Business and human rights (part 3): advantages of the human rights framework for CSR

The debate on business and human rights has become a central theme on the international and national corporate sustainability & responsibility agenda.  The world has changed significantly with the majority of large-scale projects – including those delivering basic human services – being privately rather than publicly funded. This has led to a new set of obligations and demands from business.

Part 1 of this series offered four key introductory texts into the subject, part 2 looked at The Role of National Human Rights Institutions with links to various players; today I will review the advantages of the human rights framework for corporate sustainability and responsibility, a link often overlooked by practitioners.

Human rights refer to the basic rights and freedoms all human beings are entitled to. 

Historically, most references to human rights were directed towards civil and political rights focused on the protection  of the individual from abuse by the state and address, for example, the rights to life, liberty, freedom of expression and equality before the law.

However, equally important in the business and human rights context are economic and social rights. For example:

  • the right to a clean environment;
  • the right to health
  • the right to education;
  • the right to an adequate standard of living and shelter.

The business and human rights debate has become increasingly focused on social and cultural rights and is increasingly sector specific to appropriately and effectively tackle concerns.

So what exactly are the advantages of a human rights approach to corporate sustainability?

  • it provides a common and universal standard which assists with judging company practices across national boundaries.
  • it can provide a benchmark where national law is being developed or weak and can be used to judge national laws and regulations.
  • it is the only existing internationally agreed expression of the minimum conditions that everyone should enjoy if they are to live with dignity as human beings.

The lack of understanding of the relevance and true universality of human rights among sustainability professionals , government officials, bureaucrats and others in positions of influence poses a significant challenge for corporate sustainability strategies.

Thus, instead of engaging in large-scale collaborations to address long-term social and environmental challenges most programmes are scattered, and if strategic in nature, often hampered by exclusivity demands in an attempt to gain competitive advantage. There are few notable exceptions.

The lack of understanding and proper integration of human rights in corporate sustainability strategies is in stark contrast to the impact the business sector has on human rights – nor does it accurately reflect the rapidly increasing initiatives to hold the business sector to account as evidenced by cases against Wal-Mart, Unocal, Bridgestone-Firestone, Shell, Trafigura, BP, Anglo American, James Hardy and others.

Corporate responsibility and sustainability professionals must become human rights literate so that their work contributes to the greater good – protecting human rights including the right to a clean, quality environment.

Appropriate terminology is a concern in itself and a topic for another blog! After many years of developments in the field it is still confusing to newcomers and requires navigation and much explanation.  This glossary of terms offers a  modest starting point.

If you wish to read the original text of the universal  declaration of human rights and other relevant treaties click here.

There are also great introductory videos like the one below produced by the Human Rights Action Centre: