It’s time to have an adult conversation about Human Rights

A revisit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is commonly viewed as an instrument to defend the weak from the powerful. More fundamentally though it is an instrument to defend the powerful from themselves.

Written in the wake of the Second World War, the UN Declaration set out to establish that no government, organisation, nor individual should be able to compromise the basic tenant of a human’s basic rights. In an historical context, this was both important and relevant, but fast forward nearly seven decades and the relevance of human rights can feel increasingly abstract.

Today, for some organisations, it is being viewed as a corporate ‘hygiene factor’; in political circles, human rights can be categorised as a ‘left-leaning’ agenda, rather than an agreed position on the fair treatment of individuals.

In no meaningful way does the concept of human rights stand as a mirror through which those in a position of power reflect on the consequences of their decisions or actions.

And yet in the context of shifting global political dynamics, and an increasing scrutiny on the role and reach of corporate entities, there has never been a better time to reflect on these accountabilities. In large part, the global state of upheaval is being driven by perceptions of inequality and unaccountable power, both political and corporate.

Political power is experiencing the first wave of upheaval, corporate power is likely to experience the second. And while the changeable nature of political interest will allow it to re-assemble behind a new narrative, corporate power has greater structural issues to confront.

Corporate power is more concentrated and enabled than it has ever been, and in a slow growth environment the appetite for consolidation will likely only grow.

Corporations should consider the benefits of revisiting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be able to demonstrate to its wider stakeholders an awareness of its accountabilities and limits.

The alternative is to disregard current public sentiment, to write it off as ‘populism’ and ‘activism’, and wait to see how things turn out. There has been a resurgence of the profoundly flawed notion that profit alone is the only obligation for which any business should be answerable.

Those looking to frame this debate along a pro or anti- business divide are guilty of gross over- simplification. The mainstream rebuke of the establishment has nothing to do with the merits of private enterprise and everything to do with perceptions of unaccountable power.

Suggesting this accountability somehow does not exist in the special case of business is the wrong strategy and will only strengthen calls for wholesale upheaval, likely rallying behind a political momentum seeking a newly engaged electorate.

Continuing the conversation

Human rights are no longer restricted to the realm of state obligations. The top two questions your business should be asking are:

  1. Do you understand your business obligations under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and is this communicated and understood throughout your organisation?
  2. Is your human rights agenda at the centre of your corporate governance, rather than being perceived as a corporate hygiene operation?

If the answer is no, you may wish to consider what your human rights profile and risk look like. Engaging with your corporate governance team to understand the gaps between what your company is saying (through policies, commitments, etc.) and what your company is doing, is a good conversation starter.

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