Australian companies - including law firms - have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to putting human rights considerations on the business agenda, a board member of a business and human rights group has said.
The group, Global Compact Network Australia (GCNA), is the Australian arm of the United Nations Global Compact, an organisation in which member businesses aspire to achieve standards outlined in ten principles. These principles fall into the four categories of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption.
The GCNA recently established a Business and Human Rights Working Group which brings together leading Australian business and human rights groups, including Allens Arthur Robinson, Rio Tinto, Westpac, Pacific Hydro and the Australian Human Rights Commission. The group aims to collaborate and develop a business and human rights agenda.
Rachel Nicolson, a senior associate at Allens and a member of the GCNA board, told Lawyers Weekly that while the establishment of the Working Group is a fantastic move, Australia is lagging behind other developed nations when it comes to business and human rights.
"The issue of business and human rights is far more mature in North America and Europe than it is in Australia," she said.
"We have some catching up to do, and it is an important catch up because a lot of the businesses based in Australia, or dual-listed in Australia, are in the extractive sector, the large-scale project development and construction sectors, or in the finance sector ... and they are sectors that have a significant impact [on human rights]."
Allens was the first signatory to the GCNA when it was established in 2001, and it remains the only law firm featuring on the list of 84 participants.
"Allens became a signatory for a number of reasons," said Nicolson. "One was because we realised the potentially positive outcomes that could be achieved by attempting to attain these principles from a business perspective, and another was because the nature of the work we do in advising corporate clients means we have a really good understanding of the challenges facing corporate clients in those four areas."
Nicolson said she is somewhat surprised that no other Australian law firms have joined the initiative.
"It's unfortunate, because I think this issue ... is now becoming the norm, and it is certainly the international policy position that all businesses, regardless of size and whether you're a multi-national or only operating in one jurisdiction, should be considering their human rights impact," she said. "That is where the debate is going."
The Working Group met for only the second time last week and, according to the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Catherine Branson QC, the initiative is one of the best ways to assist the growing numbers of Australian companies that are committed to embedding a human rights agenda within their business.
"The Working Group meeting deepened understanding among participants of the risks, challenges, opportunities and overall complexities for business operations, and focussed on how Australian and overseas companies were putting human rights due diligence into play," Branson said in a statement.
The Working Group also outlined basic steps businesses could take in order to integrate human rights considerations into their everyday business practices, and provided the appropriate resources to assist with this process.
An Anti-Corruption Working Group will be established shortly.