When John Ruggie spoke at last month’s UN Forum on Business and Human Rights
, he emphasized that “for business to maximize its contribution to sustainable development, it must put efforts to advance respect for human rights at the heart of the people part of sustainable development.” These remarks from the former UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights come at a time when many companies are re-thinking their way of approaching responsible business inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals
This approach begins with taking stock of the dual realities of our world in 2016. First is the fact that business is recognizing, with greater clarity, its vital role in upholding human rights. Second is the grim truth that attacks on human rights defenders and civil society are on the rise. A growing and global human rights crisis is emerging, in tandem with—and to some extent intertwined with—the escalation of the refugee crisis, xenophobia and the growing wealth gap.
As we reflect on Human Rights Day
, these dual realities crystallize a calling: our world urgently needs business as a voice and a leader on the advancement of human rights—a voice that will both highlight the dangers of a closing civil society space and safeguard those who defend human rights worldwide.
The United Nations Global Compact
has long affirmed—and stood with others who also maintain—that a flourishing society and economy fundamentally require respect for human rights under the rule of law. In short, business cannot thrive in societies that fail.
Moreover, as many companies recognize, any threat to human rights defenders or civil society organizations is also a threat to business. The private sector often relies on these actors to identify and assess the human rights impacts of their operations, such as by connecting business to the communities in which they operate and helping to ground their strategies in the local reality.
Over the past 15 years at the UN Global Compact, we have seen how human rights and robust public-private partnerships matter to the bottom line of business, and there are a number of ways that responsible businesses are taking steps to respect human rights. These include:
Ensuring their business activities are not interfering with the ability of civil society organizations and human rights defenders to operate.
Participating in responsible lobbying efforts to governments to ensure an open civil society space.
Speaking out when governments do not respect or are infringing upon human rights.
Striving to adhere to international human rights standards when operating in countries where rule of law is weak or there are governance gaps.
While businesses can make important progress in supporting and advancing human rights, it’s not on the shoulders of business alone. Respecting human rights is an ongoing challenge that requires creative solutions and collaboration from multi-stakeholder partnerships.
As the global community works towards achieving the SDGs, we are reminded that an active, open civil society is at the very foundation of progress.
World events of 2016 call for unprecedented leadership from all sectors on the protection of human rights. Today, we urge companies everywhere to respond to our call: to lead and partner with the UN and civil society to foster a more just and more prosperous world for all.