Human Rights Day: A Call to Respect Human Dignity

December 10, 2012
  • Faris Natour

    Former Managing Director, Advisory Services, BSR

Faris Natour, Director, Human Rights, BSR

Today is Human Rights Day, and this year there is a lot to celebrate. At last week’s inaugural UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, I was struck by the sheer size of the event—about 1,000 participants—and by the number of companies openly discussing challenges, collaborating on solutions, and engaging in constructive dialogue with stakeholders. Yet, among all the discussions about due diligence, grievance mechanisms, and reporting, it is easy to forget the most important idea behind human rights: the concept of dignity.

First, let’s recap some of the progress we have seen in 2012: The Arab Spring revolutions and slow changes in Myanmar have created important opportunities for more open dialogue and engagement on human rights in these transitional economies. More companies have begun implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopting policies and strategies, conducting impact assessments, and reporting on their performance—many for the first time. A myriad of guidance documents and tools have been published, assisting (and sometimes perhaps confusing) companies that are just getting started. 

At BSR we are also concluding a year of great progress for our human rights services. Consulting projects took us from board rooms in Asia, Europe, North and South America, to aboriginal communities in Northern Canada, parliament in Myanmar, factories in India and Vietnam, and farms in Kenya. We launched the BSR Human Rights Working Group, where 24 companies from eight sectors and six countries collaborate on human rights management challenges.

Yet, we have also seen many grave reminders that human rights impacts involving business remain a significant challenge. Among them were the deaths of 34 mine workers in South Africa on a violent crackdown during a strike. More than 400 workers were killed in garment factory fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan. “These people are dead but their voices must be heard at this important forum,” said Ms. Debbie Stothard, Deputy Secretary-General of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), addressing the UN Forum last week.

These incidents underscore the importance of basing a human rights management system on the concept of dignity, as articulated in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.The ultimate goal—the moral imperative we often speak about when describing business responsibilities for human rights—is to treat all human beings with respect and dignity. It sounds like common sense, but too often we assume that all aspects of business operations are guided by this approach without assuring that they really are.

Going back to this basic concept is critical for businesses working to ensure respect for human rights in all operations. Factory managers who see workers not as replaceable commodities but as dignified human beings will be more likely to comply with health and safety standards. Community engagement built on mutual respect and the belief in dignity for all human beings will lead to successful company-community relationships even in difficult operating environments. 

It goes without saying that a human rights approach based on the concept of dignity will also bring business benefits—from reduced operational risks to improved reputation and engaged employees. So as we reflect on what we’ve accomplished this year and what we still need to do in 2013 and beyond, let’s take a moment to step back from all the policies, processes, tools, and frameworks and reflect on what our work is all about: the dignity of all human beings.

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