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Corporate Social Responsibility & Human Rights

Corporate Social Responsibility & Human Rights (2008)

1. What is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)?

The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is generally understood to mean that corporations have a degree of responsibility not only for the economic consequences of their activities, but also for the social and environmental implications. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘triple bottom line’ approach that considers the economic, social and environmental aspects of corporate activity.

Various terms are used to describe CSR initiatives, including ‘Corporate Responsibility,’ ‘Corporate Accountability’, ‘Corporate Citizenship’ and ‘Sustainability.’

The meaning and value of CSR may differ in various contexts, depending on local factors including culture, environmental conditions, and the legal framework.

2. What do human rights have to do with CSR?

Human rights are relevant to the economic, social and environmental aspects of corporate activity. For example, labour rights requiring companies to pay fair wages affect the economic aspect. Human rights such as the right to non-discrimination are relevant to the social aspect. And the environmental aspects of corporate activity might affect a range of human rights, such as the right to clean drinking water.

So, while the primary responsibility for the enforcement of international human rights standards lies with national governments, there is a growing acceptance that corporations also have an important role to play.

Corporations impact on human rights in significant ways. These impacts have increased over recent decades as the economic might and political influence of corporations has grown, and as corporations have become more involved in delivering services previously provided by governments.

Corporations have come to recognise that part of being a good corporate citizen includes respecting the human rights of those who come into contact with the corporation in some way. This might be direct contact (for example, employees or customers), or indirect contact (for example, workers of suppliers, or people living in areas affected by a corporation’s activities).

Corporations are also responding to the fact that many consumers and investors expect corporations to act in a socially responsible manner. The extent to which a company implements a comprehensive CSR program can influence consumer and investor decisions.

3. What is happening on CSR and human rights at the international level?

Over the past decade, the international community has made significant advances in examining and clarifying the links between corporations and human rights.

A wide variety of voluntary initiatives have been developed by individual companies, industry bodies, NGOs, inter-governmental bodies and multi-stakeholder groups.

These initiatives include voluntary guidelines and codes of conduct, monitoring and reporting procedures, and socially responsible reporting indexes.

Under such initiatives, hundreds of corporations worldwide have publicly committed to uphold specific human rights standards. This illustrates the growing acceptance of the need for corporations to simultaneously protect the interests of their shareholders, employees, customers and the community in which they operate.

Some prominent examples of international standards and initiatives regarding corporations and human rights include:

The United Nations is further developing the expertise on corporations and human rights. In 2005, the UN Secretary-General appointed Professor John Ruggie as his Special Representative on business and human rights. One of the Special Representative’s main tasks is to “identify and clarify standards of corporate responsibility and accountability for transnational corporations and other business enterprises with regard to human rights.”

4. How are human rights relevant to Australian companies?

In 2006, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services and the Corporations and Markets Advisory Committee conducted inquiries into various aspects of corporate responsibility in the Australian context. Both committees agreed that this was an increasingly important area for the corporate sector.

A range of Australian laws currently require corporations to comply with human rights standards. While these laws are not always framed in human rights language, the standards they stipulate are in fact based on human rights. Examples include:

  • Laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment in the workplace and laws requiring employers to provide equal employment opportunities. Such laws address the rights to equality and non-discrimination, which are set out in various international treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • Laws regulating conditions of work. For example, occupational health and safety, terms and conditions of employment, minimum wage, collective bargaining, and prohibition of child labour and forced labour. Such laws address a range of labour rights, which are contained in various instruments adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and in major international human rights treaties.
  • Laws regarding Native Title. Such laws address economic, social and cultural rights including property rights, which are set out in various international treaties including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  • Laws imposing liability on corporations for certain acts which impact on human rights, such as bribery of foreign officials or complicity in war crimes or crimes against humanity. Such laws are based on standards contained in a range of international instruments, for example the United Nations Convention against Corruption and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

In addition to the human rights standards which Australian companies are legally obliged to comply with under domestic laws, there is a broader range of human rights that are relevant to corporate activity. Depending on the specific activities carried out by a corporation, these might include:

  • The right to liberty and security of the person.
  • The right to an adequate standard of living (including adequate food, water, shelter and clothing), the right to education, the right to health, and other economic, social and cultural rights.
  • The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
  • The right to freedom of expression.
  • The rights of Indigenous peoples.

Many Australian companies incorporate into their CSR policies the human rights standards they must comply with under Australian law. Some Australian companies go beyond domestic legal requirements and participate in voluntary initiatives on CSR and human rights, including the United Nations Global Compact and the Global Reporting Initiative.

5. What does the Commission do on CSR and human rights?

The Australian Human Rights Commission (the Commission) is Australia’s national human rights body, responsible for monitoring the implementation of a range of international human rights standards that have been agreed to by the Australian government.

In the past, the Commission projects have touched on various aspects of corporate responsibility and the links between corporate activity and human rights, in particular in relation to labour rights, workplace practices, and resource development on Indigenous land. Some examples of the Commission’s work include:

  • Good Practice; Good Business – a range of resources which provide practical guidance for businesses on eliminating discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
  • Access to electronic commerce – a project aimed at improving the accessibility of electronic financial services for older Australians and Australians with a disability, including through the adoption of voluntary standards for the Australian banking industry.

In addition, many aspects of the Commission’s everyday work relate to the links between corporate activity and human rights. This includes conciliating complaints regarding discrimination in the workplace or in the provision of goods or services; considering applications made by companies for specific exemptions under anti-discrimination laws; and intervening in court proceedings involving human rights complaints lodged against companies.

In 2008, the Commission embarked on a project focusing on the role of Australian companies in promoting and protecting human rights. Some of the questions the Commission focused on as part of this work included:

  • What do Australian companies understand human rights to be?
  • How do Australian companies see human rights as being relevant to the economic, environmental and social aspects of their activities?
  • Which of the various national and international guidelines and codes are currently being used by Australian companies?
  • What practical steps are Australian companies taking in order to comply with human rights standards?
  • What practical steps could be taken to increase the role of Australian companies in protecting and promoting human rights as part of their every day activities?

6. Where can I find more information on CSR and human rights?

Australian resources

Australian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility

Australian Human Rights Centre - International Trade, Transnational Corporations and Human Rights Project

Australian Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services

Castan Centre for Human Rights Law – Multinational Corporations and Human Rights Project

Corporate Responsibility Index

Deakin University Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation – Corporate Citizenship Research Unit

Human Rights Law Resource Centre

Public Interest Advocacy Centre

International resources

United Nations Special Representative on Business and Human Rights

Amnesty International

Business and Human Rights Resource Centre

Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights

Global Reporting Initiative

Human Rights Watch

The Human Rights & Business Project

International Business Leaders Forum

United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative – Human Rights Work Stream

United Nations Global Compact