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CSR and human rights

Our office additionally offers advice in the area of respect for human rights: regarding the connection between business and human rights, what operating with respect for human rights means for your company and its specific business activities, how this respect can be guaranteed and rooted within your organisation and legal liability be avoided through responsible behaviour.

The term ‘corporate social responsibility responsibility (CSR) and its understanding has undergone important change in the past years. The realisation has developed that operating in a socially responsible manner means more than initiating philantropic activities for the benefit of the community in which the company operates, for example by building a school, help finance a hospital or sponsor other communal activities, and that it is not merely a voluntary responsibility, dependent on the sense of community commitment and goodwill of the company. A shift has taken place towards a more impact and rights-based thinking about the concept, towards an understanding that doing business in a socially responsibe manner brings with it certain (legal) obligations and ethical responsibilities towards society as well. As an expression of this thinking, the European Commission for example currently maintains the following definition of CSR:

the responsibility of enterprises for their impacts on society.[1]

Internationally the awareness has taken root that operating in a socially responsible fashion in fact starts with preventing, or mitigating, a negative social and environmental footprint of a company’s own operations, or that with which it is involved indirectly through business relations in the production and supply chain.

CSR is therefore really a two-stage rocket, a concept consisting of two steps, starting with a ‘compelling’ responsibility and only after which comes involvement in goodwill activities. The primary component of CSR is also known in international law as the do no harm principle:

Take great care not to harm people and the environment while conducting business operations.

This is where CSR starts. A simple idea, but often complicated to implement, daily reality shows. It takes more than just complying with local laws, since laws differ per country and are not in all countries sufficiently protective of the rights of their subjects and the environment. Moreover, many states lack the capacity or will to enforce existing laws. Even in countries with highly developed legal systems however, laws cannot optimally protect every right. Take our technology, which often develops faster than our laws can keep up with. Of certain (chemical) substances we only discover years later that they are harmful to our health and the environment and only then protective legal measures are taken. In addition, human rights have a predominantly vertical working, meaning that they mainly apply between states and civilians. A number of human rights have only limited horizontal effect and are therefore not well directly enforceable in relations between civilians and companies. Operating in a socially responsible manner therefore means also, over and beyond national laws, an ethical responsibility to respect internationally recognized rights.

The EU, relying on higher UN and OECD standards, proposes in order to achieve this that:

to fully meet their corporate social responsibility, enterprises should have in place a process to integrate social, environmental, ethical, human rights and consumer concerns into their business operations and core strategy in close collaboration with their stakeholders, with the aim of […] – identifying, preventing and mitigating their possible adverse impacts. [2]

Our office can assist your company in this process. You are welcome to contact us and let yourself be informed about what we can mean for you in this regard.

What are human rights?

Human rights are basic rights, of which the most fundamental are found in our national constitutions – such as freedom of expression, the ban on discrimination, the right to freedom of belief, to privacy, to life and health and to a fair trial. Basic labor rights also form part of our constitution, such as the ban on child labor, on forced labor and the right to association and form trade unions. Growing out of the developments leading to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen during the French Revolution and the Bill of Rights of the American Revolution, and given an enormous impetus by the international aborrence caused by the horrors of the First and Second World Wars, these human rights and more were codified by the United Nations in a series of UN human rights treaties, starting with the Bill of Rights: the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Together with existing national laws and the different international behavioral standards that have developed in recent past in the area of business respect for human rights – such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises [3] – these form the touchstone for how companies should take care to prevent or mitigate damage to human beings by or through their activities, and insodoing respect human rights.

  1. European Commission, A renewed EU strategy 2011-2014 for Corporate Social Responsibility, 25.10.2011 Brussels.
  2. Ibidem.
  3. See for a good guide in the area of business and human rights and the existing international standards: