The business of human rights

The debate about whether or not Vodafone should have allowed the Egyptian government to take over its mobile network because of fears of human rights abuses, shows just how complex these issues have become. The revolution sweeping the Arab world is also prompting a new debate about what companies are doing working in countries with poor human rights records in the first place.

We see an increasing need for companies to focus on human rights in their business operations in emerging markets. 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 other 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 a ethical human rights policy and those paying lip service to this need to rise to the challenge. Where companies choose to operate in environments with poor human rights records, there is a clear obligation to go beyond passive respect of human rights and to move towards active support for human rights.