Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
30 November 2017
I'm very glad to be here today, because I feel strongly that human rights concerns – and how to address them – should be better integrated into business school educations. You appear to be a delightful group of people, and I hope you don't mind me saying that I look on you as a potential force multiplier.
My hope is that if I can persuade you of the relevance and urgency of my messages, you will take them with you in your careers across the world – and not only put them into practise yourselves, but also demonstrate to others that it is possible, and beneficial, to do so.
Because putting human rights into practise is very do-able – for businesses and States. And it can indeed be of great benefit, for both negative and positive reasons.
I'll go negative first: respecting human rights will avert massive risks to your company's reputation and bottom line. We all operate in a digital universe now – so even the most remote parts of your supply chains will be much more transparent, and social media is liable to relay intense flashes of public outrage at any abuses by you or your suppliers.
You're a clothing company. Are people making your t-shirts in squalid and dangerous conditions for little pay so that your supplier can deliver the lowest possible bid? You sell frozen fish products, or luxury watches: is there slavery on those fishing boats, or in those gold mines? Are people being driven off their ancestral lands, or cut off from access to water, because you or your suppliers want to exploit those resources? Are your operations damaging the environment? Are your products, in other words, harming people? That harm caused to others may also hurt you.
On the other hand, are you upholding human rights in relation to your suppliers and the societies where you work? Contributing to social, economic and political justice in the communities where you operate will lead to much more sustainable profits, long-term. The only really stable societies are those in which people enjoy lives that satisfy their need for dignity and freedom, and stability is good for business. In other words, standing up for better values – by cleaning up your own operations and supply chains – can mean a better valuation for your company.
Third point: a human rights- positive corporate culture can bring tremendous ancillary benefits in-house. When your employees feel they can truly have a positive impact on the world, you be able to attract more and better recruits, and retain them. That's a big long-term win.
So how are you going to incorporate human rights into your business careers? First let me make clear that this is distinct from CSR or other philanthropic activities. Companies can and do choose to sponsor scholarships for children from poor neighbourhoods, or build health-care clinics, and these can be very valuable and commendable projects. But they don't override the responsibility to keep all operations and supply chains free from involvement with human rights abuse.
The main principle is really very simple: avoid harm. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, stipulate the responsibility of all businesses to identify, prevent and mitigate human rights risks throughout their operations, even where the relevant Governments are unable or unwilling to enforce human rights protection. All companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, at all times and in all contexts.
My Office and the relevant UN expert mechanisms engage extensively with businesses to enhance their understanding of this responsibility and aid in implementation. And thanks to the work of Professor Baumann-Pauly, and other noted experts, you have the opportunity to explore the operational implications of this more deeply – and apply it effectively in your careers, wherever they take you.