Human rights: help or hinderance?

Many people misunderstand what human rights really mean in the modern economy, and the language we use doesn’t help.

Mention abuse of human rights and most ordinary people will think of Amnesty International, dictatorial governments and appalling torture. So they might wonder why a company would produce a report dedicated to its human rights impacts, as Unilever has just done – the first to be fully aligned with the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework launched last year. The more clued up might then think about extended supply chains and wonder about prison and slave labour, and see a connection with governments like China.

Other people might see beyond government abuse and conceive of human rights as all about the individual and their rights. Fed by tabloid scare stories, they might even see human rights as about protecting individuals, like suspected terrorists, over the common good – and think companies like Unilever are in league with the European Court and other “dangerously” foreign tendencies.

Actually, think about human rights in the context of companies and the global economy, and you rapidly come down to money. In fact Professor John Ruggie – who has played a seminal role in the UN Global Compact, in the Millennium Development Goals and latterly as the UN Secretary General’s special representative for human rights – says the need for corporate action on human rights stems directly from the “massive gap” between the power of companies in a global economy and the ability of societies to deal with the impacts that creates.

He argues that markets need a framework of rules in which to operate and for participants to thrive, and that current governance frameworks – public law, civil governance and corporate governance – are inadequate. It’s an important argument, which he sets out on Business Fights Poverty here.

If you doubt that human rights comes down to economics, consider two aspects of recent economic history that created massive abuse. The first is the abolition of slavery, highlighted in a recent BBC programme, Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, when the government compensated British slave owners for loss of their ‘property’, to the tune of £17bn in today’s money, whilst the slaves themselves received nothing. The second is colonialisation; comments in May by Indian MP, Shashi Tharoor, during a debate about Britain’s debt to her former colonies, went viral with millions of YouTube views. His economic case for reparations is set out here.

Returning to Unilever’s groundbreaking report on its implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Right, look at the eight issues it identifies as most salient and you’ll soon see the economic drivers – including fair wages, forced labour, land rights and working hours. The report itself covers strategy and policy, moving from compliance to promotion, and charting the path ahead. Well worth a close read by anyone trying to comprehend what this all means to a global corporation.

From slavery to modern international capitalism, human rights comes down to who gets the money and how they go about acquiring it. Don’t let the language stand in your way.

This articles was also published by IMPA ACT

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