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Human Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility (2009)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Human Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility

Speech by Graeme Innes AM
Human Rights
Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner

At ‘Everyday People, Everyday Rights' Human Rights

Hosted by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights

16 March 2009


I'd like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we're
meeting on, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respect to
their elders past and present. 

I'd also like to thank the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights
Commission for inviting me to speak.


I've been asked to talk about human rights and corporate social
responsibility, specifically, 'how to make it work.'

Well, I'm afraid I can't offer you a silver bullet. But I can share a few
insights from our work at the Australian Human Rights Commission. I would like
to tell you a personal story about talking to companies about human rights. And
I would like to offer a few ideas about how the Australian human rights
community might better connect with the Australian business community in the

What are we doing on business and human rights at the Australian Human
Rights Commission?

First, a bit of background about the Commission's history of working with

Throughout our 22 year history we have conciliated complaints about
discrimination and other human rights abuses from the public. More recently
we've developed best practice guidelines for employers called "Good Practice,
Good Business" which cover areas like non-discriminatory recruitment processes,
creating a discrimination and harassment-free work environment, and so on.

We have also done a lot of work on paid maternity leave and work/life
balance. We’ve developed principles to guide mining companies engaging in
resource development on Indigenous land. We’ve worked with banks to ensure
their services are accessible to people with vision impairment. And we’ve
scrutinised the practices of companies running Australia’s immigration
detention centres.
So, working to improve the human rights practices of
companies is something we have always done. But, until now, we've taken a rather
piecemeal approach. Either we've focused on distinct human rights topics, or
we've focused on companies with specific responsibilities.

More recently, we decided to take a more holistic approach to business and
human rights. In our new strategic plan we commit to 'motivating big business to
incorporate human rights into their everyday business practice' and we have set
ourselves the rather ambitious goal of being seen as the primary Australian
human rights resource by at least fifty percent of the top 100 Australian

So, I thought I would share some of the steps we are taking to try to achieve
this goal and some of the things we have learned so far.

What are Australian companies currently doing in terms of human

Our first step was to find out what big Australian companies are already
doing on human rights.

We started by reviewing the websites and annual reports of the top 100
Australian companies. We found that virtually all of those companies had a
corporate responsibility program, but almost none had a comprehensive approach
to incorporating human rights into their business practices.

Most of the corporate responsibility programs covered issues like:

  • Environment and climate change.
  • Workplace issues such as anti-discrimination, occupational health and
    safety, and labour rights.
  • Community engagement and charitable giving.
  • And, Indigenous employment and training initiatives.

Some of these areas are, of course, easily recognisable as human
rights. But in general, we found that only a small number of Australian
companies explicitly talk about human rights as part of their corporate
responsibility program, and fewer still have a stand alone human rights policy.

The companies that do explicitly mention human rights tend to refer to the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights or a few specific labour rights principles
like freedom of association. But it’s unclear whether they really
understand what it means to say that ‘we comply with the Universal
Declaration'. It’s also unclear what they are doing to ensure compliance,
since very few of them go into any detail or publicly report against human
rights criteria.

So, having found that only a small number of Australian companies explicitly
include human rights in their corporate responsibility programs, our next step
was to meet informally with people at some of the companies that do.

We learned a lot from those discussions. Many of the people we spoke to told
us that most Australian companies don't understand how human rights are relevant
to them, beyond what is required by domestic law. And, even in big Australian
companies, where there is an interest in human rights issues and a will to take
action, people don't necessarily know how to go about it.

So it became clear to us that more work needs to be done in Australia to:

  • educate the corporate sector on how human rights are relevant
  • translate human rights principles into a language they can relate to,
  • integrate human rights considerations into everyday business practices.

How can we help educate Australian companies about their human
rights responsibilities?

Let’s start with education. The human rights community needs to do more
to explain how human rights are relevant to business. To start with, there are
four key messages we need to be spreading.

The first is that Australian companies have a distinct responsibility to
respect human rights. This responsibility to respect human rights (as opposed to
a government's responsibility to protect human rights) was recognised by the
United Nations Human Rights Council last year, based on the work of John Ruggie,
the UN Special Representative on business and human rights.

The second message is that complying with local laws is not always the same
thing as complying with human rights. Many local laws in Australia and other
countries fall short of international human rights standards - but many
businesses don't know this. We have to explain that respecting human rights
often means going beyond what domestic law requires. And we have to help
business identify what those steps are.

The third message is that human rights are relevant for all Australian
companies - not just the more obvious examples like big mining companies.

The fourth message is that human rights can’t be segmented off to
corporate responsibility teams or human resources staff. Human rights should
become part of the whole business practice. This means we also need to be
influencing CEOs, managing directors and corporate boards.

How can we help translate human rights for the corporate sector?

If we’re going to have any success in conveying these messages, we need
to start translating human rights principles into 'business-speak'.

Our conversations revealed that many in the corporate sector are not at all
comfortable with the language of human rights. At best, they find it unfamiliar
ground. At worst, they have an automatic negative response.

I must say I have some empathy for a business person's automatic negative
reaction to hearing human rights language, because, at first, I had a similar
reaction to hearing their business language.

When we were talking to corporate responsibility practitioners about how they
make the case to their colleagues, we kept on hearing words like 'mitigating
business risk' and 'creating business opportunities'.

I initially recoiled at the idea of human rights being reduced to these cold
business concepts. But then I began to understand that the reaction I was having
to this business language was probably similar to the reaction business people
were having to our human rights language.

So, the challenge for us is to try harder to get into the minds of those
people who have to run a business, and find ways to match our language and
priorities with theirs.

We need to maintain the integrity of human rights principles, while promoting
them in a way that makes sense to people trying to run a business. We have to
help them identify the potential risks a company might be exposed to if it fails
to take appropriate steps to prevent and address human rights issues. And we
have to help them identify the long term benefits and opportunities that can be
created. In the current economic climate, addressing these factors will be

One way to start this translation process is to provide concrete examples of
the human rights issues relevant to a particular company or industry, and to
illustrate how those rights can be impacted by their business activities.

Let me give you just one example of how I helped a big bank see how human
rights are relevant to their business.

I was due to meet with a group of bank CEOs in Melbourne, and to the
consternation of my colleague, deliberately arrived ten to fifteen minutes late.
I opened the meeting by apologising profusely for our tardiness, but explaining
that it was due to my need to visit a bank branch, and wait in a queue, because
the bank’s ATMs were not audio-enabled so that I could use them. I smiled,
and promised - as penance for holding them up - not to lodge a discrimination

How can Australian companies integrate human rights into their business

Probably the most important point that came out of our discussions with the
corporate sector was that Australian companies need practical tools to help them
integrate human rights considerations into their everyday business practices.
There’s a huge amount of information out there, but even well-intentioned
companies are not always sure where to start.

So we’ve started by developing four short factsheets for Australian
companies outlining some basic steps they should take to incorporate human
rights, and links to practical tools they can use.

The factsheets draw on the framework set out by the UN Special
Representative, which describes the corporate responsibility to respect human
rights as a matter of due diligence. What each company needs to do as part of
its due diligence process will vary depending on the type of business and where
it operates. But at a minimum, we suggest five core steps.

  1. Companies should assess the human rights impacts of their operations on all
    people connected to the company’s business activities - for example
    workers, business partners, suppliers, contractors, trade unions, local
    communities and customers.
  2. Companies should adopt and implement a human rights policy that applies
    throughout the company and their supply chain.
  3. Companies should ensure compliance with all local laws and adopt codes of
    practice relevant to the human rights impacts of their business and supply
  4. Companies should implement a credible and transparent system of internal and
    independent monitoring and reporting of their human rights policy, its
    implementation and its impacts.
  5. Companies should develop partnerships with other companies, NGOs, community
    groups, unions, indigenous and other local communities and government to ensure
    respect for those human rights impacted by the company’s business
    operations and to establish appropriate systems to address grievances.


So, back to the original question - when it comes to corporate social
responsibility and human rights, how do we make it work?

As I said at the beginning, there are no simple solutions. What is clear is
that there is no shortage of work to be done.

In about a month we’ll be publishing our factsheets. This will
hopefully be a good reference point for Australian business, and for human
rights organisations thinking of engaging with business. There’s a flyer
at the registration table about signing up to our email list to find out when
the factsheets are released - otherwise keep an eye out on our website.

The human rights world is still a relatively new and unfamiliar place for the
Australian corporate sector. Equally, I suspect that the business world is a
pretty unfamiliar place for many human rights advocates.

From my perspective, our challenge is to find ways to merge these two worlds
- to develop practical methods of integrating human rights principles into
everyday business practices. This will require a collective effort over time,
but I'm confident we can all work together to contribute towards better human
rights performance by Australian companies.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.

See Also