Human rights are moral entitlements that are thought of as being owed to all humans, simply in light of the fact of their humanity, independent of any legal structure and regardless of where in the world they live. Examples include the right of all persons to be treated equally under the law, the right not to be tortured, and the right not to be enslaved. While human rights are primarily a moral concept, human rights have also received legal protection of various kinds. Some nations have enshrined various rights in their own constitutions (as in the US Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms), and international law (as in the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, which govern the conduct of war.)
International agreement as to the existence and importance of such rights is embodied in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.
Modern conceptions of human rights build upon the much older philosophical notion of “natural” rights, which were universal and were specifically contrasted with the “artificial” rights granted by governments. But the notion of universal human rights has sometimes been controversial. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that the only rights are legal rights, and that the idea of natural rights was nonsense.
Many ethical issues in business are implicitly or explicitly questions of human rights. Arguments about sweatshop labour, for example, are often cast in terms of just how bad labour conditions have to be in order for them to be thought of as violating human rights. Likewise when companies work to discourage workers from unionizing, the question arises whether they thereby violate workers’ internationally-recognized right of freedom of assembly and association.
This is particularly relevant in international business contexts. In some cases, businesses from Western nations do business in developing countries where legal regulation, including legal protections for persons, is minimal. In such contexts, it is often argued that the behaviour of companies ought to be guided not just by local law, but by internationally agreed-upon human rights. It does not matter, for example, that local law does not explicitly forbid racial discrimination: the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of race is recognized as a human right, and so corporations, wherever they operate, ought to act accordingly. The most far-reaching version of this point of view argues that companies have an obligation to do what they can to make up for the deficiencies of the jurisdictions in which they do business.
See Also in CEBE:
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- Smith, Jeffery. “Corporate Human Rights Obligations: Moral or Political?” Business Ethics Journal Review, 2013.