Understanding Business and Human Rights

Aligning business and social imperatives is increasingly important in the ways multinational firms do business today. Christine Bader, Advisor to the UN Secretary‐General’s Special Representative on business and human rights, shares how business and human rights intersect and the role that we as young professionals will play in this ongoing debate.


AB: What kind of responsibility do business school candidates and young professionals working in the corporate sector have in learning about how business and human rights issues intersect?

Christine Bader: You have ALL of the responsibility. None of the people who got us into the mess we’re in today ‐‐ systemic failures, extreme deregulation, little self‐regulation, lack of communication with civil society, all resulting in real harm to people and planet ‐‐ are capable of getting us out of it. Even if they were, it will take years if not generations, by which time you’ll be running the world. You must ask more questions ‐‐ of your peers, your professors, your bosses, your recruiters. How should business accurately assess risk ‐‐ not just to short‐term returns, but to society? What real‐world ethical dilemmas will you face in your careers, and what frameworks are you going to use to solve them? What will you do if you’re the only one in your organization asking difficult questions and pointing out potential problems?


AB: Our alumni base seeks to impact their communities through business leadership. How can this debate eventually affect the impact they seek to have?

CB: There will be increasing pressure from all directions on companies to know and show that they are not infringing on the human rights of others: Governments will require that companies report on their non‐financial impacts; customers will demand more and better information about where their products come from; and investors and NGOs will require evidence that companies have systems in place to protect communities and the environment.


AB: What has been the most challenging aspect of aligning business and social imperatives?

CB: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was written by states for states ‐‐ it doesn’t say anything about companies explicitly, and certainly doesn’t read like a business manual! But people increasingly use the language of human rights to frame how business has affected their lives. So we need to translate human rights into business language ‐‐ while being careful not to dilute the integrity of the original declarations and the principles that underpin them. None of us ‐‐ whether we work in a company or not ‐‐ want to be associated with human rights abuses. I don’t believe that business and social imperatives are diametrically opposed. If companies treat their workers well, they’ll be more productive and stay with the company longer; if companies pay heed to societal interests, they’ll be able to grow ‐‐ whether that’s through their customer base or making sure that a local community is supportive of their expansion. I used to work for an energy company that worked in very remote areas, where it was clear that community and government opposition could stop our work ‐‐ so business and societal interests were very much aligned. The links between business and human rights, both positive and negative, will only grow stronger, as they have in the 60 years since the UDHR was agreed.


This debate is ongoing!  Want to learn more? Follow Christine Bader on Twitter (@christinebader) and visit business‐humanrights.org.


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