business and human rights & CSR

There are few if any internationally recognised rights that businesses cannot impact.

Why should business care about human rights?

There are few if any internationally recognised rights business cannot impact – or be perceived to impact – in some manner.  Therefore, companies should consider all such rights.” Professor John Ruggie, UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Business and Human Rights. Protect, Respect and Remedy: a Framework for Business and Human Rights, April 2008.

So now that’s clear, what are we doing about it? And how do much covetted corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives fit into the business and human rights agenda?

The Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights

Following almost six years of work by Prof Ruggie, supported by civil society, business and – to some governments, a clear framework emerged for business. An increasing number of case studies, illustrating the positive and negative impact  business can have on each and every human right, are aiding translation of international human rights treaties into the business context. The final draft of the “Guiding Principles” – to assist with the implementation of aforementioned framework has now been submitted to the UN Human Rights Council and will be considered in June this year. We are also fortunate that the lovely and smart Vanessa Zimmerman, Legal Advisor to the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, is based in Melbourne, Australia thus providing access to up to the minute developments and sharing her expertise.

Regardless of progress made and the fact that some of the largest Australian companies operate in industries most complained* about when it comes to abuses of human rights (the Extractive sector (gas/oil/mining); Food & beverages; Apparel & footwear; IT & Communication), we have been slow in embracing the business and human rights agenda.

Key-players in Business and Human Rights

Various organisations have emerged as key players:

We have at last seen the establishment of the Global Compact Network Australia, which has boosted the sign up of Australian businesses to the Compact by 50% since its inception in mid 2009. There are some 80 of these networks around the world.

The Global Compact Network  has, in turn, established the Business and Human Rights Working Group, a promising development convening for the 2nd time this April in Sydney creating momentum and building expertise.

The National Human Rights Commission has also lifted its game and produced “Four fact sheets to help make human rights part of your core business”. and generally, Human Rights Institutions Internationally are putting this issue squarely on their agenda – some have done so for many years as part of their mandate. For those of you with a special interest in the role of human rights institutions in business and human rights, the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions prepared a concept note in preparation of their biennial conference in October 2010 on the exact topic.

The Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Instituions‘  Advisory Council of Jurists  has also made a series of useful recommendations on the practical steps that national human rights institutions can take to promote greater observance of human rights by business, including transnational corporations.

The Castan Centre for Human Rights Law published a guide about how human rights treaties related to business:Human Rights Translated. A Business Reference Guide. The guide is full of useful examples.

Allen Arthur Robinson is one of the international law firms that provided pro bono support to Prof Ruggie to “examine if and how the national corporate law principles of 39 countries foster corporate cultures respectful of human rights”.

So now that we understand the impact of business on human rights and the respective roles of government, business and civil society – what’s next?

The end of feel good CSR initiatives?

Is this the end of fluffy, feel good CSR initiatives so loved by public affairs professionals for their capacity to draw positive publicity? Will all CSR initiatives now become aligned with human rights and and be deep and meaningful?

Hardly.

There is still considerable confusion about the various guides that include human rights obligations for business and how these relate to one another. The required integration combined with appropriate regulation of universal minimum standards – is in my view one of the most important tasks ahead.  However, this is not the place to discuss requirements for meaningful Government regulation (an oxymoron?) and a human rights framework for corporate social responsibility initiatives.This will be the topic of another blog.

In the meantime, let’s keep the momentum for business engagement in human rights going in Australia.

*Complaints mainly relate to inadvertent support of human rights abuses through business dealings in conflict zones, violations of labour rights and large scale corruption.

>Ulrike Schuermann is an experienced international consultant & social profit coach. Her main areas of interest are social investments, income development for social profits; sustainable development and business and human rights. She regularly facilitates workshops for social profit organisations and corporations and can be contacted at enquiries@momentumpartnerships.com