Birthdays are a great time for reflection. This week, as the international human rights system turns 70, is a good time to look back on what it has achieved, especially as it relates to business.

This week, as the international human rights system turns 70, is a good time to look back on what it has achieved, especially as it relates to business.

The first thing to acknowledge, and the most often forgotten, is that the human rights system is a major achievement. When the world emerged from World War II, a common set of values, and the institutions to implement them, were far from inevitable. The world had just seen 60 million deaths and was divided by two economic systems and political ideologies, each with missiles pointed at the other. All those actors coming together required dozens of visionary leaders and thousands of individuals to put aside their national interests and work toward a better world. That’s a rare thing, and one that is worth celebrating on its own.

The second achievement of the international community was what happened next. We now have more than 100 international instruments that define and elaborate human rights from freedom of expression to non-discrimination. This, too, is often overlooked. Autocrats who say it’s impossible to deliver basic schooling to all of their citizens, or despots who claim that jailing their political opponents is justified, speak in contradiction of an entire field of law and practice.

From legal jurisprudence to international monitoring to UN investigations, today we have dozens of vehicles to bring human rights abuses into the light and define, precisely, why they breach international norms. All of this comes not only because the foundation stone of the international human rights system was laid down on December 10, 1948, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also because it’s been steadily expanded ever since.

But one of the greatest achievements took place within our lifetimes, in June 2011. This was the UN Human Rights Council’s unanimous adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights—the first time the human rights regime, originally designed for states, was authoritatively applied to businesses.

This offered benefits for all actors. For states and citizens, it gave them a framework for holding companies to account, using the same principles that civil society was already conversant with in applying to states. For businesses, too, the human rights regime gave them clarity, a defined set of obligations at a level above legal regulation and activist demands. The human rights regime defined, finally, the ‘S’ in CSR and the ‘people’ in the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. The clarity of the UN Guiding Principles, along with their unanimous backing by actors from the Nigerian government to Amnesty International to Coca-Cola, finally offered a framework that was as international and powerful as the private-sector actors applying it. 

I should also mention, rather selfishly, that this framework also came to underpin BSR’s work. Broad principles and international agencies operate at a speed and altitude that isn’t ready-made for companies. BSR takes those principles and translates them to the day-to-day. For example, we’re currently working with companies to mitigate the knock-on effects of poor labor practices in the supply chain, set up grievance mechanisms in Papua New Guinea, and develop a platform for technology to act as a vehicle for securing human rights.

But no birthday would be complete without a few thoughts on what we have yet to achieve. The human rights system is defined by its shortcomings as much as its successes.

Like anyone else in this field, I could bore you for days with my nitpicks about the human rights system. You’ve heard (or read) most of them before: It’s not binding, it’s slow, the coffee at the conferences is terrible. All that is nothing new.

So here, I want to talk about a shortcoming that doesn’t come up as often, but that I can’t stop thinking about—the difficulty of the international system to deal with systemic human rights abuses.

Companies need to think about their roles in larger economic systems, whether it’s how they promote an inclusive economy or how they contribute to climate change. In this sense, human rights is sometimes too narrow for business. We’ve got to look at the wider ecosystem of laws, society, and structures around the company to fully address its human rights impacts. BSR is currently building out our ecosystems approach to human rights in collaboration with our member companies.

Ultimately, human rights standards are always behind societal ethics. Child labor, for example, first got attention in the industrial revolution, but it took decades to be codified into domestic laws, then a decade or two more before it was enshrined at the international level. We’re seeing this same trajectory with living wage policies and data privacy right now: Information about their social impacts is clear, but it will take years of mobilization before they are effectively settled as law.

Companies, on the bright side, can move faster. While it’s important to use human rights as the basis of action, they can also extend their vision closer to the horizon, to issues where the impacts are clear, but the law is still evolving.

I don’t think we have even started to feel the full effect of the human rights regime on businesses. Governments are regulating more. Civil society groups are demanding and educating more. Investors are asking more questions. And indeed, more C-suite discussions on human rights are taking place than ever before. But no matter how revolutionary this moment feels, we’re still at the beginning.

But no matter how revolutionary this moment feels, we’re still at the beginning.

I think that’s a pretty good attitude to have on your birthday.