In-house lawyers ought to be in the vanguard when it comes to safeguarding human rights.

A happy Human Rights Day to all in-house lawyers. That may not be a greeting that many people give on the day – 10 December – that marks the international community’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UD), but the sentiment represents a growing relevance to lawyers working in-house.

Because in many ways, it is in-house lawyers who are, or could be, on the frontline of attempts to turn a set of aspirational standards, set out in the UD, into some kind of reality.

The background is important to this story.

Across the world public bodies and private organisations could be numbered among the institutions that failed to stop, or even enabled, the horrors that shocked post-war leaders into endorsing the UD.

It is, then, entirely appropriate to place such organisations and their lawyers at the centre of attempts to avoid a repeat of these horrors. Not least, on the private sector side businesses are in many arenas now in the position of power and authority once occupied by the state – not least through the provision of outsourced functions, ownership of natural resources, or via a role in what were once state-controlled industries.

In recent years some good work has been done in looking at why and how businesses should support human rights principles, much of it under the direction of John Ruggie, appointed to look at the issue by then-UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

There are many household-name companies who have made a commitment to the principles Ruggie’s team worked out.

The reasons to do so are compelling. Not least in a world where major corporations struggle with the issue of trust in their values and conduct, the UD includes standards that carry real weight – and what Geoffrey Robertson QC refers to as the post-war ‘flash of anger’ at the treatment and conditions people had endured through war and poverty.

Put simply, finding ways to meet the UD’s standards is a clearer statement than explaining that you do a bit of charity work.

Next, in negotiating the tricky waters of competing ethical demands, human rights principles – with the exception of the ‘no torture’ bit – include considerations of how conflicting rights or obligations might be balanced. That’s helpful to in-house lawyers in the role of ‘moral guardians’ of an organisation, that many find themselves in.

The principles also have a decent backing in the shape of equivalent points in law – and from that point of view can be viewed as part of what I’ve heard described to a conference full of corporate counsel as ‘an ethics-based compliance system’. And which lawyer working in-house isn’t focused on compliance?

Viewed this way, human rights principles are ethical and commercial – and on 10 December, cause for reflection and celebration in-house.

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor