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What are human rights?

*Excerpts taken from the New Zealand Human Rights Commission website.

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to all of us. They are grounded in the values of respect, dignity and equality for every person - regardless of race or colour, sex, religion, political opinion, national origins, employment status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, social status, age or any other characteristic.

The responsibility for human rights rests with both governments and others. Governments are required to protect people’s rights. Others, like businesses and local government, are responsible for respecting people’s rights.

While many human rights are embedded into New Zealand laws, they aren’t always protected in day-to-day business activities – intentionally or unintentionally. Understanding what human rights are relevant to your business is the first step in protecting them.

Why human rights matter to business

Human rights matter to business because governments, customers and the wider public expect businesses to protect people’s rights. Almost all human rights are relevant to business. Your business can have a positive and negative impact on many people, from employees and contract workers, to customers, suppliers and the wider community.

Globally, we are no longer asking whether businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights – that’s a given. Now, the business community is asking what that responsibility means in practice: in specific places, industries and contexts.

The focus is on how businesses can most effectively meet their responsibilities in their day-to-day operations. What’s more, businesses are now expected to be able to show what steps they are taking to protect people’s rights.

At a minimum this means meeting fundamental responsibilities in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption. As with everything in business, just doing the minimum isn’t usually sustainable.
The Human Rights Commission is calling on all New Zealand business leaders to ask their organisations the bigger question – ‘How can we be a good corporate citizen?’

The cost of inaction

The cost of breaching human rights can hurt a business financially as well as damaging relationships, brand credibility and consumer confidence. While human rights breaches are at the more extreme end of the scale, businesses also need to be aware of the risks and costs of inaction and paying 'lip service' to human rights.

Saying your business respects human rights is no longer enough. People need to see that you are. And with the rise of social media, everyone's a reporter. So what may seem like an innocent or unintentional slip up can result in unwanted media headlines.

The human rights commitments of other companies can also mean they will not do business with organisations unless they see human rights are being respected.

This is not just a moral issue. How you address human rights will make a difference to how you are perceived, minimise your risk and ultimately add value to your business.

'Corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights - they must not only ensure compliance with national laws, but also manage risks of human rights harms with a view to avoiding them.'

John Ruggie, Harvard University, former UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights