The Business of Human Rights

The Business of Human Rights

On 17 September I attended a public lecture at Macquarie University by Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission. It was an education – not only from the facts I learnt about human rights, but Gillian herself is a lovely woman full of tenacity – a quality I can really appreciate and learn from!

Apologies for poor phone photo

The topic of the lecture was “The Business of Human Rights.” I was immediately drawn to it because you don’t often think of “business” and “human rights” in the same sentence. My curiosity was high, and the lecture did not disappoint!

I wrote down so many notes that it is hard to summarise the lecture, but I’m going to write about the two main points that sparked my interest. All of the below is what I learnt from her talk (this sentence is so that I don’t have to reference a million times!).

1) “Law means very little…if you don’t have community acceptance” – Prof Gillian Triggs

Societal values are very important – they affect the impact and the influence of the law. For example, Prof Gillian Triggs came into the public eye when then-PM Tony Abbott famously dismissed the Commission’s findings that there was child abuse occurring on Australia’s offshore detention centres (even though a government inquiry later agreed with the Commission). Whilst not representative of the entire Australian community, there was a vocal thread that suggested the public simply did not care – and so no laws changed.

However, businesses have long been recognizing the importance of being in-tune with public sentiment and values. So many businesses now have corporate social responsibility committees, so they can give back – and so that the public, customers and shareholders can see them giving back.

Some examples:

  • During the Martin Place siege in December 2014, Uber prices in the CBD quadrupled – and then quickly became free when social media fired up.
  • When human rights’ abuses were unearthed in Qatar, in the lead-up for the 2020 FIFA World Cup, sponsors and sports fans were activated and FIFA very quickly recognised the UN official guidelines for workers’ rights.
  • As opposed to the Australian government, Hesta (a superannuation fund) took the claims of child abuses and human rights abuses in offshore detention centres seriously. They decided that investing in Transgrid, the company that runs the centres, was a significant risk because of possible future litigation cases that could come against the company. They withdrew all their investment for their shareholders and super customers from Transgrid. Other super funds have also blacklisted the company.

2) “There is a momentum for working together with business to change human rights outcomes” – Prof Gillian Triggs

Here is a fact that blew my mind – 51 of the largest economies in the world are transnational corporations!! So only 49 are nation-states! Examples:

  • Microsoft – $62 Billion  |   Croatia – $60 Billion
  • GE – $150 Billion   |   New Zealand – $140 Billion

Prof Triggs’ point was that for the most part, we still believe it is a country’s government that is responsible for fixing human rights issues. Given the enormous size on these TNCs, their wealth and their influence, it is time to start shifting the framework to see how businesses can help uphold human rights.

Additionally, this has created a governance gap – and a few loopholes along the way. For example, Australia has proved that you can be a nation signed up to UN conventions and still be immune from complying with them (if you don’t ratify the policies in your own country). She labelled us as “exceptionalists” in this regard.**

Out of this shift in mindset has come the UN Global Compact. It is a voluntary, not-legally-binding code of conduct, and over 8000 companies have signed up already. In addition, Professor John Ruggie has developed “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.” It suggests 3 steps for businesses:

  1. Adopt a Human Rights Policy
    • This includes for your business AND for your supply chains
  2. Conduct an annual Human Rights Audit
    • This would audit the impact of how the business conduct is affecting Human Rights for its employees, but also the impact on the business financially and in the community.
    • It also says that you should report on the audit – make it transparent.
  3. Ensure your company has a grievance mechanism in place for Human Rights issues.

Unilever was the first company to follow the above. They released the first ever report on their Human Rights audit in February 2015. They were praised for it, but they did face some backlash; being transparent did show they weren’t perfect on the human rights record. It was a brave step to be the first company to do this, but I personally hope it will set a precedent for others to conduct their own audits.

Recognising human rights won’t only help business avoid litigation – it will also provide opportunities. Prof Triggs gave a great example, where if the number of 55+ aged employees increased in Australia by just 5%, $48 billion would be added to the Australian economy!! Phenomenal!! Check out this video for the Commission’s campaign on this point – hilarious and poignant!


Approximately 70% of complaints that the Commission receives about human rights discrimination come from the business environment. This again tells me that we need to shift our framework of how and who we think is responsible for upholding human rights. What do you think of the above points (you can comment below)?

I’m so glad I went to the lecture. If you ever have a chance to hear Prof Gillian Triggs speak, I highly recommend that you go for it!

To learn more about the Australian Human Rights Commission, check out their website.

** Funnily enough, Australia is putting itself forward as a candidate for the UN Human Rights Council! We do however have another peer-to-peer review by that same Council pending in November – I can imagine it will show some “interesting” results.


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