Why does business mess up human rights? What does business need to do?

Why does business mess up human rights? What does business need to do?

Whenever you look at alleged human rights abuses or even any community relations issue, you are left wondering why on earth the company did whatever it did in the first place.

In so many cases, poor decisions made early on,  exacerbated a situation and those were then the drivers for further errors of judgment. Why is it that cold analysis after the event can clearly identify the warning bells but they cannot be heard by people at the time?

There are probably four main reasons.

Firstly, most business people believe in their own capabilities and their understanding of problem situations. However, while most people can explain basic human rights, surprisingly few can identify the full extent of how those rights manifest themselves.

Secondly, business people tend to recognize their own rights, both as an individual and as a corporation, but underestimate or ignore the rights of others. This manifests itself most disastrously with decisions on security, when companies arm guards to prevent theft or vandalism. All too frequently, inappropriate and sometimes lethal force is then employed to prevent small-scale financial loss.

Thirdly, companies have far too many procedures about rather unimportant stuff, and very little in the way of procedures or training to help snap decision-making for someone performing their duty. That duty might be as a security guard, a human resources officer or community relations specialist, but procedures are absolutely necessary to help staff make decisions that could, if made wrongly, bring down the entire company. If the man at the bottom makes a mistake – of any kind – nine times out of ten you can trace flawed supervision and management to the very top of the tree.

Finally, there is a genuine belief that things won’t go wrong to me, today, here, now. Disasters happen to other people, not to me. But tomorrow morning, could it be your decision that leads to the death of 200 innocent people? Staff need to appreciate that their decisions can have significant consequences.

Given the very basic structure of most human rights, 95% of the solution is probably in two elements: knowledge and respect.

The knowledge element includes both knowledge of what constitutes human rights, in all its forms, but also knowledge of what the individual can do and can’t do. It’s not rocket science: it’s about training and procedures.

Respect is the key ingredient, though, and stems from a genuine empathy with those with whom we live and work.

We work with our staff and our suppliers and partners, and we live in our physical community but also a wider, national and international society. All have rights and some also have obligations to us. However, we shouldn’t assume that we, as business people, have more or better or prioritised rights. Furthermore, we also have no mandate to develop people or regions or nations, and should not foist our economic development agenda on those who wish to be apart from it. Those poorer, ‘undeveloped’ communities may still be around in 200 years time long after our corporations and ‘growth agenda’ have used up all the useful resources!

Respect means that engagement has to be two-way, based as much on listening as on talking. We have certain rights but that does not negate or take precedence over the rights of these others.

While knowledge and training certainly create the platform for better relationships, better engagement and better human rights performance, there is, of course, one 900lb gorilla in the room: how do victims of past and present human rights failings get access to remedy?

It is perhaps unsurprising that so many problems arise only when discussing what went wrong yesterday.

If the world started only today, we would all have a fun and easy time, but we have to deal with the tears and errors of yesterday’s decisions.

It is this nebulous and thorny area of Access to Remedy that is likely to be the focus of attention for many in the world of human rights in 2015 and beyond, as we try to create fairness and justice without creating a stalemate between the different sectors.

My crystal ball suggests that there may need to be painful concessions from both civil society and the business world, in order to build something strong and lasting for the future. But I the meantime, maybe we can start with the knowledge and respect.