The role of businesses in protecting human rights as part of their corporate social responsibility was debated at a seminar hosted by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and Allens Arthur Robinson last week.
Justine Nolan, the deputy director of the Australian Human Rights Centre at the University of New South Wales, argued there was a need for regulation to address the added pressure on companies to demonstrate due diligence when it came to human rights, a role that was traditionally seen as a government responsibility in the past.
"Companies really need to operate in a level playing field with transparent and consistent standards and this is, I think, where regulation has some validity. The more that we rely on companies to determine what corporate responsibility is and the extent of their responsibilities under it, I think becomes murkier. It can't simply be a self-assessment tool," she told the audience.
"At the same time the AWB [Australian Wheat Board] was paying $290 million in bribes to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, it was also participating in the Australian Corporate Responsibility Index, whereby it was self-assessing how it was going on corporate responsibility and [said] it was doing fine."
However, Sally Herman, the general manager of Corporate Affairs & Sustainability at Westpac, argued that regulation was not necessary for corporate social responsibility (CSR), despite the effect of the downturn.
"At the moment, we are seeing some organisations and, in fact, some governments saying that the only way out of where we are at the moment is to increase regulations. It is our view that the core of the current crisis is actually a failure of values and no amount of regulation can protect society from this," she said.
"I would argue that if CSR or sustainability really is integrated into the DNA of an organization, then it should be able to withstand some economic shocks - you should be able to upscale or downplay your CSR initiatives if you have a core of a belief structure within your organisation."
Edward Santow, director of the Charter of Human Rights Project at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, argued that a human rights act would provide an explicit set of principles to take human rights from a "chaotic theory" to successful implementation into business CSR.
"In the very first week of the national human rights consultation there were over 10 000 submissions received - that makes it the biggest public enquiry in Australian history ... However, to the best of my knowledge, only one major submission has been received from the business community - that was Telstra and that was in favour of a human rights act for Australia," he said.
"I think that crucial voice in this debate is lacking and I think it's absolutely important for the business community to become more engaged to see how a human rights act might impact on them, how it might help them in principles of sustainability, the protection of individual dignity and to fairness - to which many of them subscribe."
Jeremy Baskin, a former political prisoner and director of the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, argued that the debate should shift from CSR to the idea of sustainability.
"I think the most common rationales you hear when speaking to companies in a sense reveal that most typically companies engage in CSR because it enhances their reputation and brand value or because it's very important for skill retention and skill attraction towards the company," he said.
"I think one of the problems with the CSR mindset is that it is not linked to the core business enough. This is either because businesses are too comfortable, or businesses are not seeing some of the longer-term risks of the current path they are in, or not seeing the business opportunities that might arise, or because the rules that we as society set in the regulatory environment don't help them to solve some of the problems."
- Sarah Sharples