It’s Time for Business to Stand Up for Human Rights

12/10/2018
Mary Web Post

By Mary Robinson, President, Mary Robinson Foundation—Climate Justice, Former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Former President of Ireland

Today marks 70 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. In my time as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and in the years since, I’ve seen firsthand how this landmark document has helped to protect the dignity of millions, prevent human suffering and build a foundation for continued collaboration and commitment to the creation of a just and thriving global society. It is a day when so many faces come to mind: brave human rights defenders who struggle on in places where human rights are not protected or upheld. They always inspire and energise me!

The principles outlined in the Declaration remain just as pivotal today as they were seven decades ago, and we know that much remains to be done. With attacks on civic space and human rights defenders reaching alarming levels, protection of fundamental rights is as critical as ever.

This is especially the case for the private sector. As we know, threats to human rights are also a threat to business. And the international community—including business itself—has agreed that business has a responsibility to respect human rights. Increasingly, we’ve seen business recognise the unique and impactful role it can play to advance climate solutions. But we need an equally passionate commitment to respect human rights. Business can, has and must do better. This is why The B Team is calling for a new approach to how business operates, one that clearly puts people at the centre.

Within business redefined, decent working conditions, living wages and thriving communities could quickly become the norm—in particular if accompanied by ethical purchasing decisions and worker-employer social dialogue.

On this day as we reflect on the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we must ask ourselves: How can we do better? A first step businesses can take is to implement the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, not only in their core operations, but across their value chains. Adopting and implementing these principles supports the rights of a company’s workforce, operations, their clients, consumers and communities. Whether directly or indirectly, there is a widespread benefit to each person interacting with the company, to the business community and to furthering the recognition of international human rights.

Additionally, companies should perform adequate and ongoing human rights due diligence in order to identify, prevent and remediate human rights abuses. This includes recognising the distinct experiences and systemic barriers faced by groups and individuals, as informed by their gender, race, or socioeconomic conditions.

For business, embracing a leadership model of responsibility, purpose and courage can help to build a new social contract, one that serves all people.

There are many important pathways for business to actively build this new social contract. Responsible tax practice helps reduce inequality, supports public services and contributes to the creation of sustainable societies. Sustainability is a term often used and not always practiced when we look at impact on our communities and our planet. With businesses increasingly taking action on climate, a just transition for those workers and communities must remain at the very center of these measures, helping build this new social contract where inequality is reduced, human rights respected and all jobs decent.

Further, business can work with governments and civil society to strengthen governance and stop corruption—crucial actions to restoring trust. Business benefits from the certainty of strong rule of law— and from the level playing field that is enabled when transparency and fair practice are widely adopted.

For 70 years, we have benefitted from a framework on human rights. Amidst crises of civic freedoms, from journalist crackdowns to internet shutdowns, it is critical that business leaders stand up for human rights and those defending them. Business leaders can and must take bold action both within their own companies and beyond to drive for change. By working together with other companies, civil society and governments, business leaders will be a part of building the world that was envisioned when the Universal Declaration was born.

We all stand to gain when businesses makes human rights a priority. When people are free to thrive, so too can business. In this way, we can rethink business as a critical and core element of the social fabric of society, demonstrating rights and responsibilities that put people and people’s wellbeing at the centre of its very purpose.

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