Business, Children and Human Rights

December 30, 2013

By Olga Martin-Ortega and Rebecca M.M.Wallace

The concern over the role of the private business sector with regards to the fulfilment of children’s rights is relatively recent. International attention on the effects business activities have on children has been fragmented until now, focussing on specific sectors, mainly child labour and economic exploitation. Recent international developments in the area of business and human rights have brought a more specific focus to the impact that corporate activities have on children and how to address them. Business activities can have a significant impact on the human rights of children, both positive and adverse. International investment and commercial activities are important for economic development and to guarantee that children have better opportunities. However on many occasions such growth does not have a positive impact on children’s lives. On other occasions, they may be exposed to situations of corporate abuse experienced by them, their parents or carers or damage to the environment and communities in which they live. Moreover business activities can also affect children’s health and wellbeing, for example when children are the consumers of products and services provided by businesses.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, elaborated by the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights and endorsed by the Human Rights Council in 2011, do not pay particular attention to the rights of children. This has led some organisations to develop their own initiatives to define child-sensitive principles in this area. In 2012 UNICEF, the Global Compact and Save the Children joined forces to develop and publish the Children’s Rights and Business Principles (CRB Principles). Further in April 2013 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published the most comprehensive interpretation of the scope of states’ obligations with regards to the impact corporations’ activities can have on children rights, its General Comment No. 16 on state obligations regarding the impact of the business sector on children’s rights.

Both documents represent an important step in the consolidation of an international agenda for the protection of the rights of the child that takes into account the different challenges faced by children in the current economic system. These documents are a further step in the development of a comprehensive approach which gives cognisance to all the actors involved in the protection and promotion of children’s rights, and moves away from a solely state-centric conception of international human rights obligations and responsibilities. Until recently international focus has been somewhat ad hoc and sector-specific, with a concentration on the regulation of child labour and economic exploitation of children and the consequences of the privatisation of public services on their rights. The international legal instruments regulating these spheres placed the responsibility in the fulfilment of the rights of the child exclusively on states. However, both the CRB Principles and General Comment 16 acknowledge a responsibility of business vis-à-vis children’s rights beyond that of the state. Even in the case of the General Comment, which is fundamentally addressed to states, clear direct references are made to what is expected of business. Whilst only states have direct obligations with regards to children’s rights, increased recognition of business responsibilities contribute to, and may continue to contribute to, the creation of fertile ground for increased demands on business. This may lead to indirect obligations in international law and the development of direct obligations in national legal systems.

The CRB Principles and General Comment 16 are also important because they are based on the conception of children as rights bearers. This goes beyond the traditional perception, in the context of business activities, that children are mainly objects to be protected from economic exploitation and abuse as members of the labour force or recipients of welfare services. Children have rights also in relation to business, and they should be included in every step of the way to guarantee that economic activities do not harm them. Importantly both instruments widen the protection of children to include areas which had previously not received attention, such as the needs of children as consumers of products, services and marketing strategies; their rights in the context of large economic projects which affect their environment and their communities; and the specific challenges and risks to which they are exposed in situations of armed conflict and emergencies.

Therefore, although the documents discussed here are not legally binding they do represent the development of a more comprehensive strategy rather than the piecemeal approach which has, until recently, been characteristic of the field of children’s rights and business. There is a substantive body of international instruments on the issue of children’s rights as well as an increased number of international initiatives regarding business and human rights. Cross-reference has to be made and cognisance given to the ramifications each has for the other. Equally, businesses themselves are contributing by acknowledging their own role in the fulfilment of children’s rights. However a plethora of instruments and public declarations of good will in themselves will not promote and protect the rights of children: it is important that these are realised in practice and that the appropriate checks and balances, informed by robust monitoring, be implemented.

The current progress is encouraging but for effective promotion and protection of children’s rights states have to take the necessary steps in their domestic legal systems and businesses have to discharge their responsibilities diligently, taking into account all those likely to be affected by their activities. However whether this can be realised while the framework around children’s rights and business is of a voluntary nature remains to be seen.

Dr. Martin-Ortega is Reader in Public International Law at the University of Greenwich and Professor Wallace is Professor of International Human Rights and Justice at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. They are authors of the article “Business, Human Rights and Children: the Developing Agenda,” Denning Law Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2013, pp. 17-127.  

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