ESG Investing

UN Sustainable Development Goals, Human Rights, and Business


On June 30, 2017, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued 10 key recommendations for how businesses and governments can foreground human rights as they work to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Adopted in 2015 by the 194 countries of the UN General Assembly, the goals are a nonbinding series of objectives for economic development designed to ensure the well-being of all people. They target key issues such as poverty, gender equity, and the environment.

While the goals themselves are diverse, OHCHR emphasizes that human rights is a linchpin. “Simply put,” said the OHCHR, “a development path in which human rights are not respected and protected cannot be sustainable, and would render the notion of sustainable development meaningless.”

Business Is a Cornerstone of Society

Businesses have a huge impact on communities. As such, it makes sense that they also have a central role in protecting human rights. A business’s activities can either enhance these rights or violate and undermine them. The OHCHR calls on businesses to consider human rights in every aspect of their operations. Fair wages, for example, can help alleviate poverty and inequality, while green operations can slow climate change and benefit public health.

Protection for a Broad Range of Rights

The responsibility to protect rights extends to those who defend human rights by raising concerns about business practices. While whistle-blowers, labor organizers, and community activists are not always welcome stakeholders, they play a role in sustainable development. Not all executives are comfortable maintaining a dialogue with these activists, but an open and honest stance is necessary for progress to be made. In the words of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, the sustainable development agenda is “doomed to failure if the individuals and groups on the front line of defending sustainable development are not protected at the national, regional and international levels.”

Respect for Human Rights across the Value Chain

A company can’t be a model employer at home if it allows damage to the environment, poor treatment of workers, or bribes to circumvent justice abroad. Business leaders must work to ensure that human rights are embedded throughout a company’s value chain: A company cannot stop short of actively evaluating and managing its internationally outsourced contractors and still be considered “sustainable.”

While one challenging complication of sourcing across national borders is balancing conflicting legal regulations and cultural norms, supply chain compliance represents a huge opportunity for multinational corporations to make a positive difference in the lives of people and communities around the globe.

Remedying Rights Violations

In a perfect world, corporate managers would recognize the long-term benefits of sustainable behavior and thus protect and respect rights without any prodding. In the real world, though, business operations are not always so neat, and many violations occur inadvertently. A chemical that seems benign when it’s introduced into the manufacturing process, for example, may turn out to be hazardous to health after years of exposure. To align with the sustainable development goals, in such cases companies must institute remediation policies to support those affected and repair harmful operational processes.

Multinational corporations that heed the UN’s call for proactive management and values-aligned thinking are in an ideal position to promote human rights—even in situations where governments do not. While the UN statement codifies it, these rights will only be protected if more businesses put them into action.

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