The role of business
in promoting human rights

This knowledge centre is divided into the following sections:

  1. A Short History of Human Rights
  2. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  3. UN Organizations and Business Associations Concerned with Human Rights
  4. Who is Who in Human Rights Today
  5. The Business Case: Why are Human Rights Important to Business
  6. Best Practices in Human Rights
  7. Statements and Quotations
  8. References


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1. A Short History of Human Rights

‘Human rights’ as a concept has constantly evolved throughout human history. The foundation of human rights can be seen in the early traditions and documents of many cultures. Individuals have acquired rights and responsibilities as part of a family, a nation, a religion or another group that share common goals. The great religions of the world have all sought to establish moral codes of conduct based on divine law. Their ideas on the dignity of the human being and their concern with duties and obligations of man to his fellow human beings, to nature, and to God and all creation can be seen as the roots of human rights. They were established to avoid behaviour that might lead to conflict. (1)


In ancient Greece, human rights became synonymous with natural rights – rights that spring from natural law. According to Greek tradition, natural law is law that reflects the natural order of the universe. The idea of natural rights continued in ancient Rome, where the Roman jurist Ulpian believed that natural rights belonged to every person, whether they were a Roman citizen or not.


The next fundamental philosophy of human rights arose from the idea of positive law. Thomas Hobbes, (1588-1679) saw natural law as vague and open to differences of interpretation. Under positive law, human rights can be given, taken away, and modified by a society to suit its needs. Early legal documents specifically described these rights in detail: (2)

  • British Magna Carta 1215
  • French Declaration of the Rights of Man – 1789
  • American Bill of Rights – 1789
  • The Geneva Conventions: the core of international humanitarian law


The World Wars and the huge losses of life and human rights abuses during the World Wars were a driving force behind the development of modern human rights instruments. The League of Nations was established in 1919 at the negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles following the end of World War I. The League’s goals included disarmament, preventing war through collective security, settling disputes between countries through negotiation, diplomacy and improving global welfare. Enshrined in its Charter was a mandate to promote many of the rights, which were later included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


The United Nations was created at the 1945 Yalta Conference and replaced the League of Nations. The United Nations has played an important role in international human rights law since its creation, developing bodies of law that make up international humanitarian law and international human rights law.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was framed by members of the Human Rights Commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, who began to discuss an International Bill of Rights in 1947. The Commission proceeded to frame the UDHR and accompanying treaties. Canadian law professor John Humprey and French lawyer René Cassin were responsible for much of the research and the structure of the document respectively. Some of the UDHR was researched and written by a committee of international experts on human rights, including representatives from all continents and all major religions, and drawing on consultation with leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi.


On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), calling upon all member states to publicize the text of the Declaration and “to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.” The UDHR is a statement of mutual aspirations and a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. It serves as the foundation for human rights protection. The UDHR has been translated into over 360 different languages.


Beyond the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international human rights framework comprises seven “core” instruments:

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Optional Protocol;
  • International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights;
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child;
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women;
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Race Discrimination;
  • International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families;
  • Convention Against Torture, in addition to which there are two other significant instruments: the Genocide Convention and the Convention on the Rights of Refugees. (3)

(1) “History Of Universal Human Rights – Up To WW2”, by Moira Rayner


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