What it means for business

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the greatest achievements of the previous century.

The Universal Declaration and subsequent international human rights treaties are targeted at governments, but there is increasing expectation of business to play a role in promoting and protecting human rights.

In 2003 a draft United Nations report argued that companies “have the obligation to promote, ensure respect of and protect human rights … within their spheres of activity and influence”. The report was not adopted, but it provoked debate.

Subsequent advice by the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights and Business, John Ruggie, emphasises the “gradual extension of liability to companies for international crimes” and increasing business responsibilities as defined by “soft law” and self-regulatory initiatives, such as the Kimberley Process targeted at the trade in conflict diamonds.

Over and above these UN efforts, human rights are the subject of a number of business initiatives, such as the Business Leaders’ Initiative on Human Rights, and NGOs such as Amnesty International have dedicated programmes focused on the role of business in ensuring human rights.
The upcoming Business, Development and Poverty conference, co-hosted by the South African Human Rights Commission, is a prominent part of this movement.

What these initiatives have in common is the premise that human rights are not given sufficient systematic attention in boardrooms and management structures.

In South Africa human rights are especially pertinent to business. Many companies have a prominent role in other African countries, which might have human rights implications. In countries characterised by strife or political unrest, companies run the risk of being seen to be complicit in human rights abuses. This was a lesson learned by AngloGold Ashanti when it had to admit in 2005 that its employees paid members of a militia accused of gross human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

There are two overarching implications of these developments. Firstly, South African companies would do well to understand what human rights means for their business. A recent survey of the top 50 South African listed companies showed that few systematically covered material human rights issues in their policies and management practices, especially outside of the extractives sector. Gaps emerge in areas such as security arrangements and supply chain management—key areas for potential reputation damage.

Secondly, there is a role for the South African government to play—in accordance with its international treaty obligations—in helping companies protect human rights. An interesting development would be a tripartite contact point, along the lines of the National Contact Points that helped implement the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Ralph Hamann works at the Environmental Evaluation Unit at the University of Cape Town and has a PhD

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