Business and Human Rights

The demonstration outside Vedanta’s annual meeting this week demonstrates that there is an increasing need for companies to focus on human rights in their business operations.

Many multinationals ‘got’ this some time ago and have been working on systematic processes for identifying and eliminating risk areas where there might be direct or indirect abuses of human rights. Others are laggards on this subject, believing that if they keep their own houses in order and do the right thing by their own employees, the job is done.

This is way off being right. Many human rights abuses are happening at the third party level – suppliers, contractors, franchisees and others that work directly on the principal’s behalf and even in their name. There is also a competition issue at stake for those who are making strenuous efforts in overseas markets. In many markets, respect for human rights is little in evidence and poorly monitored. It’s cheaper to do things this way so they have an unfair advantage over ethical competitors.

The UN’s guiding principles are right to emphasise that due diligence is a key element of an ethical human rights policy and those merely paying lip service to this need to rise to the challenge.