Sixty-four years ago last week, following the horrors of World War II, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since its adoption on 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration has served as the foundation for defining, protecting and advancing human rights. The global human rights agenda marked another milestone in 2011 when the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

As a student of history and political science, December 1948 was front of mind last week as I attended the first UN Forum on Business and Human Rights at the UN headquarters in Geneva. The meeting brought together nearly 1,000 individuals from 85 countries with the purpose of discussing trends and challenges in implementing the Guiding Principles, and to promote dialogue and cooperation on issues linked to business and human rights. If only the authors of the Universal Declaration could have been with us to witness and participate in a broad civil society discussion on the Guiding Principles’ “protect, respect and remedy” framework.

I was honoured to be asked to present at the Forum and participate in a session panel discussion led by University of Zurich Professor Christine Kaufmann on corporate responsibility to respect human rights, as well as share Microsoft’s experience to date in implementing the Guiding Principles.

While Microsoft has a long history of working in cooperation with human rights groups and others in the ICT sector to tackle important human rights issues, the Guiding Principles provided the impetus and framework for the development and issuance in July 2012 of Microsoft’s Global Human Rights Statement.

During my remarks, I pointed out that our Statement reinforces (rather than replaces) our existing policies in areas such as privacy, equality and labour rights, and sets forth four key beliefs to underpin Microsoft’s global strategy and approach to human rights:

  1. Power of Technology: Like most technologies, ICT products can be used for good or ill. Microsoft believes that government, civil society and business have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to apply the power of technology to enable individuals to achieve their full potential in accordance with fundamental human rights.
  2. A Global Approach: Business approaches to human rights should be based on internationally recognized standards, especially the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  3. Engagement: Business can most effectively respect human rights through presence in, rather than absence from, countries that present significant human rights risks.
  4. Good Governance and the Rule of Law: Microsoft believes that businesses respect human rights by modeling and promoting good governance and the rule of law around the world.

As I shared with session participants, the codification of our Statement – while important – is the first stage in our implementation of the Guiding Principles. For example, Principles 17 through 21 outline a corporation’s responsibility to carry out human rights due diligence, and we are currently working with Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) to develop an assessment approach based on our commitments and responsibilities.

Just as Microsoft’s Statement is but a first step in our internal process and discussions, so too was last week’s UN Forum the first step in a global dialogue on implementation of the UN Guiding Principles. The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2013 in Davos will provide a particularly unique opportunity to advance multistakeholder conversations on the Principles. The Forum has demonstrated over the last 42 years its ability to advance discourse and share learnings across all sectors of civil society and I encourage Annual Meeting participants to demonstrate their individual commitment to human rights and pick up in Davos where we left off in Geneva.

Author: Dan Bross is Microsoft’s Senior Director of Corporate Citizenship and leads a team with responsibilities focused on strategic issues management, CSR reporting, stakeholder engagement and strategic partnership management. He has managed Microsoft’s relationship with the World Economic Forum for the past nine years.

Image: Overview of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva REUTERS/Denis Balibouse