Any of our business? Human Rights and the UK private sector - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by UNICEF


  UNICEF UK is pleased to submit this document in response to the call for evidence by the Joint Committee on Human Rights as part of its enquiry into Business and Human Rights.

  UNICEF is the world's leading organisation working for children and their rights. We work with families, local communities, partners and governments in 193 countries to help every child realise their full potential. UNICEF UK is one of 36 UNICEF National Committees based in industrialised countries. Part of our work in the UK is to champion children's rights and advocate for lasting change. This document reflects this focus of UNICEF UK's work, and relates it to the three focal areas of the Committee's enquiry.


  Having ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) the UK is obliged to do all it can to ensure that children and young people in the UK enjoy the highest attainable standards of health, safety and well-being.

  The CRC is often not incorporated into discussions on the relationship between companies and human rights. This is a serious omission. Children's rights, as outlined in the CRC, are often directly affected by corporate activity. Yet children themselves usually cannot influence company or government decisions and are in many ways dependent on adults. This leaves children especially vulnerable to exploitation and human rights abuses. For example, British children are increasingly exposed to media activity. Research conducted by the Family and Parenting Institute shows that young children are more easily influenced than adults by commercial pressures. This can violate children's right to reliable information,[572] as they may not always understand the messages contained in the mass media.

  Specific areas of particular concern to UNICEF UK relate to child pornography, climate change and child labour.

Child Pornography

  The criminalisation of child pornography is still subject to governance gaps, despite sexual exploitation being an enormously harmful violation of children's rights. In the UK the Protection of Children Act 1978 and the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 address visual and Internet related child pornography, however, British Internet service providers currently self-regulate under the coordination of the NGO "Internet Watch Foundation" and this remains controversial. Despite its stating in 2006 that it would make UK internet providers face up to their responsibilities, should 100% sign up not be realised, little has been done by the UK Government to improve the situation. This has left the children's charities to call upon Government to ensure that this target is reached. Further to this, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Communication launched an enquiry in April 2009, investigating the effectiveness of the current approach to child sexual abuse images. Effective action is needed and must be led by government.

Climate Change

  An area requiring further attention is the relationship between human induced climate change and its impact on human rights. Of particular concern are the rights of children, who will be the most negatively affected by the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions and natural resource consumption of their predecessors. For example, children's right to food (CRC Article 24) is directly impacted by climate change and its effect on agricultural productivity. Violation of this right can impair physical and mental growth at a critical stage of a child development leading to life long disability. Article 24 of the CRC outlines the UK government's commitment to protect children's rights to life, health and a clean environment.

Child Labour

  Of particular concern to UNICEF UK is the health and safety of children working in corporate supply chains. Mining and agriculture are the two industries causing the most fatalities globally. Child workers in the cotton industry, which uses 75% of the world's pesticides, are particularly exposed to serious health risks. This is because children are twice as vulnerable to the negative effects of pesticides as adults, due to their greater skin/body ratio and deeper inhalation rates. Through the CRC the UK Government has not only committed itself to ensuring that children and young people have a right to life, health and a clean environment within its own national borders, but also to assist developing countries in achieving the same for their young citizens.[573] Furthermore, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights outlines the universal right to "just and favourable conditions of work".[574]


  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls upon every individual and every organ of society to protect and promote human rights. This includes the responsibility of business to respect Human Rights.

  UK legislation in the fields of labour, environment and health and safety offers considerable protection from corporate human rights abuses at the national level. However, in developing countries, where states may exercise weak or no influence over the negative impacts of corporate activities, there may be little incentive for firms to actively engage with the fundamental rights of their stakeholders. Moreover, in some poorer countries enterprises enjoy a higher degree of structural power than the national government, which renders State sovereignty moot.[575] The fact that that the world's top 200 corporations have been estimated to control a quarter of the world's productive assets[576] is a strong indication of the structural power enjoyed by business in the global political economy. So the regulation of UK based multinational companies by the UK Government is needed to ensure that they respect children's rights.

  The current plethora of voluntary codes of conduct and best practice certification schemes in the broader field of corporate responsibility may suggest that private actors are independently living up to their social and environmental responsibilities.[577] However, the inherent weakness of such soft law lies in its voluntary nature, which ultimately renders labeling and certification initiatives unenforceable. Although UNICEF UK welcomes the contribution of some labeling initiatives to raising the profile of child protection issues as well as their intentions to promote sustainable development, they do not always achieve positive results on the ground. A Fair Trade labeled product, for example, does not ensure that child labour has been excluded from the supply chain. Monitoring of long supply chains remains problematic and local capacity and resources to adequately enforce Fair Trade standards are often lacking. In sum, labeling initiatives alone do not ensure that UK businesses respect human rights, as their effectiveness is dependant upon enterprises pro-actively living up to (sometimes costly) extra-legal obligations. Voluntary schemes must therefore be reinforced by government legislation.

  The UK Government should work to encourage the protection of children's rights abroad and at home by publicly endorsing sound corporate responsibility initiatives. The UK government can contribute to fostering a culture of respect for Human Rights through its public procurement strategies. The existing UK Government's Sustainable Procurement Action Plan specifically focuses on delivering targets related to environmental sustainability. However, this Action Plan should be extended to incorporate a more comprehensive approach to sustainable development, including Human Rights obligations. UNICEF UK, for example, demands that its partners actively include the CRC in their risk assessments and due diligence processes. In line with this, supply chains must be re-visited through a protection lens and vulnerabilities mapped. Failure to do so risks complicity.

  The current global economic crisis has shown the need for government intervention in the economy. Many children's rights advocates, including UNICEF UK, therefore expect increased government regulation in the future, as well as a heightened acceptance of the need to embed ethics within incentive structures. Improved risk assessment and due diligence processes from the side of private enterprise are also needed.

  UNICEF UK recommends mandatory corporate social and environmental reporting by all British based Transnational Corporations (TNCs), in order to deliver transparency and increase pressure to improve their social and environmental performance.


  Prof John Ruggie's mapping of 400 public allegations against businesses, to which already vulnerable people often fall victim, highlights the extent to which effective remedies are lacking in this context.[578] In line with its obligations under the CRC, the UK Government must provide separate legal representation for a child in any judicial dispute concerning their care. However, when seeking remedies for violations of their rights, particularly at the hands of private enterprises, children encounter significant difficulties in using the judicial system. The fact that there are limited organisations mandated to protect children's rights further aggravates this problem.

  Children and those working with them must be able to report Human Rights violations inflicted upon them by companies in order to access remedies. Children must be enabled to monitor and report on violations of their rights. This requires targeted documents and processes to be made accessible to children and young people. Such measures are still lacking despite the UK Government's obligation to fulfill the right to freedom of expression.[579] In line with this, UNICEF UK recommends that the four UK Children's Commissioners be part of a future monitoring process of the impacts of UK companies on children's rights.

572   CRC, Article 17 Back

573   CRC, Article 24 Back

574   Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23 Back

575   This is for example the case for tobacco companies in Malawi Back

576   See note by the UN Secretary General, The Right to Food, 28 August 2003 Back

577   E.g. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, The United Nations Global Compact as well as schemes managed by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Back

578   Reported in 11th Session Human Rights Council 22nd April 2009 Back

579   CRC, Article 12 Back

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Prepared 16 December 2009