journalists and novelists, but few who have endured this hell have told their tales. In A Long Way Gone Ishmael Beah, now twenty-six years old, tells a gripping story: At the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts. At sixteen, he was rehabilitated by UNICEF, learning how to forgive himself, to regain his humanity, and finally, to heal.

    This is an extraordinary and mesmerizing account, told with real literary force and heartbreaking honesty.

    Questions for reflection and further investigation:

    1. How do you feel about accountability for Ishmael’s acts?

    2. What goodness do you see in Ishmael’s story, and how can that be applied to other situations?

    3. What do you think that Ishmael means in his solution to the monkey story?

    The Grapes of Wrath

    Author: John Steinbeck


    First published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath is a landmark of American Literature. This Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads – driven from their homestead by the “land companies” and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. A portrait of conflict between the powerful and the powerless, the novel captures the horrors of the Depression and probes the very nature of equality in America.

    Grapes of wrath continues to have an impact on society, both from political and artistic perspectives. Author T.C. Boyle published a book with a similar perspective in 1995 called The Tortilla Curtain, in which he shifts the focus from the challenges faced by the Dust Bowl migrant workers to the lives of contemporary Mexican immigrants. Boyle says that the effort Steinbeck made to remedy injustice inspired him to imagine a new reality in a world that hasn’t changed as much as it would like to believe.

    Questions for reflection and further investigation:

    1. Steinbeck writes, “There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people are driven, intimidated, hurt by both. We must think about this.” (p.151). Do economic forces have as much impact on Human Rights as militaristic forces?

    2. What character traits does Steinbeck portray as being driven by business? How do you think that capitalism and positive human behaviours can co-exist?

    3. What possible solutions does Steinbeck present for the picture he paints? Do you feel that these solutions are applicable today? Does our global environment make a difference to your answer? What do you think would help to address Human Rights violations driven by business and industry?

    4. The third chapter of the novel depicts a turtle crossing the Oklahoma highway. How does this chapter symbolize the story of the migrants?

    The Secret River

    Author: Kate Grenville


    The Orange Prize-winning author Kate Grenville recalls her family’s history in an astounding novel about the pioneers of New South Wales. Already a best seller in Australia, The Secret River is the story of Grenville’s ancestors, who wrested a new life from the alien terrain of Australia and its native people. London, 1806. William Thornhill, a Thames bargeman, is deported to the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia. In this new world of convicts and charlatans, Thornhill tries to pull his family into a position of power and comfort. When he rounds a bend in the Hawkesbury River and sees a gentle slope of land, he becomes determined to make the place his own. But, as uninhabited as the island appears, Australia is full of native people, and they do not take kindly to Thornhill’s theft of their home.

    The Secret River is the tale of Thornhill’s deep love for his small corner of the new world, and his slow realization that if he wants to settle there, he must ally himself with the most despicable of the white settlers, and to keep his family safe, he must permit terrifying cruelty to come to innocent people.

    Questions for reflection and further investigation :

    1. What do you feel drives and escalates Thornhill’s behaviours?

    2. What gives characters power in the book? How does power shift between and within characters?

    3. Do you believe that the conflicts in this book are purely historical?

    Other recommended books

    The Jungle

    Author: Upton Sinclair


    Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a vivid portrait of life and death in a turn-of-the-century American meat-packing factory. A grim indictment that led to government regulations of the food industry, The Jungle is Sinclair’s extraordinary contribution to literature and social reform.

    The book won Sinclair fame and fortune, and led to the implementation of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. It had the deepest social impact since Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin . President Theodore Roosevelt received 100 letters a day demanding reforms in the meat industry and Sinclair was called to the White House.

    When Corporations Rule The World

    Author: David C.Korten


    A new, modern classic that explores the unprecedented growth of powerful corporations in the face of largely marginalized communities world wide. Corporations which were once considered to be providers of service to the public, have instead become drivers of a single world culture of consumption. Because corporations are solely accountable to shareholders for bottom-line profits, they operate without an inherent moral compass, and as a result have an insatiable quest for profit at any cost. The results of this market tyranny are seen in the rise of displaced peoples, the destruction of the world’s natural environments and the increasing enslavement of all people to ensure the perpetuation of the need for greed as an independent existence in itself.

    Korten discusses how this destruction has been devised through a combination of institutional forces and the extremist ideology of corporate libertarianism to undermine both the markets and democracy. Never has the manipulation of so much money been at the hands of so few. The book also explores the growing disparity in lifestyles between the marginalized poor and the tiny elite that enjoy lives of extravagant excesses.

    He prescribes a reordering of developmental priorities to restore local control and benefits. While he does not endorse a specific methodology for accomplishing this, he points out that major shifts in global politics such as the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the re-unification of Germany suggests that anything is possible.

    The Economic Horror

    Author: Vivian Forrester


    Released originally in France to enormous acclaim, Viviane Forrester discusses the lack of choices faced by the most impoverished members of society: facing poverty either at working of facing poverty while accepting government social benefits. The grandiose promises of the Industrial Revolution of greater freedom, more wealth, and happiness have been left desperately wanting as the money has been allowed to flow freely, but labor has not. The growth of the number of the world’s billionaires, multi millionaires and new investment has not resulted in a growth in employment rates.

    People and their labor have become commodified to such an extent that the current unemployment rates in the EU(over 18 million) has placed the working class in a position where they are a surplus to market requirements. This has resulted in a deadly cycle where human beings have been reduced to surplus, dispensable trash; Forrester describes how politicians and corporations are actively colluding to hide the devastating effects the current economy has had on the most marginalized peoples and how racism, xenophobia and class divisions have aided and abetted this decline.

    The Constant Gardener

    Author: John le Carre


    Tessa Quayle is found murdered in the jungle of Nairobi, along with her native driver. Of the doctor who was with them, Arnold Bluhm, nothing can be found. The two of them had been active in the health and social work involved in trying to improve Africans’ lives in the midst of poverty and war. Justin Quayle, her older husband, is a diplomat in the English Foreign Office in Nairobi.

    Le Carré’s earlier novels painted a bleak picture of the abuses and corruptions and betrayals of power; here that is augmented with a hard look at a specific issue — the abuse of power by pharmaceutical companies. The integration of this into the plot is occasionally awkward but mostly effective, touching on the testing of defective drugs in Third World countries, the corruption of governments and corporations, and the twisting of scientific research agendas. And while the ending of The Constant Gardener is dark in trademark Le Carré style, it has an unusually positive twist, ending with a hopeful defeat rather than a tainted victory, and with a call to political action.

    NOTE: This is a gritty, violent thriller, somewhat graphic at times in the violence and language.


    Author: Thom Hartmann


    Unequal Protection offers some valuable new insights into the role of corporations in early U.S. history and the process through which corporate lawyers successfully promoted the “corporate personhood” doctrine.

    We often have written the application of Bill of Rights protections to corporations arose from the 1886 Supreme Court ruling in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, but Hartmann’s new research has added rich detail to the story. The Court record that subsequently was cited to claim Bill of Rights protections for corporations reflects nothing more than the spoken opinion of one Chief Justice Waite and a clerk. Notably, Justice Waite was appointed directly to the Supreme Court with no experience as a judge–he came straight from a position as a railroad lawyer.

    The truth behind Santa Clara is just one of many engaging stories presented in Unequal Protection . Beyond illustrative history, Hartmann explores the real-life impacts of corporate personhood, including how corporations: hide accounting crimes and evidence of cancer-causing products by claiming the “right” against self-incrimination; block inspectors investigating toxic emissions and workplace dangers by claiming the “right” of privacy; defy local, state and national attempts to regulate the worst of their abuses by claiming the “right” to be free of discrimination.

    Hartmann also provides a compelling argument that the current corporate hegemony was not what the American revolutionaries, be they Federalists or Democratic Republicans, envisioned for the United States . Even better, Hartmann offers specific actions to remedy the usurpation of our sovereign right to govern ourselves and the institutions we create. He helps deliver our message of why citizens must move beyond single-issue struggles and towards the assertion of democratic control of our economy and institutions.

    Unequal Protection is recommended to all readers who wish to expand their knowledge of history relevant to our struggles against illegitimate corporate power or who wish to gain new insights on solving current problems in that realm.

    Making a Killing: How and Why Corporations Use Armed Force to Do Business

    Author: Madelaine Drohan


    Madelaine Drohan is an award-winning journalist who has covered business and politics in Canada, Europe and Africa during a 25-year career. She has worked for MacLean’s, the Financial Post and The Globe and Mail. She lives in Ottawa.

    In Making a Killing, Drohan describes her travels over a four-year period during which she visited Angola, Sudan, South Africa, Mozambique, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia.

    Interviewing government officials, bankers, warlords, mercenaries and guerillas, Drohan discovered a seldom-reported theme which characterizes economic and political life in most African countries: the use of paramilitary armed forces to further the aims of European imperialism. She writes: “What could drive a company, I wondered, to sanction the use of armed force, knowing that lives would be lost? This book traces the route I took in trying to answer that question.”

    The use of force by Europeans bent on profiting from Africa’s natural resources has a long history. Drohan begins with Cecil Rhodes, who made his fortune by pillaging Africa’s natural resources of gold and diamonds. Drohan reports similar examples of violence committed by imperialists in other parts of Africa, and observes that Africans have no legal recourse against injustices committed by Europeans.

    In an eloquent final chapter titled “Perfectly Legal, Perfectly Moral”, Drohan charges that, when accused of human rights abuses, most leaders of multinational conglomerates react with anger, denial, lawsuits and threats of violence. Some react by adopting corporate codes of conduct which are little more than window dressing, since there is no punishment for violations. And some CEOs justify their human rights abuses by saying that “they are required by law to put the interests of their shareholders — and thus profits above all else.”

    Drohan concludes: “Clearly, the voluntary route will not work. The only way to ensure that companies adhere to an international standard is to enact new laws that define what is acceptable behaviour and that stipulate penalties harsh enough to make corporate executives think twice.”

    [With thanks to Steve Gilbert for some of the text above, People’s Voice, October 1-15, 2004]

    Given that 60% of the mining companies operating around the world are Canadian, and given that Amnesty International is campaigning for a mandatory code of behaviour, this book is timely and relevant. Madelaine Drohan writes a good story on what is academic material but it’s not a particularly easy read unless you have a special interest in Africa, history or a need for examples of corporate misbehaviour to inform your actions in the area of Business & Human Rights.

    Bury the Chains

    Author: Adam Hochschild


    Did you know that the author of “Amazing Grace” was once the captain of a slave ship? Adam Hochschild provides a thrilling account of the first grass-roots human rights campaign, which freed hundreds of thousands of slaves around the world. In 1787, twelve men gathered in a London printing shop to pursue a seemingly impossible goal: ending slavery in the largest empire on earth. Along the way, they would pioneer most of the tools citizen activists still rely on today, from wall posters and mass mailings to boycotts and lapel pins. You’ll get to know remarkable figures like captain John Newton, Olaudah Equiano, a brilliant ex-slave who enthralled audiences throughout the British Isles; Granville Sharp, an eccentric musician and self-taught lawyer; and Thomas Clarkson, a fiery organizer who repeatedly crisscrossed Britain on horseback, devoting his life to the cause. Bury the Chains abounds in atmosphere, high drama, and nuanced portraits of unsung heroes and colorful villains.

    Animal’s People

    Author: Indra Sinha

    Nineteen years after a Bhopal-style poison gas disaster, Khaufpur’s slum-dwellers soldier on next to the still-toxic remains. Animal, who walks on all fours as a result of the accident, will not be ignored: in a filthy mix of English, ‘Khaufpuri’ Hindi and gutter French, he wrestles with the larger issues (the seemingly futile fight for compensation from the ‘Kampani’) and the lesser ones (namely ‘Monsieur Méchant’ in his pants). He attracts a motley crew of friends along the way: a pretty young intellectual, a Christ-like activist, a sexy American ‘doctoress’ – and, in the most touching improvised mother-son relationship since Romain Gary’s La Vie Devant Soi ( almost certainly an influence), a mad old nun named Ma Franci. Booker-nominee Sinha tells a fine tale, funny, harrowing and startlingly fresh. (Taken from a review in The Observer, Sunday, February 10, 2008)

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