Human Rights

Human Rights has become central to the corporate social responsibility agenda. This is partly driven by the debate about whether globalisation is detrimental or beneficial for developing countries. It is also partly driven by concern about whether corporate behaviour is reinforcing or undermining human rights.

A number of campaigns focusing on corporate behaviour, initially in South Africa, and more recently in Burma, China and elsewhere, has placed the spotlight on particular countries where human rights are seen as most at risk (whilst not detracting from the fact that violations of human rights occur in all countries).

While governments have primary responsibility to promote and protect human rights, corporations and other organs of society also have responsibilities. Companies have direct responsibility for their own operations, for example ensuring that their labour rights policies are implemented globally. However, companies are increasingly being assessed on their wider impact on fundamental human rights in their operations in countries where oppressive regimes, weak governance and conflict hold sway.

Investors have traditionally boycotted certain countries, but increasingly it is argued that countries need investment to achieve social and economic rights. Increasingly, it is what the company does in a country that is of interest.

The quality of working conditions and the use of child labour in global supply chains is a high profile issue.

An ever growing number of products are being assembled or processed in many different countries. More attention is now being paid to the working conditions prevalent in developing countries and/or those with poor human rights records. These countries are less able, due to factors including lack of resources, to ensure that basic minimum standards are maintained in all workplaces. Companies therefore arguably have an even greater responsibility to ensure that their staff do not work in unsafe environments and that children are not being employed.

Assessing a company’s performance on human rights issues is not always straightforward.

It can be possible to avoid investing in companies that:

  • operate in countries with oppressive regimes or specific countries – such as Burma or China
  • operate in such countries but have insufficient human rights policies and systems
  • have been the subject of allegations of breaches of human rights principles
  • have been the subject of allegations of breaches of international labour standards

It may also be possible to engage with companies on human rights issues, or adopt a best in class approach to the issue – investing in companies with the best record on human rights issues.

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