By Adrian Henriques, ACCA Global Sustainability Forum member – www.henriques.info
There is no shortage of dreadful human rights abuses around the world – from displaced people, slavery in agriculture, human trafficking and more. I’m sure that all accountants would agree that human rights should be respected at all times. But it may not be obvious what this has to do with the business of accounting – even granted that the accounting profession has a remit to work in the public interest.
The first part of the answer to that is all about what human rights have to do with companies. That issue has been discussed at the United Nations for the last forty years and several unproductive attempts have been made to codify the responsibilities of companies as a result. In 2011, as a result of the widespread consultations of John Ruggie, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights‘. These achieved the remarkable result of securing a good consensus between governments, business and civil society as to the role of companies in relation to securing human rights. The key point was that while governments have a legal obligation to uphold human rights, companies have a duty to respect them.
The second part of the answer concerns how companies can, in practical terms, respect human rights. As set out in the Guiding Principles, the main point is about adopting a systematic approach to setting policies, reviewing risk, reporting and acting accordingly. That amounts to due diligence towards human rights issues. And of course, the rigour of due diligence is something with which accountants are familiar. There is therefore likely to be increasing demand for the services of accountants in this area.
One manifestation of this is the work of the accounting firm Mazars. Mazars is currently one of the main parties behind the development of a standard for reporting on human rights issues, based on the Guiding Principles. It is also developing a standard for auditing those reports. Another manifestation is the increasing attention to human rights being paid by ACCA. ACCA is currently working on a project to look at business responsibilities in relation to child rights.
So there is some human rights accounting to be done for businesses after all. It will address how businesses take responsibility for the human rights consequences of their activities. This forms part of the increasing prominence of non-financial aspects in corporate reporting. The accounting profession can therefore respond positively to the call in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for every ‘organ of society’ to do its part in promoting human rights.