Panel – Business and Human Rights: Recent Developments and Future Trends

By Alexandra Kua

At a recent panel discussion on business and human rights – presented by the Human Rights Law Centre and Oxfam Australia at the Wheeler Centre Performance Space on 4 April 2012 – the complex topic of how business affects human rights was addressed.

Human rights in business essentially encompasses the people impacted by a business.

The forum started off with a broad discussion of human rights in the business sector before going into more detail, which was helpful for those of us who were not well informed. Issues of how government regulation and voluntary guidelines are trying to tackle the problems in this area were covered, as was the relationship of the individual to these problems.

Chris Jochnick – Director of the Private Sector Department at Oxfam America, Coordinator of the Private Sector Team of Oxfam International and Senior Fellow at Melbourne Law School – was asked to define what human rights in business encompassed. His response was that it was essentially the people impacted by a business. Jochnick used the phrase “spheres of influence”, which indicates the different groups of people a business affects.

… bigger companies have bigger revenue to invest in human rights implementation.

Interestingly, this sphere encompasses not only the business’ workers and consumers, but also the workers and consumers of other businesses that the business deals with. For example, Business A promises to uphold human rights standards and thus has fair pay and gives sick leave holidays etc. However, the same company buys products from a producer (Business B) that is known for using sweat shops. Although Business A does not actively become a sweat shop, they are encouraging the use and creation of sweat shops in Business B and thus affect the workers in Business B.

To address such problems, Professor John Ruggie – acting as a Special Representative for the United Nations – created the Guiding Principles on Human Rights for Businesses. The UN subsequently endorsed the Principles in June 2011. Vanessa Zimmerman – Senior Advisor (Human Rights) with Rio Tinto and Former Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on Business and Human Rights – emphasised these voluntary guidelines, which businesses can use to monitor their human rights implementation.

First companies must “know” that there are human rights problems in their businesses.

Rachel Nicolson – Senior Associate in the Corporate Responsibility Group at Allens Arthur

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