The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1948. The UDHR is often regarded as the Grundnorm of human rights—that is, the highest standard of norm from which all other norms on human rights derive their validity. It is the first international legal instrument to focus on the improvements of human rights of all people. It is founded on the idea that every man, woman and child, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status, possesses certain fundamental and inalienable rights. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination and from birth until death, by virtue of being human.
The UDHR covers a wide range of human rights under its 30 Articles. Despite it being a non-binding international legal instrument, through consistent state practice, the UDHR has attained the status of customary international law and therefore cannot be derogated by any state under any circumstances.
The principles of the UDHR have been incorporated into the constitutions of more than 185 nations. States have a legal obligation to promote and protect the human rights of all, which is done by ratifying international human rights instruments, formulating national legislations in accordance with its international obligations, establishing human rights institutions, judicial bodies and increasing its awareness amongst their citizen.
Business and Human Rights
When seen from the perspective of responsible business conduct, the UDHR contains provisions which address human rights violations by corporations. Businesses and corporations, either directly or indirectly, have the potential to adversely affect the human rights of those associated with its operations—workers, consumers and communities. The UDHR thus guarantees not only civil and political rights, but also economic, social and cultural rights of persons and people. Amongst all the rights enshrined in the UDHR, the following Articles are of particular importance to the Business and Human Rights framework:
Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. This Article is fundamental to realizing all the other rights and has special relevance in the context of human rights violations by corporations. The conduct of corporations, such as release of toxic substance in populated areas, life-threatening operations undertaken by workers, and the manufacture and/or sale of products which can cause fatalities, are covered within the purview of this Article.
Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. Contemporary forms of slavery include, forced labour, debt bondage, serfdom, children working in slavery or slavery-like conditions, domestic servitude, sexual slavery and servile forms of marriage. Corporations have been found guilty of perpetuating contemporary forms of slavery, especially in sectors such as, agriculture and fishing, manufacturing, processing and packaging, construction, mining, quarrying and brick kilns, and domestic work. In larger corporations, instances of contemporary forms of slavery are often witnessed in the lower tiers of their supply chains, which remain largely opaque and thus unaccounted.
Article 22: Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality. It provides for social security of individuals and respect to their economic, social and cultural rights. Social security includes support to individuals and families through pensions for the elderly, disability payments for injured workers, benefits for mothers, health insurance and many other programs and assistance in the form of cash transfer that helps people, especially the poor and vulnerable, to cope with the loss, find jobs and educate their children. The realization of these rights depends on the ‘available resources of each state’. Article 22 precedes the five subsequent articles of UDHR which further elaborate the scope of economic, social and cultural rights.
Article 23: Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment; everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work; everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and; everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests. This Article addresses and codifies the rights to protect workers at the workplace. It lays down four major rights of workers—the right to work, equal pay for equal work, just and favourable remuneration, and the right to form trade union. This Article has significant relevance from a Business and Human Rights perspective as it touches upon issues of occupation safety and health, discriminatory remunerations between men and women, and via-a-vis marginalized and vulnerable sections of society, provision for ensuring living wages for a life of dignity and respect, and protecting workers’ interests in an organized manner through membership in trade unions.
Article 24: Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay. It provides for right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay. Working for long hours without rest imposes grave danger to the health and wellbeing of workers, and is often symptomatic of forced labour and contemporary forms of slavery.
Article 25: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, and; motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. This Article too addresses issues of living wage and adequate living conditions of workers. However, it goes further to ensure livelihood security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control, some of which may result from corporate action and operations. It also acknowledges and provides for the special needs of mothers and children vis-à-vis their livelihood opportunities.
The complete text of the UDHR and its Articles can be accessed here: https://www.un.org/en/udhrbook/pdf/udhr_booklet_en_web.pdf