Business and Human Rights

Should businesses be held accountable for human rights violations? If so, what is the best mechanism for ensuring that they are effectively held to account?

These were some of the interesting questions raised in this week’s class.

The orthodox legal position is that states have an obligation to take positive measures to ensure that there are no violations of rights by non state actors, including corporations. This means that there is no legal obligation on corporations under international law not to violate human rights, the ultimate responsibility is on the states. While this may have been understandable when the IHRL framework was created, as states were the most powerful actors in the global community, there has been a redistribution of power due to globalisation. As this week’s reading made clear, corporations are wielding increasing amounts of power and therefore have an increasing ability to impact upon the human rights of individuals, whether in a negative or positive manner.

Thus it is necessary to examine the existing international framework and determine if it could be improved in order to recognise the changing power dynamics and protect individuals’ human rights. After reading the articles for this week, I would say that despite the numerous challenges, a binding treaty on business and human rights would be incredibly beneficial in making clear the distinct obligations that corporations and states have in relation to human rights. However, this would need to be accompanied by a dramatic cultural change and work at the domestic level.

I think I have greater faith than Jochnick that the Human Rights and human rights approaches can be synergistic. Although he focuses on the institutional architecture of international law as being integral to the Human Rights school, international treaties are also used by civil society and other ‘human rights’ actors as a persuasive tool in their advocacy. Treaties are not solely the domain of the Human Rights approach.

Companies Urged to Publish Workers’ Race and Pay Breakdown

One example of the ‘human rights’ approach that Jochnick advocated for can be seen in the above article. It outlines a campaign to require corporations to publish breakdowns of their workers’ pay and ethnicity in order to target the race pay gap. This is a clear example of a grassroots campaign that seeks to harness transparent information and public opinion to create change.

Interestingly, the article states that if businesses do not take up this measure voluntarily, the group will push for legislation to force them to make this information public. This is an example of societies becoming increasingly open to the idea of placing legal obligations upon corporations in order to combat human rights violations, in this case racial discrimination.

The sentence ‘the report also claimed a more diverse workforce would help boost the economy by £24 billion’ is interesting as it highlights the importance of knowing your audience. Given that this measure is being aimed at corporations, the report is utilising the language of business, economics and profit to motivate companies to sign up to this measure. Framing the debate is something that has been highlighted by several of the guest speakers this semester and is evidently an essential aspect of human rights advocacy. This course has definitely made me more aware of the ways language is varied in different contexts even when advocating for the same issue.

‘Fed up’: Eric Abetz slams big business over latest same-sex marriage push

This article sums up many of the complexities surrounding business and the human rights debate in Australia. The article summaries Eric Abetz’s displeasure with business’  putting political correctness before services, as he puts it.

Furthermore, it throws interesting light on the debate surrounding freedom of speech in Australia. Eric Abetz and the rest of the Coalition are normally staunch defenders of freedom of speech. Much political time and energy was devoted to debating s 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act on the basis that it unfairly hindered Australians ability to exercise their freedom of speech with regards to issues of race. However, Abetz seemingly does not believe that asking business leaders not to contribute to the debate on same sex marriage is restricting their freedom of speech. This view was supported by Peter Dutton, who told business leaders to ‘stick to their knitting’ when it comes to this issue.

However, despite criticism from sections of the Coalition, the article also emphasises one of the roles that businesses can play in debates surrounding human rights. Business leaders can contribute to the debate y publicly stating a position. This makes them an additional stakeholder, and one that government is likely to take notice of for economic reasons. One of the reasons that certain politicians have taken aim at the business leaders’ open letter is almost certainly the fact that they believe that it will be effective in the campaign for SSM.

Although this is not evidence of a formal role or obligation on corporations in the human rights context, it is an example of the ways in which corporations can use their power in society to advocate for human rights.


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