Human rights is an integral part of responsible business conduct

Seventy years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, companies now have a responsibility to respect human rights. Christine Kaufmann and Roel Nieuwenkamp look at how companies should integrate this obligation into their company operations.

Human rights, the sometimes forgotten rights that we take for granted as we communicate freely with friends and family on the media of our choice, as we freely decide on our professional career or benefit from the right to equal treatment, did not even exist at the international level 70 years ago. This changed on 10 December 1948 when the UN General Assembly adopted one of its most important Resolutions ever: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In the aftermath of World War II the Universal Declaration was seen as one of the building blocks for the New World Order that Article 1 of the UN Charter calls for and which includes respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion. The UDHR was the first universally agreed document to give all human beings rights against the state based on their human dignity.

Over the past 70 years, we have seen an abundance of new binding human rights treaties at the international level and in domestic laws, which elaborate on states’ obligations to protect human rights. Yet, we have also come to realise that making human rights work on the ground takes more than confirming and issuing new state obligations. In a globalised economy, business affects our lives in many more ways than it did 70 years ago. Just think about the impacts of social media providers on how we obtain information, communicate and express ourselves.


Responsible Business Conduct is the missing link between state obligations and individual rights

Responsible Business Conduct (RBC) is the missing link between state obligations and individual rights. In 2011, the revision of the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises and the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights accomplished for business what the UDHR had done for states in 1948 – companies now have a responsibility to respect human rights in their business operations.

By including RBC in the equation of state obligations and individual human rights ,the international community acknowledges the key role that RBC plays in the transmission of human rights from the state’s obligation to protect to the individual rights-holder.

You may ask how helpful a 70-year-old Declaration can be in addressing current challenges such as digitalisation. The use of artificial intelligence, new technologies such as blockchain or big data raise new questions about responsibility. Clearly, the primary obligation to protect human rights lies with the state. Yet, private actors are developing the new tools we are using.Think about how surveillance or data collection tools can affect our lives; would you have imagined being interviewed by a machine based on an algorithm when applying for a job a couple of years ago? Where do we draw the line to decide what impacts are acceptable and which are not? This is where RBC and the UDHR come into play.


OECD guidance and the responsible business agenda translate human rights responsibilities into due diligence requirements that can be put into action in the real world 

The UDHR and other human rights instruments serve as the compass to evaluate the impacts on human beings as holders of rights. The OECD Guidelines and the responsible business agenda translate human rights responsibilities into due diligence requirements that can be put into action in the real world. They thus provide the indispensable map that allows business to navigate responsibly. In this light, human rights as enshrined in the UDHR and the RBC agenda will also help states ensure the application of human rights when operating in a digital environment and regulating private actors’ activities in the digital space. 

Prof Christine Kaufmann is the incumbent Chair and Prof Roel Nieuwenkamp is the outgoing Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct

References

OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)

UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

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