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‘What Does This Mean?’: How UK Companies Make Sense of Human Rights

  • Louise J OBARA

How do companies understand and talk about human rights? Do they consider human rights a moral, legal or political construct? What type of responsibility do they assume in respect of human rights (e.g., direct/indirect, narrow/broad)? Is the language and label of human rights used within day-to-day practice? This article attempts to address these questions by drawing on empirical data collected as part of an in-depth, qualitative study on the development of human rights within 22 UK companies. Through an analysis based on sensemaking, the article explores the meaning of human rights, the grounds used to justify corporate responsibility, and the human rights terminology and labels employed within the corporate setting. It then analyses what this understanding and discourse means for the debate about the role of private entities for the protection of human rights.

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VC2020 Lecturer in Business and Management, Faculty of Business and Law, De Montfort University, UK. I would like to thank Ken Peattie for his excellent comments on an earlier draft of this paper, and to the anonymous reviewers and the editors-in-chief (particularly Florian Wettstein) for their constructive and meticulous comments and suggestions.

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1 John G Ruggie, ‘Next Steps in Business and Human Rights’ (22 May 2008), (accessed 10 June 2008).

2 Hamann, Ralph, Sinha, Paresha, Kapfudzaruwa, Farai and Schild, Christoph, ‘Business and Human Rights in South Africa: An Analysis of Antecedents of Human Rights Due Diligence’ (2009) 87:2 Journal of Business Ethics 454 ; Preuss, Lutz and Brown, Donna, ‘Business Policies on Human Rights: An Analysis of Their Content and Prevalence Among FTSE 100 Firms’ (2012) 109:3 Journal of Business Ethics 290 .

3 Brenkert, George G, ‘Business Ethics And Human Rights: An Overview’ (2016) 1:2 Business and Human Rights Journal 11 .

4 Addo, Michael K, ‘Human Rights and Transnational Corporations’ in Michael K Addo (ed.), Human Rights Standards and the Responsibility of Transnational Corporations (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 1999) 29 ; Frankental, Peter, ‘The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a Corporate Code of Conduct’ (2002) 11:2 Business Ethics: A European Review 131 ; Wettstein, Florian, ‘Let’s Talk Rights: Messages for the Just Corporation – Transforming the Economy Through the Language of Rights (2008) 78:1/2 Journal of Business Ethics 251252 , 259.

5 Michael Wright and Amy Lehr, ‘Business Recognition of Human Rights: Global Patterns, Regional and Sectoral Variations’, (2006) (accessed 20 December 2007) 50.

6 Ruggie, John G, Just Business: Multinational Corporations and Human Rights (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013) 36 .

7 Wettstein, Florian, ‘CSR and the Debate on Business and Human Rights: Bridging the Great Divide’ (2012) 22:4 Business Ethics Quarterly 742 .

8 Muchlinski, Peter T, ‘Human Rights and Multinationals: Is There a Problem?’ (2001) 77:1 International Affairs 31 .

9 Lane, Melissa, ‘Autonomy as a Central Human Right and its Implications for the Moral Responsibilities of Corporations’ in Tom Campbell and Seumas Miller (eds.), Human Rights and the Moral Responsibilities of Corporate and Public Sector Organisations (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004) 152 ; Wettstein, note 7, 751. Currently this approach is best exemplified by the United Nation’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights published in 2011 (see Ruggie, note 6, 95).

10 Wettstein, note 4, 260; Posner, Michael, ‘Business and Human Rights: A Commentary From the Inside’ (2016) 29:4 Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal 710 .

11 Arnold, Denis G, ‘Corporations and Human Rights Obligations’ (2016) 1:2 Business and Human Rights Journal 273 . See for example Donaldson, Tom, The Ethics of International Business (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) 84, 150 ; Muchlinski, note 8, 45; and Ruggie, note 6, 50–52, 83–85.

12 Ramasastry, Anita, ‘Corporate Social Responsibility Versus Business and Human Rights: Bridging the Gap Between Responsibility and Accountability’ (2015) 14:2 Journal of Human Rights 238 .

13 Brenkert, note 3, 278.

14 Brenkert, ibid.

15 Though some notable publications on BHR exist prior to the late 1990s such as Werhane, Patricia H, Persons, Rights and Corporations (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1985); Donaldson, note 11; and Smith, Tim, ‘The Power of Business for Human Rights’ (1994) 88:winter Business and Society Review .

16 See Addo, note 4; Muchlinski, note 8; Campbell, Tom, ‘Moral Dimensions of Human Rights’ in Tom Campbell and Seumas Miller (eds.), Human Rights and the Moral Responsibilities of Corporate and Public Sector Organisations (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004); Wettstein, Florian, Multinational Corporations and Global Justice. Human Rights Obligations of a Quasi-Governmental Institution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009); and

Cragg, Wesley, ‘Business and Human Rights: A Principle and Value-Based Analysis’ in Wesley Cragg (ed.), Business and Human Rights (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2012).

17 See Ratner, Steven R, ‘Corporations and Human Rights: A Theory of Legal Responsibility’ (2001) 111:3 Yale Law Journal ; Kinley, David and Tadaki, Junko, ‘From Talk to Walk: The Emergence of Human Rights Responsibilities for Corporations at International Law’ (2004) 44:4 Virginia Journal of International Law ; Clapham, Andrew, Human Rights Obligations of Non-State Actors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); and

McCorquodale, Robert, ‘Corporate Social Responsibility and International Human Rights Law’ (2009) 87:2 Journal of Business Ethics .

18 See Donaldson, note 11; Santoro, Michael A, Profits and Principles. Global Capitalism and Human Rights in China (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2000) Ch. 8; Kolstad, Ivar, ‘Human Rights and Assigned Duties: Implications for Corporations (2009) 10:4 Human Rights Review ; and

Macdonald, Kate, ‘Re-Thinking “Spheres of Responsibility”: Business Responsibility for Indirect Harm’ (2011) 99:4 Journal of Business Ethics .

19 See Campbell, Tom, ‘The Normative Grounding of Corporate Social Responsibility: A Human Rights Approach’ in Doreen McBarnet, Aurora Voiculescu and Tom Campbell (eds.), The New Corporate Accountability: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Wettstein, Florian, ‘Beyond Voluntariness, Beyond CSR: Making a Case for Human Rights and Justice (2009) 114:1 Business and Society Review ; Wettstein, note 7; and Ramasastry, note 12.

20 See Cragg, Wesley, ‘Ethics, Enlightened Self-Interest, and the Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights’ (2012) 22:1 Business Ethics Quarterly ; Muchlinski, Peter T, ‘Implementing The New UN Corporate Human Rights Framework: Implications for Corporate Law, Governance and Regulation’ (2012) 22:1 Business Ethics Quarterly ; and

Addo, Michael K, ‘The Reality of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ (2014) 14:1 Human Rights Law Review .

21 Muchlinski, note 8, 32.

22 Frankental, Peter, ‘Corporate Social Responsibility – A PR Invention?’ (2001) 6:1 Corporate Communications: An International Journal 22 ; Campbell, Tom, ‘A Human Rights Approach to Developing Voluntary Codes of Conduct for Multinational Corporations’ (2006) 16:2 Business Ethics Quarterly 256 ; Wettstein, note 19, 137–38.

23 Kobrin, Stephen J, ‘Private Political Authority and Public Responsibility: Transnational Politics, Transnational Firms and Human Rights (2009) 19:3 Business Ethics Quarterly 351 .

24 Santoro, Michael A, ‘Post-Westphalia and its Discontents: Business, Globalization, and Human Rights in Political and Moral Perspective’ (2010) 20:2 Business Ethics Quarterly 292 .

25 Brenkert, note 3, 288–89.

26 Collier and Wanderley exemplify this view when they state that ‘the responsibility they [corporations] bear is as real and as concrete as is the moral responsibility of any single person … they must recognize that as agents of global change they are acting not simply as economic agents but also as moral agents’. Collier, Jane and Wanderley, Lilian, ‘Thinking For The Future: Global Corporate Responsibility in the Twenty-First Century’ (2005) 37:2/3 Futures 176 .

27 Kobrin, note 23, 350.

28 Donaldson, note 11, Ch. 4.

29 This is not to imply that scholars advocate one justification only. Different grounds are sometimes invoked simultaneously or at different times (depending on the audience). Christopher Avery, for example, uses moral, legal and business case arguments. See Avery, Christopher, ‘Business and Human Rights in a Time of Change’ in Menno T Kamminga and Saman Zia-Zarifi (eds.), Liability of Multinational Corporations Under International Law (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2000).

30 Matten, Dirk and Crane, Andrew, ‘Corporate Citizenship: Toward an Extended Theoretical Conceptualization’ (2005) 30:1 Academy of Management Review 172 .

31 Robinson, Mary, ‘The Business Case for Human Rights’ in Financial Times Management, Visions of Ethical Business (London: Financial Times Professional, 1998).

32 Ruggie, note 6, 91–93. Note this is in relation to John G Ruggie’s role as spokesperson and coordinator of the UNGPs and the grounds he articulates for their importance.

33 Arnold, note 11, 255.

34 Wright and Lehr, note 5, 50.

35 Wright and Lehr, ibid, 3; GRI (Global Reporting Initiative), ‘Reporting on Human Rights’, (accessed 25 June 2008) 11–12; Preuss and Brown, note 2, 295.

36 GRI, note 35 15; Preuss and Brown, note 2, 294.

37 John G Ruggie, ‘Corporations and Human Rights: A Survey of the Scope and Patterns of Alleged Corporate-Related Human Rights Abuse’, (accessed 5 may 2017); Kamminga, Menno T, ‘Company Responses to Human Rights Reports: An Empirical Analysis’ (2015) 1:1 Business and Human Rights Journal .

38 Arkani, Sep and Theobald, Robin, ‘Corporate Involvement in Human Rights: Is It Any of Their Business?’ (2005) 14:3 Business Ethics: A European Review 195 .

39 Quote by a female Corporate Responsibility Manager taken from the author’s study.

40 Note that qualitative research published in edited collections (such as Sullivan, 2003) has been excluded from this analysis. This research primarily uses individual (company) case studies to explore human rights issues in a particular sector, country, business function and/or stakeholder group. Though more qualitative in nature, this specificity does not provide a broader view of how human rights is managed within a cross-spectrum of companies. Sullivan, Rory (ed.), Business and Human Rights: Dilemmas and Solutions (Sheffield: Greenleaf, 2003).

41 Arkani and Theobald, note 38, 199.

42 Ibid, 204.

43 Morrison, John and Vermijs, David, The ‘State of Play’ of Human Rights Due Diligence: Anticipating the Next Five Years (London: Institute for Human Rights and Business, 2011) 36 .

44 Ibid, 24.

45 McBeth, Adam and Joseph, Sarah, ‘Same Words, Different Language: Corporate Perceptions of Human Rights Responsibilities’ (2005) 11:2 Australian Journal of Human Rights 100102 .

46 McBeth and Joseph, note 45, 101.

47 Morrison and Vermijs, note 43, 35.

48 Ibid, 26.

49 Arkani and Theobald, note 38, 196.

50 McBeth and Joseph, note 45, 102.

51 Denzin, Norman K and Lincoln, Yvonna S, ‘Introduction: Entering the Field of Qualitative Research’ in Norman K Denzin and Yvonna S Lincoln (eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994) 8 .

52 Zalan, Tatiana and Lewis, Geoffrey, ‘Writing About Methods in Qualitative Research: Towards a More Transparent Approach’ in Rebecca Marschan-Piekkari and Catherine Welch (eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods for International Business (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2004) 522 .

53 In 2009 the author provided research assistance to a consultancy (TwentyFifty) to deliver a project commissioned by, and for, the UK Ministry of Justice on business and human rights. It aimed to ascertain the extent of corporate human rights engagement, companies’ awareness of the UK Human Rights Act, and what human rights advice companies needed and how best to meet those needs.

54 Miles, Matthew B and Huberman, A Michael, Qualitative Data Analysis: An Expanded Sourcebook, 2nd edn (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994).

55 Weick, Karl E, Sutcliffe, Kathleen M and Obstfeld, David, ‘Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking (2005) 16:4 Organization Science .

56 Weick, Karl E, Sensemaking in Organizations (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1995).

57 Weick, Karl E, The Social Psychology of Organizing, 2nd edn (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1979).

58 Weick et al, note 55, 410.

59 Weick, Karl E, Making Sense of the Organization (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001) 95 .

60 Weick, note 56, 29.

61 Weick et al, note 55, 412.

62 Ibid, 410.

63 Daft, Richard L and Weick, Karl E, ‘Toward a Model of Organizations as Interpretation Systems’ (1984) 9:2 Academy of Management Review 286 .

64 Weick et al, note 55, 410.

65 Weick, note 57, 154.

66 Note that two companies are excluded from this table as they were in the process of clarifying the meaning of human rights.

67 Three are transport companies and one a manufacturing firm.

68 Note that these represent the main rationales given at the time of the interview and are likely to change over time. For example, a CSR manager observed that ‘initially it was more philanthropic, personal interest, the right thing to do. It then became more of a business case, or business reason’.

69 Morrison and Vermijs, note 43, 26.

70 Hamann et al, note 2, 467–68.

71 Morrison and Vermijs, note 43, 24.

72 This includes some prominent human rights scholars such as Donnelly, Jack, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, 2nd edn (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2003) 34 ; and

Habermas, Jürgen, ‘The Concept of Human Dignity and the Realistic Utopia of Human Rights’ (2010) 41:4 Metaphilosophy 464 .

73 Brenkert, note 3, 278. Though this does not imply that companies have explicitly rejected human rights; rather, they have not overtly and formally acknowledged its relevance to the business sector.

74 Weick, note 56, 106.

75 Frames represent people’s retained knowledge formed by ‘past moments of socialization’ that they draw on to make sense of and explain the present situation. Weick, note 55, 111.

76 Ramasastry, note 12, 238.

77 Robinson, Fiona, ‘The Limits of a Rights-Based Approach to International Ethics’ in Tony Evans (ed.), Human Rights Fifty Years On: A Reappraisal (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998) 6771 .

78 Beitz, Charles R, ‘Human Rights and Social Justice’ in Peter G Brown and Douglas MacLean (eds.), Human Rights and US Foreign Policy (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1979).

79 McGrew, Anthony G, ‘Human Rights in a Global Age: Coming to Terms with Globalization’ in Tony Evans (ed.), Human Rights Fifty Years On: A Reappraisal (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998) 205 .

80 Waddock, Sandra, ‘Parallel Universes: Companies, Academics and the Progress of Corporate Citizenship’ (2004) 109:1 Business and Society Review 56 .

81 Donaldson, Tom, ‘Moral Minimums for Multinationals’ in Joel H Rosenthal (ed.), Ethics and International Affairs: A Reader (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1999) 465 .

82 Campbell, note 19, 557.

83 Morrison and Vermijs, note 43, 24.

84 Weick, Karl E, ‘Sources of Order in Underorganized Systems: Themes in Recent Organizational Theory’ in Yvonna S Lincoln (ed.), Organizational Theory and Inquiry: The Paradigm Revolution (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1985). Reprinted in Weick, note 59, 49.

85 Weick, note 56, 132.

86 Ibid, 132.

87 Arnold, note 11, 275.

* VC2020 Lecturer in Business and Management, Faculty of Business and Law, De Montfort University, UK. I would like to thank Ken Peattie for his excellent comments on an earlier draft of this paper, and to the anonymous reviewers and the editors-in-chief (particularly Florian Wettstein) for their constructive and meticulous comments and suggestions.

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