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Human Rights and Business: How reconcilable are they?

Open Letter to Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP: Parliamentary Inquiry into human rights and business

Dear Rt Hon Harman,

I am pleased to submit our response to your inquiry into human rights and business. I understand that you have asked for evidence focused on how far the 2016 National Action Plan has gone in respecting the United Nations Guiding Principles on business and human rights. I have focused my submission on issues that I believe will complement other statements while using evidence from our existing and past projects as an international research institute that is registered as a charity and has no political allegiances. I also draw evidence from the work that we did together for the Human Rights Insight Project and while you served as the Human Rights minister.

As a Joint Committee, I am sure that at the back of many of your members’ minds will be the future of human rights in the UK, following a potential exit from the EU. I join a number of human rights campaigns against initiatives that want to see Britain out of regional and international conventions and fora including the European Convention on Human Rights.

As I write this submission, Britain is divided. A divided country is a weak country whether this relates to its finances, housing market, currency, foreign and social policies. Uncertainty creates fear and fear creates tensions. At the same time, our cities, society and businesses have been hit by unprecedented waves of hate incidents. Ignorance and misinformation once again have led selected groups to act shamefully, when the British are known to the world for their tolerance, deep commitment to human rights and their passion for education and knowledge.

As a Greek Londoner myself, I fear for what is yet to come for my family, my international staff team, my volunteers and students … myself. Therefore, your Inquiry could not be more timely.

As evidenced through this submission, we have a long way to go before we can safely claim that the government’s Action Plan has had an impact on businesses. It is not possible to claim that human rights have made it onto the radar of businesses and the corporate sector either. The soft letter of the law and especially the guiding principles of non-statutory nature documents can only have an impact on businesses when:

  • Businesses themselves are convinced that they have something to gain from implementing human rights values in their everyday running. This has not been achieved and the human rights culture that was promised back in 1998 is yet to be materialised whether in businesses, the public sector and wider society. I refer to this as “the human rights carrot”.

  • Businesses are enabled through training, legislative tools and procedures to reshape their internal policies and procedures so that they are aligned with obligations specifically designed for them. I refer to this as “the human rights stick”.

My submission aims to address both matters above and has been divided accordingly. I do so while being mindful that in a difficult financial climate businesses are expected to generate profit and act according to their sector’s nature and purpose.

I conclude with a word of warning. Over the last few decades we have seen many human rights inquiries. The evidence on human rights breaches is unquestionable whether this refers to businesses, the public sector or civil society. As you produce your recommendations and call businesses and government to account, I want to remind you of the power that continues to be manifested onto the vulnerable. The very concept of human rights was introduced in the hope that it will bring some balance against the manifestation of this power. Without acknowledging this power any recommendations for profit focused entities will fail. That is why it is the power structures within our society that I want to bring to the forth of your review. Putting our emphasis on bringing balance to the power structures that exposes us all and cause pain, suffering and discrimination in businesses and beyond, we find alternative ways of delivering fairness (Gavrielides, 2014)[1]. Here, I try to make the links between customer satisfaction and the values underlying human rights. My goal is to show to profit focused entities that the two are reconcilable and complementary (also see Gavrielides, 2008)[2].

Relinquishing power within a sector that not only is set up for profit but is also expected to generate profit is in itself a challenge. Relinquishing power within a system that is challenged by the implicit biases and ‘Trojan horses of discrimination’ is an even more complex matter. I acknowledge the difficult task that you are undertaking and thus I wish you the very best in your endeavour. The IARS International Institute and myself are at your disposal should you require clarifications and further evidence. As a membership organisation we also aim to share this submission with our members and database subscribers. We would also be happy to share any response that you might have to what we have proposed.

Best wishes

IARS Founder and Director


The formal submission can be found here

[1] Gavrielides T. (2014). “Bringing Race Relations into the Restorative Justice Debate”. Vol. 45: No. 3, Journal of Black Studies, pp. 216-246.

[2] Gavrielides, T. (2008) “Human rights and customer satisfaction with public services: a relationship discovered”, Vol 12:2 International Journal of Human Rights, pp. 187-202.

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