Corporate Practices, Human Rights and Health: New Principles, New Questions

As more people accept the notion that governments have an obligation to follow certain universal standards of human rights, a new question that has emerged is what are the responsibilities of corporations to follow human rights principles? In just the last year, several new developments have put this question on the agenda in various settings.

In June 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council approved the document Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, developed over the last six years.

The United Nations

Under the slogan “Protect, Respect and Remedy”, the document describes three obligations:

“The first is the State duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business enterprises, through appropriate policies, regulation, and adjudication. The second is the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means that business enterprises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which they are involved. The third is the need for greater access by victims to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial.”

In October 2011, the European Commission issued a  new corporate social responsibility policy for 2011-2014, stating that the Commission “expects all European enterprises to meet the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, as defined in the UN Guiding Principles,” and “invites EU Member States to develop by the end of 2012 national plans for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles.”

And in Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has announced that its Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights will this year focus on business and human rights. One of the Commissioners has said:

“The target for this thematic study is an ASEAN Guideline that is fully compliant with the UN frameworks, especially the Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework for Business and Human Rights and the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights which were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council.”

These recent initiatives build on the United Nations Global Compact which started more than a decade ago after then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on business leaders to embrace shared values as a way to promote stability in the new era of globalization. So far, more than 6,800 companies in 140 countries have joined the compact by sending letters from their CEOs and agreeing to report annually on their activities. The box below lists the 10 principles of the Global Compact. “A lot of global challenges require active engagement of business,” says Matthias Stausberg, spokesman for the United National Global Compact, an initiative for companies that voluntarily commit to aligning operations with 10 principles covering human rights, the environment, labor and corruption.

What does this new attention on corporate responsibility for following human rights principles have to do with health and the impact of business practices on population health? So far, the existing codes have focused more on labor and environmental practices of corporations than on health consequences of the products that corporations produce and market. Labor and environmental practices certainly have a major impact on health but the current focus does not provide an obvious entry point for addressing the world’s most important causes of premature mortality and preventable deaths: rising rates of non-communicable disease and injuries. The concerns raised about the production and marketing practices of the food, tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical industries at the UN High Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases in New York City last September pointed to the importance of these factors in causing global epidemics.

Here are some questions that public health and human rights professionals, researchers and advocates, government officials and business leaders will need to consider if a human rights approach can be applied to reducing harmful business practices.

  1. Do businesses have a right to produce and market products that have been demonstrated to harm public health?
  2. Do businesses have an obligation to disclose to the public what they know about the harmful effects of products they produce?
  3. Do governments have an obligation to protect their citizens from business practices that harm health?
  4. Does providing misleading or untruthful information about the health consequences of a product violate human rights?
  5. What standards are used to determine whether a business has provided adequate judicial or non-judicial remedies to consumers whose health has been harmed by their products?

For the public health community, the notion that corporations have a responsibility to follow basic human rights principles has the potential to suggest new approaches to better balancing the rights of governments and corporations. But for human rights to move from an aspirational statement to a practical strategy, human rights and public health practitioners will need to forge new tools to bring this perspective into the policy, legal and political arenas.


Image Credits:

1. Whiskeygonebad via Flickr.