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Op-Ed: Business and Human Rights Debate Finally on the Right Track

by Mary Robinson and Sir Mark Moody-Stuart

Today marks the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Good progress has been made in entrenching a culture of human rights around the world over the past six decades. Yet discrimination, oppression, poverty and injustice remain all too prevalent. What should this anniversary mean for business?  Where do we stand on the sometimes controversial subject of business and human rights? 

The good news is that over the past decade more and more companies have positively engaged to find the right response to a range of hard issues – from operations in countries experiencing violent conflict to addressing the concerns of local communities that believe business activities may undermine the exercise of their rights. This doesn’t mean they have found all the answers or that the majority of companies are conversant on the links between human rights and their operations, but there has been a marked trend towards greater business engagement around the human rights agenda.

Governments working with the UN system have also taken important steps forward. In 2005, the UN Secretary-General appointed John Ruggie of Harvard University as a Special Representative to move beyond the contentious debates of the past around the draft UN Norms and to make progress on defining a framework to reinforce the obligations of governments and more clearly determine the role of business and other actors in relation to human rights.

In his third report to the UN Human Rights Council, submitted earlier this year, Professor Ruggie put forward a new policy framework for business and human rights that comprises three core principles: governments’ duty to protect human rights, including from abuses by third parties, including business; the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and the need for greater access by victims to effective remedies. This approach has been endorsed by major international business associations and leading international human rights organizations alike. Thanks to these efforts, we are today seeing an emerging consensus on how to advance the business and human rights agenda in the years ahead.

As a reassuring affirmation of this consensus, chief executives from around the world have today issued a call to action for governments and business alike to renew their commitment to the protection of human rights in the spirit of the Universal Declaration. Organized by the United Nations Global Compact and already signed by nearly 250 business leaders from 68 countries, the CEO Statement is far more than an expression of goodwill and aspiration. It illustrates the growing awareness that business has a responsibility to respect human rights and is an increasingly important actor in development and the provision of public goods in many countries – with significant consequences for the lives of individuals and communities, for better or worse. 

While many challenges remain, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Perhaps more than ever before, business leaders around the world have come to understand that the protection of universal human rights, beyond its moral imperative, should also make good business sense. Ensuring decent and safe workplace conditions, promoting non-discrimination and diversity in employment, respecting and safeguarding the rights of local communities – these have become material issues to the long-term sustainability of business. Managing human rights in a proactive manner means managing legal and reputational risks, meeting shareholder and stakeholder expectations and maintaining and motivating staff performance.  It also involves companies in having a better rounded appreciation of their impacts – positive and negative; direct and indirect – on the world around them.

At the same time, determined efforts are still needed to develop greater clarity on what the basic responsibility to respect human rights entails for business, and what steps companies need to take to ensure that they are living up to society’s expectations. Even the most committed managers say they need more practical and authoritative guidance on what human rights mean for businesses and how these issues can best be reflected within their day-to-day operations.  Equally important, there has been too little recognition of the catalytic role played by companies in reducing poverty or in expanding access to basic services such as education, healthcare or safe drinking water and sanitation and too little emphasis on the need for governments to ensure that they fulfill their obligations to make such services accessible and affordable for all.

Thankfully, there are many ways in which businesses can engage – in collaboration with others or individually – to give practical meaning to the Universal Declaration. For one, the UN Global Compact, with its more than 5,000 participating companies in 132 countries, offers a formidable platform of engagement, dialogue and learning that can help companies develop and implement appropriate and effective polices to advance human rights.  Companies can also get involved in a growing number of projects to advance their understanding of human rights like the one the Global Compact is supporting with the Global Reporting Initiative and Realizing Rights to assist companies committed to including human rights relevant issues as part of their annual sustainability reports. 

Undoubtedly, much has changed in the way we look at the role of business as an actor in the ongoing work to ensure respect for human rights. Despite the current economic crisis, a growing number of business leaders understand that human rights issues are of direct relevance to their long term success. Many challenges remain, but as the Universal Declaration enters its seventh decade, we have perhaps moved a bit closer to the holistic vision expressed in its preamble: to realize "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations".

Mary Robinson is the President of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative and a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Sir Mark Moody-Stuart is the Chairman of Anglo American plc.