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Why should business sector care about human rights?

  • The option not to act is not the way to go as the business and human rights is a cross-cutting issue.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) Interregional Dialogue on Business and Human Rights, as well as the Responsible Business and Human Rights Forum (RBHRF) organized by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) in Bangkok, Thailand.

These events were organized in parallel with the Bangkok Business and Human Rights Week 2019 (BBHR Week) where it is an annual event since 2017. For one whole week, multiple stakeholders gathered together to discuss various elements of the Business and Human Rights agenda and Responsible Business Conduct.

The BBHR Week is co-organised by the Royal Thai Government, the AICHR, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the UNESCAP, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Global Compact Network Thailand, and with the participation of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

The negotiation of linking the two has not been an easy one as it involves business sector. I remembered mention about the linkage between business and human rights in one of the courses that I teach in the university. Most students were puzzled, as they could not figure out the linkage between the two.

On June 16, 2011, UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), making the framework as the first corporate human rights responsibility initiative to be endorsed by the UN. The UNGPs is an instrument consisting 31 principles based on the framework of “Protect, Respect and Remedy” for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business.

The business and human rights landscape has evolved rapidly since the introduction of the UNGPs, however remain slow in many parts of the world. Putting in the context of Malaysia, the linkage between business and human rights is not new but we have constantly turned a deaf year on the issues. Forced labour issues and environmental-related crises such as the Sungai Kim Kim pollution and the irresponsible acts of dumping plastic waste in Malaysia are just among the few instances of the lack of awareness of their responsibilities showcased by the business sector in carrying out their daily activities.

It would not be possible for me to identify all the issues in related to this topic in this short article. But one popular question in this topic is always about are about why should business sector care about human rights? The business sector can no longer afford to be bystanders with so much at stake.

Very often, companies take the rule of law and accountable governance for granted. There is now mounting pressure on the business sector to embrace transparency around its human rights challenges where in the past, the human rights concerns is almost not in existence, even though there are, it was often met with ignorance.

In short, with the contemporary robust discussion about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) spanning from 2016 to 2030 where all UN Member States are committed to, including Malaysia, together with the national economic model of shared prosperity as announced by the Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, at this stage, whether you like it or not, there is no escape between the linkage of the two.

The deepening of how vertical and horizontal policy coherence in responding to all these developments should be among the top agendas of the government if we are committed to move into where the country could grows sustainably and distribution of economy is fair and inclusive by 2030.

The option not to act is not the way to go as the business and human rights is a cross-cutting issue and it is only with the leadership coming from the Malaysian government that has its binding obligations, then only this whole process can be fruitful in the long-term.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)


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