3 Ways Businesses Can Respect Human Rights

December 10, 2018

The UN Forum on Business and Human Rights was attended by 2,000 participants from governments, business, and civil society. Photo: UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights/2018

“Where do Human Rights begin?” Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting committee for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, once posed this question. She saw Human Rights begin in “small places”: at home, in schools, in factories, in farms, and in offices. If they had no meaning in these small places, they had no meaning anywhere.

As we celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world today is vastly different from the world Eleanor Roosevelt saw: globalisation has ensured that international trade and multinational corporations reach every corner of the globe. This means increased economic growth and development. It can also mean a growing risk of increased human rights abuses in the globalised economy.

Asia is the perfect example of this: over the last few decades, increased foreign direct investment and international trade flows have helped increase economic growth rates, raise industrial production, and push technology and innovation to the forefront. By some estimates, Asia will become the world’s largest economic region by 2030. Yet, this economic growth has been accompanied by human rights abuses related to business. It is estimated that 11.7 million people are victims of forced labour in AsiaApproximately 62 million children are employed as child labourers. The gender pay gap continues to widen in the region: the Asian Development Bank estimates that women in the region earn almost a third less than their male counterparts.

In today’s world – dominated by multinational corporations and cross-border investments – human rights can begin in the small places in business operations. They begin with the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the most authoritative framework for addressing human rights abuses by business.

They can begin by ensuring the protection of workers’ rights, providing fair pay and humane working hours, and safe working conditions in factories. They can begin with advancing gender equality in the workplace, and with promoting women’s rights and economic empowerment. They can begin with ensuring that business operations don’t come at a cost to the local community or the environment.

Businesses can achieve this through three key ways:

  •  Conduct Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) processes, including applying a Gender Lens. This involves identifying potential and actual human rights impacts in their operations and those of their supply chains, taking appropriate action to mitigate or remedy any abuses, tracking the effectiveness of those actions, and communicating to the public how these impacts are being addressed.
  •  Act as champions for Business and Human Rights to promote best practices among peers
  •  Raise their voice for and support governments to undertake National Action Plans on the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (NAPs)

Already, an increasing number of companies are taking the lead in ensuring that human rights begin in their operations: 62% of the top 250 companies globally and the top 100 companies from 49 countries surveyed by KPMG in 2017 have already developed a human rights policy. This growing commitment and engagement from the business sector was evident at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, held in Geneva in November, 2018. Attended by over 2,000 participants, the UN Forum comprises the annual global platform through which states, companies, and civil society share ideas and take stock of lessons learned in implementing the UN Guiding Principles. The Forum provides an opportunity for companies to signal their commitment by engaging in the business and human rights discourse and actively presenting their own initiatives and projects.

UNDP in Asia and the Pacific showcased the progress of Asian countries, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Viet Nam. Crucially, UNDP also provided a platform for businesses and civil society to present their own innovative solutions to bring human rights from paper to practice. This year, Andara Resort & Residence, a luxury hotel from the South of Thailand, presented a Human Rights Due Diligence pilot project specific to the hospitality industry, developed in partnership with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand. The active role of businesses in addressing human rights in their supply chains was also highlighted by All Nippon Airways (ANA) who, in collaboration with Caux Round Table Japan, showcased their use of technology in tracing the origins of airline catering ingredients from their supply chain to ensure they were ethically sourced.

The way forward is clear: we need more businesses to fully embrace the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, deepen the practice of Human Rights Due Diligence, and to learn from each other. When businesses work with the UN, governments, and civil society on human rights, they can ‘level the playing field’ for all companies, help to mitigate their own reputational, legal, and operational risks, and enhance their brand. Most importantly, when businesses advance human rights in their operations and those of their supply chains, we can truly make progress on reduced inequalities, decent work, gender equality, and environmental stewardship. 

It is time for human rights to also begin with businesses.

“Where, after all, do Universal Human Rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works” - Eleanor Roosevelt (1958)