December 12, 2019 The Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire

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Does Human Rights Language Matter?

Talking openly about human rights may make even well meaning executives uncomfortable. But that’s why we have to do it.


By Joanne Bauer

Does human rights language matter? This question comes up with alarming regularity in discussions of business and human rights. Yes, we now have the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which set out standards for corporate conduct with respect to human rights and delineate government duties to ensure corporate accountability for violations. 

But, the argument goes, in many situations human rights are considered sensitive, and invoking them can shut down the conversation and impede progress on finding collaborative solutions to ensuring business respects rights. Besides, everyone knows we are talking about the same thing.

But, if that is so, then why the sensitivity in the first place? 


Since I started teaching business and human rights to Columbia University graduate and undergraduate students six years ago, one of the things I feel I have to get straight in the first class is this: CSR, as commonly construed, is not business and human rights (BHR). There’s a distinction, and that distinction matters.   

CSR is a term that, for better or worse, is whatever a business wants it to be: a top-down approach in bangladesh factory collapsewhich business decides what social issues it chooses to address. BHR, on the other hand, is a bottom-up approach that starts with a thorough understanding of corporate human rights impacts, which the company is required to understand and address. 

Christine Bader had it right when she wrote recently about the tragedy of the Rana Plaza factory building collapse in Bangladesh:

Part of the problem is that some companies think CSR is sending employees out in matching T-shirts to paint a wall or writing cheques to museums. That stuff is nice, but it's not saving any lives. CSR is about a company owning its impacts on individuals and communities.

In 2011, the European Commission came to the same conclusion, branding “the responsibility of enterprises for their impacts on society’” as “a modern understanding of corporate social responsibility”.

Civil Society Knows The Difference

This distinction is a no brainer to many civil society groups on the ground. During a recent trip to Cambodia, I saw first-hand the impressive work that local groups are doing to raise concerns about corporate impacts particularly in relation to the epidemic of land grabbing there, and the consequent displacement, aggravated poverty, denial of right to education, physical and mental health impacts, and violations of worker rights.   

When talking to a group of NGOs there I made the point about the importance of understanding CSR as being centrally about human rights. It seems I was singing an old song – unlike many colleagues back in New York, this group was keenly aware of the importance of human rights language in keeping the conversation trained on mitigating harms that undermine fundamental human dignity.

Manipulation of Human Rights By the Politically Powerful

It is common to hear the argument about the necessity of avoiding human rights language when we discuss China. China is indeed a tricky case, but only with respect to NGOs, which need to tread carefully in order to avoid scrutiny by Chinese officials. They do their work advocating for protections Universal Declaration of Human Rightsfrom corporate polluters and land grabbers by taking the politically safe route of operating under the moniker of a “green organization.” 

It is a calculation of survival, not all that different from the calculation African civil society groups made in the 1990s when they shunned human rights language because the international human rights movement was not responsive to their needs. In both cases, the reaction is a response to the manipulation of human rights by the politically powerful.  

So, why all the wariness about human rights language among those who profess to support the UN Guiding Principles?

While it may be advisable to tread carefully with Chinese NGOs to protect them from government persecution, those same sensitivities need not apply to Chinese business leaders and government officials. After all, the Chinese government endorsed the UN Guiding Principles – and with it the language of human rights around business conduct. If nothing else that should be a conversation starter. 

This is not the first time China’s leaders have engaged in – and to a significant degree embraced – the idea of human rights. Over the years, China has acknowledged the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which is not a treaty and cannot be ratified) and signed and ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Conventions on slavery, genocide, child rights women’s rights, and torture. It also signed but has not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights. 

China has been an active participant in the UN Human Rights Commission (now Council) and has human rightspromoted codification of the right to development, the rights of indigenous populations, the rights of persons with disabilities, and the rights of migrant workers, among others. In 1998, China entered into a dialogue with the newly-established Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and in 2000, signed a memorandum of understanding for a program of technical cooperation on issues like human rights education. 

Beyond Semantics: Can we Make a Difference Without Using Human Rights Language?

Does human rights language really shut down the conversation then?

Or are those who advocate avoiding the language for fear of stopping the conversation, in fact, giving in to a fear of too much empowerment from the bottom up? Can we talk about these issues without mentioning human rights – and still achieve the same results?

At times, we may be able to. But to what end? In the long term we are doing a disservice to the movement and to the individuals and communities whose rights have been trampled upon.

What recognition of human rights responsibilities of companies implies, which business and government may not like, is accountability for corporate harms. International human rights law provides a hard legal benchmark against which all companies can be judged and in accordance with they must act, regardless of whether it is convenient, profitable, or improve the company’s reputation.

It is sometimes a difficult conversation to have, but if we are to take the UN Guiding Principles seriously, it is a conversation that we shouldn’t -- and don’t need to -- shy away from.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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