Corporate Responsibility and the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

With its growing impact on socio-economic conditions, business has a role to play in finally bringing the Declaration's principles to their universal realization.
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Today marks the 60th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. At the time this foundational document
was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, the political climate was
a bipolar, strong-state era of post-war rebuilding and diplomacy. The
Declaration was viewed as a compact between governments and their
citizens, as states began to formally recognize their obligation to
protect the human rights of all people subject to their governance.

Sixty years later, we know that about half of the 100 largest economic
entities in the world are corporations, and many of the greatest
challenges to the full realization of universal human rights come not
from governments but from the much larger and less transparent private
sector. The broad-ranging effects of transnational corporations on the
world's labor market, environment, human rights and even states
themselves was already apparent in the aftermath of World War II,
inspiring the famous farewell warning from outgoing U.S. President
Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yet even Eisenhower could not imagine the scale
of corporate power in the 21st century, or the challenges for even the
most committed businesses seeking to respect human and social rights
in hundreds of countries, with as many legal and cultural regimes. As
we mark the anniversary of the Declaration and the laws and doctrines
it has engendered, virtually all governments have yet to realize the
full promises of universal human rights. With its growing impact on
socio-economic conditions, business also has a role to play in finally
bringing these principles to their universal realization.

Today, with the determining factors supported by a landscape of
institutions both public and private, and some combination thereof, UN
Special Representative and longtime human rights scholar and advocate
John Ruggie has articulated the most widely held framework for
understanding the obligations and rights of each player in the legal,
economic and social infrastructure necessary to support a truly
universal realization of human rights. His work distinguishes the
obligations of state and private actors in a sustainable and mutually
reinforcing relationship. In this framework, the state has an
obligation to protect human rights, but industry also has a
constructive obligation to respect those rights, and by extension, to
ensure that its influence does not undermine the state's efforts to
fulfill its protective role. The Ruggie Framework is not simply a
theoretical exercise, it is a solution to enable each of the sectors -
the state, industry and civil society - to observe responsible
principles in their own conduct, without being hindered by the
failures of the others, or undermining the efforts of each sector to
play its role in supporting universal rights for all people.

We are already seeing corporations taking his lead by drafting human
rights codes of conduct and engaging in human rights impact
assessments. According to the Business and Human Rights Resource
Center, 235 companies have adopted human rights codes of conduct. Last
month, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! officially launched the Global
Network Initiative, a voluntary framework for the information and
communication technology (ICT) sector to respect, protect, and advance
human rights in all the countries in which they operate. This
collaboration is the culmination of efforts to secure public
commitments from Internet companies against censoring and divulging
personal information to Chinese authorities, or to others who have not
committed to an international standard of free speech and privacy.
Other industries are following suit - from media to mining -
multi-nationals are realizing that a proactive approach to social
impact and human rights provides a competitive advantage rather than a
cosmetic or branding distinction.

The world's nations should celebrate the longevity of the Declaration
and push forward with renewed commitment to ensure universal
protection of rights. However, regardless of the progress of state
enforcement efforts, private actors now have a positive framework from
which to understand their role in human rights independent of the
national context in which they operate.

Michael Shtender-Auerbach is CEO of Social Risks LLC.

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