“I think lawyers have to remember that in the end, we are all human rights lawyers,” Deborah Enix-Ross (pictured) told Lawyers Weekly.
Ms Enix-Ross visited Australia this month, delivering a speech for the Twilight Seminar Series on 25 March.
In her address she urged Australian law societies and bar associations to adopt the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
This resolution, endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, outlines the duty of the state to protect human rights, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and the responsibility for providing remedies in cases where human rights abuses take place.
As trusted business advisers and advocates for those adversely affected by corporate activities, lawyers are in an ideal position to help companies respect human rights, Ms Enix-Ross said.
In her experience, most corporations are anxious to avoid the potential legal repercussions and reputational costs of not acting as “good corporate citizens”.
“I have never personally known any company that set out to violate human rights. Nowadays most companies are acutely aware … [of] the cost of having to defend or right problems of human rights abuses.”
Thus, it is “good business practice” for lawyers to consider whether their advice will put their client in a situation where human rights violations could occur.
By formally endorsing the UN guiding principles, law societies and bar associations around the world can clarify lawyers’ ethical obligations and raise awareness of business and human rights.
“I am passionate about [the UN guidelines] because I think this is an opportunity for various stakeholders to work together. I think it is an opportunity to dispel the notion that businesses are evil or exploitative and always thinking of human rights as something over the top – unreasonable,” said Ms Enix-Ross.
In the United States, legal bodies are debating whether to review their current codes of conduct to bring them in line with the UN guidelines.
However, questions remain over how exactly this would be implemented and what lawyers would be required to do, Ms Enix-Ross said.
“The question is should human rights be a part of those codes and if it is, what does that mean? Are we required to advise our clients on the human rights implications of the actions they may be considering? If we do that, is that enough? – because the client may ignore the advice. Is it enough to have just raised the issue?”
Law Council of Australia president-elect Duncan McConnell said it would be relatively easy to adopt the guidelines as best practice, but that they were unlikely to be integrated into codes of conduct.
“It is not difficult to achieve as best practice,” Mr McConnell said. “I think it is difficult to weave that into standards of professional conduct because those things evolve slowly.
“Conduct rules are essentially principles of ethics and they are principles that have been developed over hundreds of years and I think we should be slow to intervene in those by radically adding to the content.”