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It’s time for business schools to put human rights on the agenda

Governments should be careful to protect human rights when contracting with businesses, such as health services in immigration detention. Department of Immigration & Citizenship

Last week, the UN held its first-ever business and human rights forum in Geneva. It’s part of a growing awareness that multinationals have a big impact on human rights. Opening the forum, the UN’s human rights chief Navi Pillay said:

“Responsible business means acting with respect for human rights, reflecting the fact that long-term business prospects are tightly coupled with society’s well-being. Markets too must be subject to the rule of law, and embedded in broader values, foremost amongst them international human rights. These are not new requirements undertaken by governments; they have been part of the international human rights regime for many decades.”

The forum was set up to promote a set of principles developed by the UN’s Business and Human Rights champion, Professor John Ruggie. It reminds governments of their obligations to protect against human rights abuses, including those abuses committed by businesses.

It also pointed out that these obligations become stronger when governments contract with businesses to provide services. Yet around the time that the UN forum was reminding governments and business of their human rights obligations, Omid — a 35-year-old Iranian asylum seeker in Nauru — was flown to Australia after a 50-day hunger strike and hospitalised in Brisbane. A reminder, if we needed one, of the relevance of the UN’s forum for Australia’s asylum policy; a policy that has the government in contracts with big multinationals to provide health services.

However, the UN’s business and human rights forum doesn’t just relate to an obvious example like the Pacific Solution. It raises questions about government investments in Future Funds, the companies it supports through its export credit agency, as well as local government procurement practices.

The implications for business are significant. Nowadays, human rights due diligence is a standard part of managing a big business. In their 2011 Sustainability Report, BHP commented that human rights is now on the company’s performance dash board and linked to management incentive schemes.

“In an effort to increase the focus on human rights due diligence in FY2011, completion of the assessments was included as a key performance indicator for the Group Management Committee. This indicator forms part of a balanced scorecard used to determine performance incentive payments to management and employees. ”

But when big corporations like global health giant Abbott Laboratories start to talk about the “supporting role” they play with government in promoting human rights, this raises questions not only about the management practices that enable them to do this, but also about how the role of corporations in society is shifting.

Despite these developments, there is almost no discussion of business and human rights within business education, either at the university level or within professional bodies.

Of the university signatories to the various Global Compact Networks designed to promote human rights, it would be interesting to know how many have business and human rights courses as compulsory elements of their business and accounting degrees.

The issue of human rights is simply not brought to the mindset of future business leaders within business schools or professional education programs. But building a case that it should be isn’t that difficult. There is a moral case.

If the idea of human rights does help us protect some of the most vulnerable within society from abuse and exploitation, then we should be concerned about those “organs in society” that can affect both their promotion and violation. Multinational corporations can certainly do both.

There is also a pragmatic argument. If business schools want to prepare students for the kinds of issues they will face as practitioners, then they should be aware of human rights. The fact that many companies are reporting on their human rights responsibilities would seem to counter any objections that human rights falls beyond the scope of business and accounting education.

There is also a critical argument. If the notion of rights is going to help ensure that human dignity is not sacrificed in the pursuit of economic development, then it is crucial that the issue receives much more critical analysis than it has received to date.

At exactly the same time as the UN was hosting a discussion of business and human rights, the government released the results of its university research evaluation for 2012.

One would hope that there might be a connection between research excellence and the promotion of human rights, but this is unlikely to happen. The way this rating system works actively discourages the kinds of cross-disciplinary research that might, as Navi Pillay stressed, help business act with respect for human rights, and explore how international human rights can be embedded in markets.

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