Human Rights are inalienable and indivisible!

I was happy to present my views on Business and Human Rights and corporate governance to Professor Marina Curran’s Masters Class on “Business Responsibility and Sustainability” this week.

For me it was important to tell students about the current debate on the importance of Human Rights to Business and in the Education of Business students – Financial Times: Human Rights should be on the MBA curriculum. This knowledge and understanding is so relevant and important for their future careers!

Business and Human Rights & Corporate Social Responsibility

Before launching into this deep and complex discussion I asked the students what they thought the relationship between Corporate Social Responsibility and Business and Human Rights is. In fact I wondered if they had ever heard of the Business and Human Rights movement at all?

Different students offered their explanation of CSR, about its meaning and definition. As usual, everyone present seems to have a different vision of what this is all about. For many of the students present, the discussion about Business and Human Rights is a new one, although I know Professor Curran has already spent time talking about Human Rights in her course.

To ensure more understanding of the importance of this issue, we discussed International Human Rights its origins and conventions – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Conventions on Civil and Political Rights and Social, Economic and Cultural Rights were, obviously, looked into in some detail.

These are legal Conventions, which have been signed and ratified by most governments in the world, are a part of the international legal system. The International Labour Organization’s  core conventions on the rights of workers were highlighted  as the importance of all these rights to companies and to business should not be overlooked.

Human Rights are inalienable and indivisible

I explained to these business students that Human Rights are inalienable and indivisible and every human being is born with their own human rights. These rights must be respected by everyone – and everyone means states and business too!  CSR, on the other hand, may be a more top down corporate decision based on a company’s strategy.  This, for me, is the difference between these two concepts.

1st April, 2014 – As I write a conference, organized by the John Hopkins School of International Studies in Washington, is taking place. The question as to whether “Business and Human Rights is the next step for Corporate Social Responsibility” is  under discussion. My personal opinion – Business and Human Rights must be the first step, not the next step!

Governments must comply with their legal obligations as far as the protection of all Human Rights is concerned and companies must respect human rights.

Amnesty International – Business and Human Rights groups

As a person who has been part of the Swiss Amnesty Business and Human Rights group since 2005, I thought it necessary to give the students some examples of the complexity and risk they will encounter as future business people in this fast-moving, globalized world.

Shell’s problems in Nigeria and the story of Ken Saro Wiwa helped me illustrate this point.  I could also have talked about Union Carbide in Bhopal, Chevron and Total in Burma, Nike, BP, Transfigura, the Rana Plaza disaster, all the problems companies face every day – the list is long. The need for courses teaching human rights to business students is today’s business reality, make no mistake about it.

The founding in 1991 of the UK Amnesty International Business Group in Londonwith Sir Geoffrey Chandler, a former senior executive with Shell was a very important moment in time.  Sir Geoffrey wished to work in tandem with companies to improve their performance in areas such as supply chain ethics and human rights.  The work of Amnesty Business and Human Rights group continues on today, and it is work which is increasingly important in a complex, globalized world.

International and National law and governance

International law and its application to governments; multinational corporations whose size and supply chains compete with governments in terms of revenue; national law and its limits, I touched upon all these issues in my presentation.

The former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s called on  business to sign up to the Global Compact and its 10 principles (UNGC) in an address to The World Economic Forum in January 31, 1999. The two principles which apply to specifically Human Rights and Business were examined. “Businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights”and business must “make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses.”  – very interesting….

John Ruggie’s  appointment as  the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights in 2005,  and his mandate and perspective which led to the UN Guiding Principles the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework  need to be understood  as this is the way the world is moving.

The purpose of Corporations and the necessity for more reporting Transparency

The discussion ended all too soon, and we wondered what corporations are all about.  Have a look at this interesting piece by Filip Gregor “Paradigm Shift: It’s time to speak about the Purpose of the Corporation” – corporate law may be on the move!

Apparently, many law professors do not believe corporations are owned by shareholders! Read the article……


Mary Mayenfisch-Tobin, BCL, LL.M, Solicitor


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