Civil Society

Human rights must find a permanent place in the boardroom. Here’s why

On Human Rights Day, we ask, where does business sit?

On Human Rights Day, we ask, where does business sit? Image: Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

John Morrison
Chief Executive Officer, The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB)
Julia Olofsson
Global Director Human Rights and Social Impact, Ingka Group (IKEA)
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Human Rights

  • Today is Human Rights Day, and we ask, where does business sit?
  • Human rights needs to find a permanent place in the boardroom: addressing the economic and social inequalities resulting from flawed business practices.
  • Businesses must also acknowledge legacies of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination and must call for greater supply chain transparency and decent work as crucial to tackle economic inequality.

10 December is Human Rights Day marking 72 years since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, forged amid the destruction and persecution in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Recent decades have ushered in unprecedented levels of development and progress. Yet, the world continues to face growing inequality. At the start of this year, the UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that 70% of the world’s population was facing ever increasing inequality, fueling both anger and desperation.

Within weeks of the announcement, the COVID-19 virus had spread to every corner of the planet. “We are all in this together” reflected Guterres in April 2020. But the virus and the response to it so far has only laid bare deepening divides.

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No further forward in 2020?

Where does business sit in the face of such societal demands? On 10 November 2020 the business and human rights movement commemorated the 25th anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his fellow human rights defenders in Nigeria. Ken’s environmental and social demands to the Nigerian government and major international oil companies were perhaps the start of the movement.

We have made progress since 1995, with milestones such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, modern slavery legislation, emerging mandatory due diligence demands and greater disclosure requirements. The Corporate Human Rights Benchmark has shown year on year improvement across hundreds of companies.

But there are as many laggards as there are leaders. When it comes to remedies for the victims of human rights abuses, arguably we are no further forward in 2020 than we were on the day after Ken’s hanging.

Our message for Human Rights Day 2020 is for human rights to find a permanent place in the boardroom itself.

Our message for Human Rights Day 2020 is for human rights to find a permanent place in the boardroom itself. This means addressing the economic and social inequalities resulting from flawed business practices. Businesses must also acknowledge legacies of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. Movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo ask questions about who holds power within companies and how well the compositions of boardrooms reflect wider society.

In addition, calls for greater supply chain transparency and decent work are crucial in tackling economic inequality. But while this is welcome, it is not enough to overcome inequality on its own. We must ask how greater transparency and diversity can challenge the power structures that are driving increasing inequality both within business and across society itself?

The human rights challenge for 2021

During 2021, we would like to see business asking deeper questions about how it will challenge inequality and respect human rights.

Within business this must include considerations for workers to earn a wage that supports them and their families to afford a decent life. It also means that women are paid the same as men for equal work, fair treatment and have equal opportunities. Workers should have a voice and the right to organize and no one should be forced to buy their own job through recruitment fees.

Executives must lead by example: board remuneration committees must act to narrow the differential between the highest and lowest paid members of staff – from the CEO to the cleaner. Boardrooms must have the right skills and knowledge around the table to allow them to make the right decisions in terms of human as well as business impact; and perhaps one day the two will be seen as the same thing.

Image: Statista

Outside of the company itself, business must proactively engage in wider societal discussions about how to reduce inequality and stand up for human rights. Young people around the world are demanding that as we look to re-build in the post-pandemic world, the focus should be on “restructuring the economy so it deals better with challenges like inequality and climate change,” rather than just “getting our economy back to normal as soon as possible”. Perhaps less "building back" and more "moving forward differently".

The jobs of millions of women, minorities and low-income earners around the world have been put at risk as the pandemic accelerates digitalization and automation. While jobs are central for the transitions ahead, so are new forms of investment, financial equity and informed consent for all communities. The transition must be a “just” one, ensuring respect for fundamental rights, in particular for the most vulnerable and marginalized.

Business advocacy for human rights is welcomed when building on the fundamental respect for human rights and an understanding of its own role in contributing to inequality.

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