Listen/read more from Michael Posner on business and human rights


On 25 May 2016 Michael Posner delivered the AHRCentre Annual Lecture to over 300 people in the Law Theatre at UNSW Law.

In his lecture, Professor Posner pointed out that although more and more countries are ratifying international human rights treaties and recognising the need to protect human rights, there are still many governments that lack the will or capacity to translate human rights principles into practice. Posner also noted that multinational companies often expand their operations to countries that lack human rights safeguards. Posner provided examples of human rights challenges facing global companies including unsafe working conditions, cheap labour, poor treatment of workers and child labour, highlighting for Australia, that 380 workers had died in Australian mining operations in Africa since 2004. In response, a few industry leaders, such as BHP Billiton, had developed performance indicators in an attempt to show progress on tackling human rights violations and implementing protective measures.

Posner discussed three key reasons for the lack of basic environmental and labour protections. Firstly, an increasing inequality gap between the rich and the poor (the world’s 62 wealthiest people hold the same amount of money and assets as 3.5 billion of the poorest people). Secondly, local governments prioritise competing in the global economy rather than implementing local regulatory controls to protect vulnerable people from environmental and labour harm. Thirdly, many multinational companies focus their business models on short-term profits rather than engaging in sustainable human rights practices.

Referring to the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council, Posner argued that it is time for businesses to adopt long-term sustainable business models that entrench human rights principles and practices. Secondly, multinational companies need to establish industry-wide standards and performance metrics to hold businesses accountable to agreed standards.  Finally, governments need to work together to implement consistent laws that protect human rights globally and ensure that effective reporting mechanisms are in place.