Human Rights as an Emerging Priority for SA Companies

Wednesday, 2 April, 2008 - 11:24

By Ralph HamannThis is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the greatest achievements of the previous century.

By Ralph Hamann

This is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the greatest achievements of the previous century. Whereas the Universal Declaration and subsequent international human rights treaties are targeted most explicitly at governments, there are increasing expectations of business to play an important role in promoting and protecting human rights, as well.

A draft United Nations report argued in 2003 that companies “have the obligation to promote, secure the fulfilment of, respect, ensure respect of and protect human rights…within their spheres of activity and influence.” Though the report was not formally adopted by the UN it provoked much debate.

Subsequent advice by the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on human rights and business, John Ruggie, emphasises the “gradual extension of liability to companies for international crimes” and increasing business responsibilities as defined by “soft law” and self-regulatory initiatives, such as the Kimberley Process targeted at the trade in conflict diamonds.

Over and above these UN efforts, human rights are the subject of a number of business initiatives, such as the Business Leaders’ Initiative on Human Rights, and NGOs like Amnesty International have dedicated programmes focused on the role of business. In South Africa, the Human Rights and Business Conference 2008 co-hosted by the South African Human Rights Commission is a prominent part of this movement.

What these initiatives have in common, among other things, is the premise that human rights are not given sufficient, systematic attention in corporate boardrooms and management structures. A second characteristic is the expectation that the human rights framework can provide much-needed integration and coherence for what for many corporate decision-makers is often a bewildering array of social and environmental corporate responsibilities.

In South Africa, human rights are especially pertinent to business. South African companies are implicated in the apartheid legacy, but at the same time they are recognised internationally for innovative approaches to education, health and crime-fighting since 1994.

South African companies are playing an increasingly prominent role in other African countries and this also has important human rights implications. Especially in countries characterised by strife or political unrest, companies run the risk of becoming or being seen to be complicit in human rights abuses. This was the difficult lesson learnt by AngloGold Ashanti when it had to admit that its employees paid members of a militia accused of gross human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in early 2005.

There are two overarching implications of these developments. The first is that most South African companies would do well to better understand what human rights mean for their business. A recent survey of the top 50 South African listed companies showed that relatively few of them systematically covered material human rights issues in their policies and management practices, especially outside of the extractives sector. Particular gaps emerge in areas such as security arrangements and supply chain management - key areas for potential reputation damage.

The second is that there is a role for the South African government to play - in accordance with its international treaty obligations - in helping South African companies protect human rights, here and elsewhere. An interesting development would be a tripartite contact point, along the lines of the National Contact Points that help implement the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Ralph Hamann is based at the Environmental Evaluation Unit at the University of Cape Town.

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