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Opinion editorial Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Human rights abuses are not just morally wrong, they are also bad for business

23 March 2015

23 March 2015

Last month’s Global Law Summit discussed the role of business in supporting the rule of law and responsible business practices. But one issue, particularly from governments, needs heightened attention – the need to hold businesses to account for their responsibility to respect human rights when things go wrong.

Thanks largely to social media, it has become impossible to ignore human rights abuses by companies. Recent allegations include land grabs by extractive industries and in the supply chains of food and beverage companies; practices akin to slavery in the garment sector, tech industry and construction of sports stadiums; mineral extraction that funds conflicts; banks and investment funds that prop up repressive regimes or assist in tax avoidance; and the appropriation and spoliation of public resources.

Human rights abuses are not just morally wrong, they are short-sighted. Human rights are a sound investment. The right to: education, food, clean water and sanitation, adequate healthcare and housing; to participate in the decisions of one’s community; to a living wage – these are not impossibly lofty and impractical ideals. They build resilient and prosperous communities and strong institutions based on the rule of law.

We talk about the human ‘race’, but it is not a competition. There is a strong business case for tempering the corporate race to short-term profit with actions that look to the longer-term. The pursuit of prosperity and the promotion of human rights are not competing goals– they complement each other. Responsible business leaders know that sustainable profits can only stem from stable societies in which people have dignity, freedom and a voice.

Under international law, governments must adequately regulate the human rights impact of business. All companies also have an independent responsibility to respect human rights and to address any harm they cause. The UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is the global authoritative standard, providing a blueprint for the steps all states and businesses should take to uphold human rights. In addition, the Human Rights Council has begun discussions regarding a new treaty to define the human rights responsibilities of transnational corporations.

There can be immense reputational damage to business operations that damage human rights. Share prices and brand identity can be hit by publicity. Socially responsible corporations are far better equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century.
A good reputation can be a driving force for action. Its opposite, shame, has its own power to motivate change. At the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights last December, there was talk of plans to create rankings, by sector, of corporations that do – or do not – respect rights, including in supply chains. This may have a strong effect in driving companies to aspire to top-rank human rights records.

When things go wrong, businesses must be held accountable, and national judicial systems must be able and willing to do so. Too often they remain inaccessible to victims, and fail to ensure effective remedy or hold companies to account. Particularly in situations where companies may have been complicit in gross human rights abuses, we need far more effective action. This is not an aspirational goal, but a duty of all states – they must dismantle the barriers that prevent victims from obtaining remedy.

My office has launched a project engaging governments, civil society and business to develop fairer and more effective domestic systems for corporate liability, particularly in the most serious cases of human rights abuse. We will be reporting back to the council in 2016.

Ultimately, the megaphone of public opinion may prove even more powerful than the strong arm of the law. The hope is that businesses everywhere will realise that upholding human rights is good business, in every sense of the word.