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Opinion editorial Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Dollars and Sense: How – and why – the private sector needs to stand up for human rights

05 January 2017

Op-Ed by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

5 January 2017

In a few days, when hundreds of leaders from politics, business and the media convene in Davos to ponder global challenges, the prospect of shattering turbulence will be their backdrop.

A harsh public backlash against such ruling élites has fuelled upsets which promise sweeping changes in national, regional and global institutions and practise.

This widespread failure to ensure fair access to resources, prosperity and economic security fuels violence, increases precarious migration, and feeds support for divisive movements of hatred. It has spawned the rise of ethno-nationalist and populist movements, which in coming months will likely stoke xenophobia and violence across many regions while spurning collective solutions and international law. And as this toxic tide of hatred rises around us, essential principles which safeguard peaceful and stable societies risk being swept away.

Many business leaders acknowledge that good business means doing business right. They are implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to address  human rights impact in their operations and supply chains, and they incorporate the UN Global Compact’s Ten Principles on human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption into their operations. Through these efforts, they are better prepared to manage the risk of the massive reputational damage which arises when corporations are perceived as involved with serious human rights abuses, such as child labour and modern slavery.

The case for respecting human rights is strong, but translating broad commitment into action across the corporate sector remains a challenge. Last March, the Economist Intelligence Unit found that 83% of senior executives considered business to be an important actor in respecting human rights. In practice, fewer than half their companies had drawn up a human rights policy statement – a key expectation for all companies under the UN Guiding Principles. We need to convince many more business actors that respect for human rights is good for their bottom line; the bulk of the world’s employment is in the private sector, and clearing up abuses will have enormous positive impact on millions of lives.

But business leaders also need to look outwards – to the communities in which they work. Business actors can be powerful advocates for the human rights which build resilient, peaceful and stable societies, able to overcome conflict and look to the future. Already, some corporate leaders realise it is in their interest to combat discrimination, inequalities, xenophobia, violence and hate – including by lobbying authorities to take action, and by empowering their staff to stand up for rights. As important local, national and regional actors, businesses can have major impact on the empowerment of women, migrants, minorities and marginalized groups, including LGBTi people. Their influence can transform the public landscape for issues of food security, land rights, environmental sustainability, the right to privacy and other essential topics.

Business cannot thrive in failing societies, where tension spikes and communities bristle with grievances and mutual contempt. Strong civil societies, due process, equality and justice: these are what enable real economic empowerment. People cannot just be the how of development – merely the tools that produce greater wealth. They are the why. In this sense, human rights -- human dignity and well-being -- are the whole point of economic growth.