Seventy years on, human rights matters more than ever to business

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights*.”

For seven decades this ambitious narrative has spun its way through international discourse, embedded itself in national laws, and echoed through the claims of advocates.

This week marks seventy years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a moment we should celebrate, champion and cherish.

We should celebrate

Human rights have endured as a common endeavour. Human rights help us to understand our failure and measure our success in protecting people. Compelling research indicates our collective security, peace and prosperity is in fact more assured than it was in the middle of the 20th century.

Even so, human rights violations continue and we now expect more of business, increasingly calling for greater accountability for non-financial risks. The fact is we are stronger, more productive and more connected when we care for the most vulnerable.

We should champion their relevance

The continued relevance of human rights, guarding against the temptation to either instrumentalise rights for messaging or overturn them in pursuit of growth and power for some has endured.

Australian businesses are increasingly vocal in their support for human rights – whether it is taking a public stand on the rights of individuals such as during the marriage equality debate; addressing systemic disadvantage in their own operations such as setting leadership gender targets; creating meaningful opportunities with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples such as committing to a Reconciliation Action Plan; or lobbying for regulation to improve transparency over labour standards in their own supply chains. These are but a handful of ways businesses are demonstrating a willingness to lead on human rights.

We should cherish the legacy

The opportunity human rights offer as a framework for a better way of doing business should be embraced. Rights are not an inconvenience. Yes, identifying and assessing risk does take resources, but embedding a lens of risk to people into business decisions and activities is an opportunity to grow sustainably and build public trust.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights matters more than ever as businesses work out what it means to celebrate, champion and cherish human rights in their activities and decisions.

Eleanor Roosevelt, who was instrumental in drafting the Declaration, recognised the role of all – including business – in making human rights real.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

So what does this mean as Australian business approaches 2019?

In late November, members of KPMG’s Global Business and Human Rights Network joined business, investors, government, civil society and academics from around the world in Geneva for the annual United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights. The focus was firmly on moving beyond commitments and policies to exploring emerging practice in human rights due diligence. The action-oriented tenor of the international conversation is timely for Australian businesses coming to terms with a changing domestic business and human rights landscape. It will be about the small places and determining how business activities reach into everyday lives.

In 2018, the Commonwealth and New South Wales legislatures passed modern slavery legislation requiring transparent reporting over the risk of modern slavery in businesses’ operations and supply chains. 2019 will require businesses to prioritise understanding their exposure and to take steps to identify, manage and remediate the risks and impacts of forced labour, trafficking and other related slavery-like practices.

Royal Commissions, both ongoing and announced, are repositioning board accountability for decisions which affect the most vulnerable. Directors would be wise to take stock of how they receive information about actual or potential harm and recalibrate incentives and performance metrics to reward prioritisation of non-financial risk. Responding through meaningful stakeholder engagement – including both listening and offering agency to affected communities –- may feel like ceding control, but it is fundamental to sustained acceptance of any business.

Particular rights continue to have a sustained focus. For example, the Australian Human Rights Commission is conducting a national inquiry on workplace sexual harassment, due to report in 2019. Economic modelling and a legal review are both within the national inquiry’s terms of reference so business should expect further data on the cost of harm and recommendations on regulatory reform. Respectful and safe workplaces must be intentionally created and maintained and there is rapidly no space to ignore this responsibility.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights set a foundation for a shared common standard. The good news for Australian businesses feeling wary of embracing rights is that this is not a brave new world. We are all collectively working out what it means for human rights to be incorporated as business as usual, but every innovation we adopt can stand on the shoulders of seventy years of thinking, action, mistakes and learning. The Preamble to the Declaration acknowledges that freedom, justice and peace are contingent on recognition of human rights. It makes sense for business to strive for operating contexts where there is certainty, rule of law, and a level playing field which discourages competition built on exploitative practices.

Simply put, respecting human rights is a fundamental contribution business can make to their own growth.

*Universal Declaration of Human Rights

By Dr Meg Brodie, Richard Boele and Tina Jelenic
KPMG Banarra, Human Rights & Social Impact Services


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