Traditional human rights careers usually involve working for an international organisation, non-governmental organisation or non-profit. In terms of accountability for human rights violations, advocacy groups have, in the past, focused primarily on states, who have ultimate responsibility for protecting their citizens and guarding against human rights abuses. However, human rights groups are increasingly looking to businesses and corporations, who, in a globalised economy, are starting to share the burden of accountability for human rights.
In a 2011 Resolution, the UN Human Rights Council endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These Guiding Principles are grounded in the recognition that business enterprises, as ‘specialised organs of society’, as well as states, must comply with applicable laws and must respect human rights. While ultimate responsibility for the protection of human rights and adherence to relevant legal instruments remains with the state, the private sector is coming under increasing scrutiny and pressure to ensure that they too are working to protect the rights of people in communities that are impacted by their operations. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has emphasised the role of the private sector in protecting human rights, stating that the role of businesses is integral to tackling global human rights challenges and it is crucial for them to adopt the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
What does this mean for human rights careers?
As business and corporations become more engaged in improving their human rights footprint and corporate reputation, we are seeing more human rights-related job opportunities outside the traditional sphere of charities and NGOs. The UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights encourage companies to adopt clear human rights policies, and companies are employing human rights specialists to work on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes, as well as related areas such as research and communications.
Those who are working on human rights in the private sector often report greater efficiency and that, in contrast to their experiences in the public/ non-profit sector, policies tend to be implemented much faster, resulting in the feeling that their work has a direct positive impact when companies choose to improve their human rights footprint. While it is true that some companies might see human rights and CSR as a ‘box-ticking’ exercise, more and more companies are starting to take their corporate responsibilities seriously, particularly when considering that it is in fact in their reputational and financial interests to avoid association with human rights violations. Feeling and seeing the difference that their work contributes to were commonly reported experiences of human rights professionals interviewed for this article. Examples cited included working with a company and finding that their cleaning staff were not all receiving a living wage; following negotiations with the company’s human resources contractor, cleaning staff received a pay increase – a small, but tangible and direct impact. Wider examples included being able to ensure that due diligence processes focused on human rights and took seriously the risks that business operations posed to communities, consequently taking real steps to remove and mitigate these risks. One CSR specialist explained that ’the more companies who understand the human rights agenda, the better the chance that they will be able to implement meaningful programmes for change’.