The Right To Be Human - A Guide For Business

When we think of the law, we tend to focus on how it sets the boundaries of what our society considers right and wrong, such as in criminal and civil law; or how it defines processes, such as in wills and estates or property law.

We turn to the law to guide us on the ‘how’ when we want to obtain a marriage certificate, or register a birth, buy a house or sell a car. When we want protection from a rowdy neighbour, a violent spectator or a drunk driver.

But the law, of course, delves deeper.  It has codified our basic human freedoms, protections and rights because what may work for me may not work for you.  And who decides what is right and what is wrong when our needs, wants and desires do not match?

The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that ‘Human Rights’ are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.

In 1966 the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights established the basis of the rights and freedoms we should all enjoy as humans and has been signed and ratified by 169 countries. Here are a few that may sound familiar:

The Right to Life; Freedom from Torture; Freedom from Slavery; Right to a Fair Trial; Freedom of Opinion and Expression; Right to Equality before the Law.

It all sounds straight forward yes? Just as we all know that murder is a crime, we know that using torture as a means of interrogation is a crime.  Just as we know that driving without your seatbelt is a crime, we know that human trafficking is a crime.

We are now in 2017 – 1966 seems like a long time ago but really, how much has changed?  Did you know that today there are an estimated 1.5 million Non-Governmental Organisations active in the United States of America alone? (source: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, US State Department).  1.5 million.  Many of these are focused on trying to implement that Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  Trying to ensure that when you voice your opinion on a state of affairs, you will not be put in jail for it; or when you say no to a job, you are not physically and violently forced to perform that job for free.

But for some people these rights are well beyond their reach.  Like the 5.5 million children currently in child slavery (source: ILO), or the 21 million victims of human trafficking (source: ILO).  And it really is up to us to do our bit to ensure that the right to be human applies to all.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were endorsed in 2011.  Their objective is to enhance the standards and practices with regards to business and human rights.  Whilst one part of the guidelines is directed at member States to ensure that they guide businesses to respect human rights and address their human rights impact, the second part focuses on how businesses should act.  The foundational principle is quite simple:

“Business enterprises should respect human rights.  This means that they should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.”

What does this mean for your business?  In summary, that you must avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts and seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts directly linked to your operations, products or services.  The best way to do this is to put in place solid policies and procedures that are communicated to all employees and taken seriously in their implementation by management. 

Whether your business invests in the mining industry, produces a children’s clothing line, exports tea and coffee or is a law firm, it is imperative that you undertake full due diligence on your human rights compliance and impact as part of your broader risk management systems.  If you think that this is not relevant to you, then please, think again.  This is not only about who you hire on your production lines in your manufacturing plant, but your non-discriminatory hiring policies in your head office.  Your equal pay policies and your zero tolerance for any form of racial, religious or sexual discrimination.

We have extensive experience in assisting companies to prepare and implement their internal policies regarding human rights and corporate social responsibility, together with undertaking reviews and analysis of their operational impacts by both qualitative and quantitative indicators.

Small steps can move mountains wherever you are. Be a part of the movement to ensure that the right to be human applies to all.