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The Business Case for Human Rights

By Mary Robinson
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

I have spoken and written about the Universal Declaration for Human Rights many times in this year of its fiftieth Anniversary. And in preparing this article I read it once again, seeking inspiration to answer the question 'why should business care about human rights?'. 

As always, reading it filled me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, there is deep respect for those who had the foresight and hope to conceive and write the Universal Declaration, a document that still speaks as purposefully to us about human dignity as it did fifty years ago. But on the other hand there is frustration, frustration that the vision it sets out of everyone being 'entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind' not only remains unfulfilled for so many in our world, but that it remains a vision which many individuals cannot yet allow themselves to even dream of. As I turn to the question 'why should business care about human rights?', the Declaration helps me with the answer; because business needs human rights and human rights needs business.

The preamble to the Universal Declaration states that "every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms". Business corporations included. Every organization and individual has a legitimate right to be concerned and the responsibility to promote human rights. 

Fifty years ago they may not have foreseen the power and influence that business corporations would come to wield in our world, but they did allow for business, as part of the human community, to use its power with respect for human rights in mind. In many ways business decisions can profoundly affect the dignity and rights of individuals and communities. Business is coming to recognize this and I welcome the growing activities in the business community to establish benchmarks, promote best practice and adopt codes of conduct. It is not a question of asking business to fulfill the role of government, but of asking business to promote human rights in its own sphere of competence.

As High Commissioner, my influence on those governments with suspect human rights credentials is more often than not limited to exerting moral pressure. While business corporations, offering something all governments want - the prize of foreign currency and investment - have an extra bargaining chip in their pockets. For human rights, that is an opportunity to send a message with either positive or negative results.

Geneva is usually quiet and tranquil. However in May 1998, police donned their riot gear and brought out the water cannons to quell a demonstration. 5,000 people had turned out from all corners of the world to protest against an idea. That idea that they feel so strongly about is globalisation, the global market, removal of trade barriers, call it what you will and its impact on human rights. The message is clear; people are increasingly concerned about what they perceive to be the negative effects of globalisation on the enjoyment of human rights and they are prepared to act to defend the human rights of themselves and others. Ignore this, act irresponsibility and as several corporations have discovered to their cost, their reputation and bottom line is at stake. 

While this is reason enough for corporations to care about human rights, no one likes to be forced into acting. We all like to have, and are far more likely to act if we have a compelling and positive reason. In our thinking we have looked for these arguments. Almost every article of the Universal Declaration has relevance to business corporations.

Take for instance, Article 7; 
'All are equal before the law and are entitled equal protection of the law...'

Can you imagine doing business in a society where all, and perhaps you and your corporation, are not equal before the law? Perhaps you have experience of it. Where not all are equal before the law, doing business is fine as long as you are on the right side. But who decides which is the right side? And how do you stay on it?
Article 9; 
'No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile...'

Can you imagine doing business in a society where your staff are at risk of being arrested, detained or exiled for no apparent reason? It is not rare, there have been numerous examples of late of business people being detained. Will expatriate staff be willing to stay? Can you afford to lose the investment in recruiting, training and developing individual local staff? 

Article 17; 
'...right to own property alone as well as in association with others. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.'

Can you imagine doing business in a society where your business cannot own property or is at risk of having property removed without proper redress?

Article 18 and 19; 
"...right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;..."and "..the right to freedom of opinion and expression;.."

Are individuals whose society does not allow them to speak freely, to speak their mind and to practice their chosen religion, going to be able to speak up at work, if not allowed elsewhere? In such societies, are individuals going to provide the creativity and innovation that is so important to your businesses continuing competitive advantage. Will production errors be resolved, quality enhanced and new opportunities identified if society does not permit individuals to speak out, and to share their thoughts and ideas?

Article 26; 
'Everyone has the right to education.'

Can you imagine doing business in a society where education is not available to all? Will you be able to find sufficient skilled resources both now and in the years to come? Will your workforce have the diversity that brings both creativity and an empathy and understanding of the customer?

Article 27 (2) 
"Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author"

Can you imagine doing business where such protection is not available?

And speaking of equality, if women's rights are denied, if they are denied spending power, is your potential market in a country not halved or reduced further? If women are denied education, your potential to find the necessary skilled employees is severely constrained.

Doing business may be feasible in the situations I have just described, but without knowing the risks, and taking action to mitigate these risks in the longer term, will it be sustainable? This is the essence of the 'Business Case for Human Rights': going beyond the question of businesses protecting their reputation - while not ignoring the potential cost of a damaged reputation - and looking at the other, both positive and negative reasons, for business corporations to care about human rights. The challenge is to turn this commitment into action, to respect and promote human rights.

Corporations have a legitimate interest in human rights. Worldwide, groups and individuals are watching their actions attentively, in particular as they strive towards globalization, and are expecting corporations to act responsibly. If they do not, the corporation's reputation is at stake. This adds to the other compelling reasons why corporations should care about human rights. The Universal Declaration can provide business with a universally agreed statement of core human rights which do not depend on a particular country or culture; a point of reference for good practice and benchmarks.

Based around the framework provided by the Universal Declaration and the other international human rights treaties, the 'business case for human rights' is compelling. 

"Visions of Ethical Business" was published by
The Financial Times, Management, 128 Long Acre, London WC2E 9AN, 
in association with 
Pricewaterhouse Coopers and the Council on Economic Priorities (Europe)

This publication is available free of cost from The Council on Economic Priorities (Europe) can be contacted at:38 Ebury Street, London SW1 W0LU, tel: +44(0)171 730 2646, 

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