UDHR at 70: Taking Stock of Human Rights Today

Eleanor Roosevelt holding a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1949.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the moral force behind the UDHR.

As we mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights today, some might say that we have little to celebrate. The significant human rights gains of the early post-Cold War years appear to be coming undone as authoritarian populists take hold in countries that once seemed firmly in the democratic fold. For all of our solemn promises to “never again” permit the perpetration of genocide and crimes against humanity, ours remains an era where such awful acts continue to be committed with impunity. Governments that were once champions of human rights now question their very existence, as they turn a blind eye toward atrocities great and small in the service of political expediency. All of these trends are as alarming as they are discouraging, and all of us who care about human rights should fight to turn back this retrograde tide with every ounce of our might.

At the same time, we must remember that these worrisome trends are but half of the story. There is the considerable Evidence for Hope that the renowned human rights scholar Kathryn Sikkink lays out in her recent book, from the creation of effective mechanisms to hold human rights violators to account, to the headline fact that more of us live in rights-respecting societies today than at any other time in history.

Equally significant and even more overlooked in this discourse is the recognition during the last decade that businesses have a fundamental responsibility to respect human rights. Ten years ago, the relationship between business and human rights was still a matter of lively debate. In the intervening years, we have seen not only the release of the “Protect, Respect, Remedy” framework devised by John Ruggie during his tenure as the U.N. Secretary General’s Special Representative on Business and Human rights, but also the widespread adoption of the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by companies of every size and description.

The impact of these developments on the state of human rights in the world today has been much greater than most realize. Ten years ago, it was a rare company that took the human rights impacts of its current or proposed activities into consideration, but today even medium-sized companies are developing thoughtful human rights due diligence processes. Ten years ago, the notion that companies ought to provide remedies to those whose human rights they have adversely impacted was fanciful, but today the question is one of how, rather than whether or not one should.

Critics of big business like to point out that the revenues of the largest multinational corporations exceed the gross domestic products of many countries. This is doubtless true, yet it stands to reason that when such powerful entities take their responsibility to respect human rights seriously, the resulting impact on the enjoyment of human rights can be significant and positive.

We find evidence to support this syllogism every single day in our CSR Practice. We are fortunate to be able to provide counsel to companies that seek not only to respect human rights as they do business around the world, but who view the promotion of human rights as key to what Nien-hê Hsieh has called their “societal value proposition.” Though it is always when things go wrong that the spotlight of public attention shines on the relationship between business and human rights, we see more and more companies that are committed to doing right by human rights in everything that they do.

Of course, there is much more for business to do in fulfilling its responsibility to respect human rights. Too many companies still subscribe to the misguided notion that the sole responsibility of business is to maximize profits at all costs. Very many others play lip service to their responsibility to respect human rights without doing the hard work of aligning their actions with their words. Even so, as today’s anniversary leads us to consider how human rights will fare over the next seventy years, let us acknowledge the early successes of the business and human rights movement, and think about how we can build on these achievements in the years to come.

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