Private Sector’s Role in Achieving the 2030 Agenda

 Human rights advocates typically use moral arguments to advance the belief that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (United Nations, 1948, Art. 1)[1]. Yet, human rights advocates’ ability to effectively inspire universal respect for international agendas, like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), through moral rhetoric assumes that: (a) individuals/corporations are naturally altruistic and care about distant suffering; (b) morality is universally valuable; and (c) stakeholders will relinquish their privilege and interests to invest in human rights because ‘it is the right thing to do’ (Branco, 2008: 2)[2].

Ethically, the private-sector should invest in education [SDG3] to reduce inequalities [SDG 10]–including gender inequality [SDG 5], poverty [SDG1], and hunger [SDG 2]–and support sustainable cities [SDG 11] and climate action [SDG 13]  by promoting responsible consumption and production [SDG 12], industry and infrastructural innovation [SDG 9], and economic growth [SDG 8] for the sake of collective health and well-being [SDG 3].

Unfortunately, however, abstract moral arguments ignore the fact that some companies are less concerned with ethics than they are on profit maximization, and the extent to which their short-term financial interests can perpetuate inequality through worker, environmental, and economic exploitation.

Acknowledging that certain groups can benefit from systemic inequality, altruistic arguments do not provide strong incentives to invest in the SDGs’ universal promises (Giovannoni, 2013:6)[3] (Ignatieff, 2001:x)[4]. Financing social programs–like education [SDG 4] and government healthcare and housing [SDGs 1,2]–that reduce inequality [SDG 10] through taxation-based resource reallocation can create a “permanent tension between the principles of equality and justice that underpin liberal democracy and the actual inequalities of wealth and power that characterize the capitalist economy” (Turner, 2006:91)[5].

Forcing corporations to forego their fiduciary interests to finance economic and social programs for the SDGs can create a lot of resentment towards vulnerable groups, exacerbate inequality, and discourage multi-stakeholder cooperation. We must bridge the disparity between corporate commitment and corporate follow-through: we must incentivize private-sector cooperation and (financial and social) investment by highlighting the ways that the SDGs serve both the collective good and corporate interests. We must encourage corporate investment in education [SDG4] to reduce intersectional inequalities [SDG10]–including gender [SDG5], poverty [SDG1], and food-based [SDG2]–to promote economic growth [SDG8] and maximize their profits through training and merit-based hiring. We need to incentivize corporate investment in education [SDG 4] for green jobs by highlighting the externalities of climate inaction [SDG13], which will cost them more in taxes than using industry innovation [SDG 9] to build sustainable cities [SDG11]. We must emphasize that the externalities of inequality will cost more than promoting safe working conditions [SDG 8], healthcare [SDG3], and intersectional poverty.

Recognizing that previous agreements were mired by their failure to promote partnership for the goals [SDG 17], all stakeholders must contribute to the process. Acknowledging the private sector’s large role in society, it is important to frame the SDGs in the context of their interests to encourage cooperation and commitment to doing their part to ensure that “No one gets left behind”.

As it stands, human rights are threatened every single day. From implicit laws, like the Fair Labor Standards Act, to outright exclusionary policy, it appears that abstract moral arguments for human dignity are not enough. Economics, social inequalities, and history have structurally disenfranchised minority groups, including the disabled, and created a culture of social and economic privilege (Roth, 2004: 65). Recognizing that the system is built on structural inequality and privilege, morality and the “right thing to do” are not convincing arguments. The question then becomes “how do we make people care about human rights?”

Human rights advocates use morality and authoritative (yet non-binding) language in international treaties to advance universal human dignity. Yet, the approach is mired by four facts. Firstly, morality is not universally operationalized, so calls for altruism have a limited meaning (Elson, 2000: 1351). Secondly, the treaties are non-binding and are only applicable to countries that have ratified them, which also limits their universal application (Alston, 2013: 1297). Thirdly, countries have limited resources to actually implement these rights, so there will not be a standardized application. Finally, the exclusionary system privileges certain groups, so large-scale reforms would not be in certain groups’ interests (Neier, 2008: 1).

Acknowledging these social, political, and economic limitations, the moral do-good approach that is indicative of human rights is not the strongest option. If people cared about morality and dignity in the first place, then there would not be any human rights violations. If people saw everyone as equal members of the human family, then there would not be any causes for human rights advocates to discuss. The fact is: that is not the world that we live in, and, unfortunately, by ignoring the current state of affairs, human rights advocates are weakening their chances of the world that they want to create.

As Dr. Manuel Branco mentioned, the world is built on economics, which is “individualistic, utilitarian and equilibrium driven” (Branco, 2008: 6). Human rights are a secondary thought to monetary individual acquisition (Ibid, 6). Accepting Branco’s claim that individuals are inherently selfish and money-driven, it would seem that they do not care about others, especially minorities that they believe are dependent on the government (Ibid, 6).

Acknowledging individuals’ self-serving interests and disinterest in the plight of others, human rights advocates must market their causes to make individuals care about one another. To shift the focus from individual to collective benefits, human rights advocates must frame their approach to show the ways that collective rights produce individual monetary benefits.

On the surface level, human rights and economics are seen as completely contradictory fields because universal dignity requires reallocating economic resources. Shallow analysis makes it seem like human rights do not benefit individuals, especially because social programs are financed through reallocating the wealthy’s resources. Yet, as I have shown, structural disenfranchisement creates an unhealthy dependence on social services, like Unemployment Insurance and SSDI, which ultimately costs the government more money (Autor, 2011: 3).

In that case, human rights, like disability-inclusive education and disability employment laws, are not only benefiting individuals in that category but are also sound economic investments. The government will indubitably have to spend money on the disabled, but, as I have argued, investing in inclusive policies to further their education and employment prospects will ultimately be cheaper than constantly paying to support them (Schwochau, 2000: 3). Educating disabled workers will increase their employability, which means that they will not take up the government’s limited social services. Educating disabled workers will enable them to perform their jobs better.

and increase the supply of their work, which can ultimately increase GDP. Giving these disabled workers disability accommodations and fair wages will help them gain financial independence, which will enable them to pay for their own housing, own food, and own private healthcare as opposed to relying on the state and federal governments to supply it through increased taxation. Giving these disabled workers health care will not only promote their personal health but will save the government money in long-term care and Medicaid expenditures, for which the disabled already account for 50 percent.

It is incredibly important to take an economic approach to human rights, especially in 2017. As it stands, President Trump wants to repeal the IDEA by dismantling the Department of Education (Kamenetz, 2017), which will disproportionately affect the disabled and their prospects for employment. President Trump wants to increase corporate power, which will weaken respect for the ADA and further subject the disabled to unemployment and social services for which the wealthy will pay. Finally, President Trump wants to repeal the ACA, which will leave 22 million Americans without healthcare and increase dependence and spending on emergency services that the wealthy will also have to fund. All three of these policy proposals will indubitably cost more than it would to simply promote disability rights, and without the positive externalities. In that case, disability rights is not only the moral option but it is also the most cost-effective option.

If there is anything to take away from my research, it is that one does not necessarily need to like, care about, or even respect humans or their dignity to understand the benefits of universal human rights. Economic analysis shows that collective rights are in individuals’ interest, which is a way more cogent argument for universal human rights than abstract morality and lofty ambitions for respect.

Yet, many human rights advocates refuse to effectively employ economic marketing to advance their causes because they believe in the value of human dignity on its own. Unfortunately, however, the wealthy that perpetuate the cycle of inequality and oppression do not share the same sentiments. So, as much as human rights advocates impugn economic interests, the failure to discuss universal economic benefits weakens their potential to build a world of universally accepted human rights.

It is human rights advocates’ moral elitism that is singlehandedly preventing them from the world that they want to build.

There are seven billion people in the world, but no two people are the same (Bloom 2011: 562). These seven billion individuals are organised into different kinds of communities — including proximity, family, and psychological — whose unique traditions, values, and histories form the foundation of their group identities (Bell 2015: 12).  While some suggest that human rights stem from different social processes, I will argue that there are many similarities amongst the European, Inter-American, and African human rights systems that transcends their cultural differences, and suggests a universal — albeit minimum — conception of human rights (Schaefer 2005: 28). I will juxtapose the three regional human rights systems to highlight the ways that they stem from a core commitment to equality.

  1. The Precedent.

After World War II, 51 nations came together to establish the United Nations to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights” (United Nations 1948: Preamble).

 The original 51 nations consisted of larger countries — like China, USSR, and USA — and  smaller nations — like Cuba, Ethiopia, and Iraq (Schlessinger 2009: 28). The founding countries hailed from all six inhabited continents of the world with different religions, political systems, and levels of development; however, despite claims to regional differences — including Inoue Tatsu’s “Asian Way” and Josiah Cobbah’s “African values” – these nations put their differences aside in the collective interest of maintaining peace and security (Schlessinger 2009: 39) (Tatsu 1996: 29) (Cobbah 1987: 311-2). China’s participation in the proceedings refutes Tatsu Inoue’s claims to the “Asian way,” just as Ethiopia, Liberia, and South Africa’s presence refutes Cobbah’s claims to “African values” (Tatsu 1996: 29) (Cobbah 1987: 311-2). Despite the backdrop of the Cold War, the U.S. and the USSR agreed on the necessity of an international system to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights” (UN Charter 1948: Preamble). Cuba, Ethiopia, and Iraq — three nations from three different regions of the world — agreed on the importance of an overarching international system, which refutes  (UN Charter 1948: Preamble). The collaboration amongst the 51 countries highlights the ways that World War II was a global social process that ultimately expedited the creation of preventative human rights institutions.

The UN Charter subjected the founding 51 countries to international oversight: 48 of these countries supported the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the 94 percent[1] acceptance rate shows that standardization of human rights was almost universally welcomed (Schlessinger 2009: 39)..

The creation of a global international forum through the U.N. inspired the creation of more localised regional implementation, which has formed the foundation for international human rights protection (Harris 2009: 3).

  1. Case Study: Equality

There are many similarities amongst the four human rights documents, including the right to life, liberty, religion, and education, which suggests a universal minimum set of human rights that transcends cultural differences. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on the overlapping conceptions of equality.

Equality is a central part of human rights because it relates to both the entitlement and the equal exercise of rights and fundamental freedoms. Equality fosters horizontal relationships and obligations amongst members of different communal affiliations (Petit 1997: 394). Equality breeds inclusiveness, which serves as a natural barrier against the domination that has characterised human rights violations throughout history (Petit 1997: 394).

III.  Equality as Written

In April of 1948, 21 Inter-American countries ratified the Charter of the Organisation of American States to maintain “regional peace, security, solidarity, and territorial integrity” (Goldman 2009: 861). The

Organisation of American States then ratified the first all-encompassing human rights document — The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man — which outlines individual and state rights, and accompanying obligations (Goldman 2009: 861). These  civil, political, and legal rights form the foundation for state-citizens relations within the regional system (Pasquiallucci 2012: 1)

Within the Preamble is the declaration that “All men are born free and equal, in dignity and in rights” (American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man 1948). Equality is a central tenet of human rights because it grants citizens the same entitlements, regardless of political, social, racial, and cultural differences that are usually used as tools of marginalisation, oppression, and deprivations of dignity.

In December of 1948, the U.N. adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Sieghart 1996). With 48 nations supporting its ratification, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights committed nations to the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” (UDHR 1948). Its Preamble explicitly mentions equality and dignity, which are the foundations for universal human rights.

References to equality and dignity, however, do not stop with the Preamble. Article 1 explicitly states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (UDHR 1948). Article 1 shifts the conception of equality from belonging solely to men to the human race as a whole. By expanding the subjects of equality, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights subjects itself to less gender-based vituperation Although some argue that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is limited by its generality, this prevents individuals, groups, and governments from abusing the definition for personal gain, which was a central issue in World War II.

            In 1950, the Council of Europe started a new chapter in European history by ratifying the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Van Dijk 1996). Equality is repeatedly referenced in multiple articles, including Articles 1, 2, and 5 (ECHR 1950). Instead of mentioning, “All men” or “All humans,” the Convention promotes inclusiveness by using the term “everyone” (ADRM 1948) (UDHR 1948) (ECHR 1950). The language deviation can be attributed to the collective European experience of defining “humanness” through the marginalisation of others in World War II (Cassesse 2005: 375-377).  While the language deviation can be attributed to a unique regional experience, the commitment to equal inclusion is consistent with global standards of human rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights..

In 1987, the Organisation of African Unity ratified the Charter of Human and People’s Rights, which outlined the foundations of regional protection of human rights (Rehman 2010). Although the ACHPR’s imperial references differ from other human rights documents, the Charter echoed its predecessors’ commitment to equality (Ibawoh 2000: 840). Article 3 of the ACHPR states “Every individual shall be equal before the law [and] Every individual shall be entitled to equal protection of the law” (African Charter on  1987).

Although many, like Joseph Cobbah, argue that the ACHPR’s structure and individualistic focus evinces western hegemonic influence, Article 18’s focus on group rights reflect regional values (Cobbah 1987: 311-312). Article 18’s incorporation of group rights shows that culturally-specific ideas have been incorporated into regional charters to facilitate human rights norms. Therefore, the ACHPR — like other Charters — are a combination of global norms as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and region-specific values that reflect their unique cultural histories (Cobbah 1987: 311-312). These “regional values” are consistent with and complement international law.

III. Conclusion

While some suggest that human rights stem from different social processes, the similarities amongst the three human rights systems suggest a universal minimum set of human rights. Equality promotes human rights by fostering a common foundation for the exercise and enjoyment of fundamental freedoms (Schaefer 2005: 28). The Charters’ strong focus on equality highlights its universal importance.

While some theorists, like Josiah Cobbah, use cultural differences to refute “universal human rights,” the detrimental implications of this argument outweighs its probative value (Cobbah 1997: 311-312). Acknowledging and respecting diversity is key to cultural protection, but too much emphasis on difference leads to regionalism, separation, and marginalisation. In light of the ways that differences have been used as tools for marginalisation and dignity deprivation, it is important to also emphasise shared values as a foundation for collaboration (Schaefer 2005: 28).

While one could refute universality based on leaders’ behavior, there is a difference between outlined values and practices (Hermann 1980: 8). Regimes do not bear the imprimatur of their countries, regions, or communities (Hermann 1980: 8). Leaders’ behavior is fixed in time, and, therefore, does not discredit countries’ commitments to shared human rights values as written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and regional documents. Incorporating cultural values that coincide and complement universal values does not detract from the importance of shared commitments.

Although some, like Cobbah and Tatsu, refute the universal importance of human rights by attributing them to different social processes, World War II expedited the creation and implementation of international and regional human rights systems, which fostered a common commitment (Pasquiallucci 2012: 1). The commitment to equality is equally shared amongst all regional systems with virtually the same wording (European Convention on Human Rights 1950: Article 1) (American Declaration on the Rights of Man) (ACHPR). The linguistic similarities suggests a universal — albeit minimum — conception of human rights, which is enough to justify its importance (Schaefer 2005: 28).



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