Protecting human rights in public policy: What role for business?

Author :
Stefania Grottola

The session was organised by BSR and The B Team, and co-moderated by Mr Rajiv Joshi (Managing Director, The B Team) and Ms Margaret Jungk (Managing Director, Human Rights, BSR). The event addressed the role of businesses in the framework of fostering and promoting the respect of human rights. More specifically, the event identified risks and opportunities for companies to improve the protection for human rights, and tried to explore holistic corporate advocacy approaches for the respect of human rights.

Jungk introduced the topic under discussion. For a long time, companies have lobbied governments for business-related interests. The question that the panel tried to address was to create a business lobby for fostering and implementing the protection of human rights, in order words, a lobby for better human rights public policy. Moreover, she underlined that ethical issues and considerations that should be taken into account while addressing the topic.

Mr Steve Crown (Vice-President & Deputy-General Counsel, Microsoft) talked about the role of companies in advancing human rights policy. In order to take on such a role, companies need to be trusted by citizens and customers. Microsoft has started to engage with the public sector for better public trust building, with initiatives such as their engagement in privacy security with the US government, their global initiative for the LGBT community, their Cybersecurity TechAccord, and their initiative on artificial intelligence (AI) and human rights. The representative stressed that Microsoft’s policy for improving customers’ experience keeps in mind the principle of boosting human rights and advocating for the rule of law.

Ms Shelly Heald Han (Director of Civil Society Engagement, Fair Labor Association) stated that companies have a crucial role to play in improving labour conditions; however, there is still a long way to go. Companies are mistaken in thinking that they need to be neutral with regards to government relations: they need to take a stand, and push for better protection of human rights. Moreover, the role of the civil society needs to be reinforced: the goal is to balance the power of civil society and make it comparable to that of businesses.

Ms Paloma Munoz Quick (Quick Director, Investor Alliance for Human Rights, ICCR) argued that corporate respect for human rights creates long term economic benefits. Investors need to identify human rights risks related to their business relationships. Companies need to do whatever it takes to protect human rights; moreover, they have the duty to leverage their power to push governments to create better human rights policy. Companies’ efforts on public policy need to be in line with their guiding principles. A concrete example of this can be seen by some airline companies not accepting to fly immigrant children separated from their parents.

Mr Bennet Freeman (Senior Advisor, BSR) argued that we live in a time of geopolitical disruptions in which companies should advocate for fundamental freedom and respect of civil rights. Nonetheless, there are examples of companies undertaking important actions and pushing better public policies, such as Microsoft and Siemens.

Explore the issues

The impact of the Internet on businesses and the global economy has been crucial in shaping new economic models, and at the same time, raising new concerns.

The Internet is one of the primary drivers of economic growth, which is visible in many countries that have placed the development of ICT as one of the primary tools for boosting the economy.

The human rights basket includes online aspects of freedom of expression, privacy and data protection, rights of people with disabilities and women’s rights online. Yet, other human rights come into place in the realm of digital policy, such as children’s rights, and rights afforded to journalists and the press.

The same rights that people have offline must also be protected online is the underlying principle for human rights on the Internet, and has been firmly established by the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council resolutions.

Consumer trust is one of the main preconditions for the success of e-commerce. E-commerce is still relatively new and consumers are not as confident with it as with real-world shopping. Consumer protection is an important legal method for developing trust in e-commerce.


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