What business can do to celebrate human rights

What business can do to celebrate human rights

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Throughout my travels this year, it often has struck me how 2017 has felt like a year in reverse, rather than a progression forward. In this "year of moving backwards," I have been most disturbed by threats to internationally proclaimed human rights. From rising economic and social inequality to the infringement of many basic rights and freedoms, we live in a world in desperate need of change, one where the role of business in advancing human rights is indisputable.

Just last month, I attended the annual United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. As I sat under the intricate ceiling painting by Miquel Barceló in the Human Rights Council, I heard story after story of troubling human rights abuses come to light. When U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein announced the beginning of a year-long campaign to commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), I remember thinking to myself. "This is the year for the private sector to really stand up for human rights."

This time next year — Dec. 10, 2018 — we will commemorate UDHR's 70th anniversary. When the declaration was adopted in 1948 at the third session of the U.N. General Assembly, it was a ray of hope for a better world after the devastations of two world wars and unspeakable human rights abuses.

It was a necessary step forward in rebuilding a new world order that was more just, more equal, more peaceful and more humane.

Available in over 500 languages, it is the most translated document in history, and arguably the most important. And yet, we never can allow ourselves to become complacent. We must never forget the historic backdrop for its origins. Because the declaration is as relevant, universal and needed today as it was when it was adopted. Its scope of influence touches every aspect of modern life, and the definition of human rights enshrined by the declaration also greatly has informed the creation of the 10 Principles that are the foundation of the U.N. Global Compact.

Six of the 10 principles are concerned with human rights, including the four labor principles. At the U.N. Global Compact, we see it as our responsibility to translate the meaning of universally recognized human rights in a way that makes sense to business, and to help companies identify areas for improvement across their supply chains and operations.

And the time is right. In September, I invited 25 chief executives from leading progressive companies to engage in a dialogue with Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and me about how business can help make growth more inclusive without mortgaging the future of people and planet.

The sobering background is that, two years into the 2030 Agenda, inequalities are rising. Today, the richest 1 percent have accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together, and half the world’s population lives below the poverty line of $2 a day. Indeed, only a third of the extremely or moderately poor have jobs, 150 million children are engaged in child labor and 30 percent of the world’s 1.8 billion young people ages 10 to 25 are not in any form of employment, training or education.

Similarly, at the current pace, it is unlikely that we will be able to deliver on target 5.5, which calls for women’s full participation and equal opportunities. And beyond the right thing to do, gender equality just makes business sense: Full economic empowerment of women and girls could contribute up to $28 trillion in global GDP by 2025, according to a 2015 report by the McKinsey Global Institute.

We have a good platform from which to lift our ambitions. In the more than 17 years that the U.N. Global Compact has been in existence, we have seen a growing and global movement of responsible companies. From the introduction of our human rights principles to the development of the U.N. Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, more companies are understanding that respect for human rights is part of doing business in the global economy.

In our daily work with companies to help them address human rights dilemmas, we have been pleased to see many go beyond their minimum requirements. By adopting principles which touch on women’s economic empowerment, the rights of children and the rights of persons with disabilities, companies are showing they are serious about human rights. And encouragingly, our 2017 Progress Report shows that over 90 percent of the over 2,000 companies surveyed have human rights policies in place.

While this is good news, the report also indicates that only 15 percent of these companies are conducting impact assessments on their human rights practices. This represents a vital next step: without large-scale impact measurement, the full potential of a principles-based approach to corporate sustainability remains to be seen.

Throughout recorded history, certain patterns have appeared to repeat themselves. Today, as we witness increased inequality, violence and discrimination — stark reminders of the time in which the UDHR was drafted — it is crucial that we use this moment to rediscover the power of principles.

While governments bear the ultimate responsibility to protect human rights, the cause of human dignity is too important for business to stand idly by. By safeguarding human rights across the full spectrum of business activities, we can ensure hard-won progress is not reversed.

Please join me and my team at the U.N. Global Compact on this year-long learning journey to stand up for human rights. Let’s learn from our past and create a better future.

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