Human Rights Day: Angelina Jolie Gets It -- Businesses Should Too

12/09/2011 04:24 pm ET | Updated Feb 08, 2012

At the World Economic Forum at Davos a few years ago, Angelina Jolie asked if 'human rights are a matter of charity, or a universal fundamental right?'

Her point was ingenious, and surely intentional, given her work as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency. She expressed shock at the "gross human rights violations... poverty... and distress" she witnessed while visiting camps, yet found some solace in the fact that "good people are doing a lot of nice things for these desperate families."

Then she had an epiphany.

"It was brought to my attention that there is this document, the Declaration of Human Rights, and what it says is that these are not things that nice charities do for poor people. It's the law."

Reality hit and Jolie got it! Human rights are optional when tied to charity, and dependent on the massive goodwill of volunteers that are dedicated enough to affect change.

Clearly the UN didn't think they were optional when they passed the Declaration over a half-century ago. Today, it is one of "the most translated documents in the world" and "has inspired the constitutions of many newly independent States and many new democracies." After all, it marks the first time in the history of the world that representatives from all of its quarters, cultures and legal systems laid out just what those fundamental human rights are, and acknowledged that they need to be universally protected.

Among those fundamentals are concepts we take for granted in the United States: "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Yet Jolie is not quite right when she says the Declaration is law. It is not an official treaty, and is only binding on U.N. member states. But even at that, many governments are listening to it with only one ear, or even ignoring altogether -- a point driven home so saliently by Jolie's haunting comments.

But in one arena -- the business world -- there is an initiative that has spurred immense change, and holds great promise to continue to generate strides in the right direction. It is the Global Compact, a plan also initiated by the UN, certainly in recognition of the reality that business spurs economic growth globally.

Ten years ago, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched the stunningly simple yet straightforward 10-point Compact, which encourages business worldwide to adopt socially responsible and sustainable polices in four areas: human rights, labor, the environment and anti-corruption. Its mere existence reinforces two points: that the Declaration falls short, and business is an essential vehicle to promote and reinforce progress in human rights.

Interestingly, the Compact is voluntary; it brings companies together, under the aegis of the UN, with each other and governments, agencies and NGOs in the countries where they do business. And it expects companies to be self-directed in implementing, monitoring and reporting their initiatives and the impact they have.

In effect, it is the world's largest corporate citizenship effort to catalyze good social responsibility and effect change.

Successful efforts abound in the Anniversary Edition of the UN Global Compact Annual Review.

BH Billiton, an Australian metals and mining company, has implemented human rights training programs in South Africa and South America, delivering instruction to over 11,000 employees and 14,000 contractors. Unilever, the British consumer goods giant, has implemented extensive HIV/AIDs prevention programs in the operations in Africa, where they also run hospitals for their workers in some locations. Infosys, the Indian information technology corporation, has established a Woman Inclusivity Network to promote gender sensitive work environments and a Family Matters Network to promote good parenting. CEMEX, the Mexican construction and materials concern, developed an inclusion policy for workers with disabilities to enhance job opportunities and raise community awareness about social equity issues.

Many other companies also have made well-documented worldwide efforts to improve human rights. The Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis has gone far beyond legal compliance with its commitment to pay competitive and fair wages that exceed sums needed to cover basic living needs. And BHP Billiton has also established an encompassing occupational health and safety program to reduce work-related accidents, with a goal of ensuring zero fatalities.

And at Tetra Pak, we are proud that we are Compact signatories. Our corporate responsibility is mission-driven and has yielded innovative, game-changing human rights practices and environmentally sustainable products. Furthermore, environmental sustainability is top-down and bottom-up, and integrated throughout the company.

But is every company doing enough?

It is one thing to sign the Compact; it is another to make sure you are compliant because the Compact does not have mechanisms in place to monitor fulfillment. Nor does it sanction companies who do not strive to meet the admirable principles it sets forth. More disturbingly, a company doesn't have to demonstrate progress to continue to participate in the Compact. Another acknowledged complaint is that some of the signatories have dubious humanitarian and environmental records that are at odds with the principles set forth by the Compact. That's why it is so important for each company to create transformational goals and work towards them.

The UN's basic premise is right about one big thing: companies can make great headway towards improving human rights. But we have far to go. Last year, the UN Global Compact Annual Review noted, "despite the economic downturn, overall companies have maintained their work" to advance these principals. But they also pointed out that "companies are challenged to move from policy to action across all issues."

Putting the appropriate systems in place is fundamental to protecting human rights. Jolie does indeed understand that we cannot make it an option. It is important for businesses to admit that we must all work harder on goals, governance and results to bring the Compact's compelling principles to life. I am hoping many of us make further progress by the time Human Rights Day rolls around on December 10th next year.