Human Rights and The Balance

Human Rights and The Balance

From smoke to slavery, that was how wide the range of subjects that was tackled at the Human Rights Conference. I’ve never been to a Human Rights Conference before. No particular reason, just never thought I needed to. This time the EU organisers invited me with encouragement, so I went. It was packed. Standing room only for some people. It was lively, thoughtful and relevant. There were none of the normal apple-pie, motherhood speeches that belittle conferences like this. Good practical questions with a little philosophical thought.

Missing were the business people. I was one of only a very few to attend, other than some panellists. Odd, when you think that employment is the arena in which most human rights abuse occurs. There was a slight air of the converted talking to the converted. For all that, I would not have missed it for anything. Just as an hour’s pause a week to review your life is useful so an annual half day is good to ponder how far we have reached with our human rights agenda. The answer is not very far. One form of slavery replaces another.

The trouble about rights is that they can become license to do almost anything. The right to bear arms in America is a tragic example of how what started out as legitimate defence has turned into madmen’s rights to kill pointlessly. The right to cheap alcohol in Britain has led to a society that, in places, is three-parts drunk from Friday to Monday – by rights. All rights inevitably inflict pain on someone else and, as several speakers said, the issue is one of impact. John Bray of Control Risks – a company that produces some of the best common-sense – eloquently pointed out that one man’s right is another man’s problem.

The heart of the matter is how to convince shareholders / owners of businesses to seek for more than maximum immediate profit. Progress, it was claimed, is being made. I don’t doubt it. But when you compare the CSR of today’s major MNCs with what Cadbury and Rowntree and Mars and many others did for their employees the progress looks less impressive. And when you set the older-established businesses alongside the new, tech, companies the ‘progress’ goes into reverse. Start-ups have, understandably, little time or inclination to devote much effort to CSR. So the Uber’s of this world end up quibbling over whether to employ or enslave their drivers.

I am the first to say that not everything can be measured. However, now that we can measure so much more, might we work towards rating companies for their Impact Balance? What they produce that is useful versus what they damage or destroy in the process. We could then adjust taxes on profits to be beneficial to the companies with exceptionally Good Balance and penalise companies that fell short of Acceptable Balance. Shareholders would quickly grasp the calculation of what tax level versus what cost of CSR would be optimal for their company. Robotic accountants would have a field day with this assessment.

Exhortation in today’s world has proved singularly ineffective. Even the churches have discovered that. We are likely to be more successful if we use our weakness for wealth as a discipline than simply rely on better behaviour. Where case histories were quoted the conference came fully to life. People confer better about the tangible than the theoretical.

A future Human Rights conference might consider more specific cases, not just posed but resolved. And I do hope that businesses will be encouraged to participate more fully.

If they did it would demonstrate their moral compass willingness to adopt better standards.

That is a vital step to making Human Rights even more credible.