iOS app Android app More

Michael Shtender-Auerbach

Michael Shtender-Auerbach

Posted: December 10, 2008 06:00 PM

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

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.

Follow Michael Shtender-Auerbach on Twitter: