Human rights campaigns should not depend on cost-benefits analyses – but they can come in handy.

It always sounds troubling when people talk about ‘the business case’ for adopting something that is patently just the right thing to do. A cost benefits analysis shouldn’t be required to demonstrate that inflicting suffering on others is bad.

Today no one in their right mind would consider the abolishment of child labour a good move purely because the business case stacked up. 

But being able to make an economic case as well as a moral one can be expedient in achieving the goal.

The notion that these arguments can be mutually reinforcing was made in the Law Society’s Business and Human Rights Advisory Group's recommendations in response to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. 

These principles, endorsed by the UN in 2011, create a ‘corporate responsibility to respect human rights’.

The advisory group argued that there is a strong business case for the legal profession to follow the guiding principles, as they are ‘increasingly being reflected and referred to in law, regulation, contracts and dispute resolution’. Law Society president Nick Fluck said that adoption will ‘ensure our profession retains a competitive advantage in what is an increasingly globalised marketplace’. 

In a globalised economy the profit motive can be a powerful force for change. Sadly, humanitarian reasons alone are not always enough to attract attention. But start talking about reputational damage and impact on the bottom line and organisations will start listening.

Similar arguments have been made for the introduction of anti-corruption policies and the extension of whistleblowing protections. 

Yes these are good things to do, but the compelling argument is the economic one – namely that these policies help prevent firms from imploding due to malpractice. Enron is a good example here.

And having a business case for doing the right thing does not automatically undermine the moral imperative. Nick Grono, chair of charity Walk Free, makes the point well in his article in the Guardian urging campaigners to ‘make the economic case for ending slavery’.

Most firms are seeking further global expansion, so being able to appeal to them using the 'competitive advantage' argument for adopting human rights principles must be worth a shot. 

After all when it comes to ending violations of human rights, surely the right response is the one that brings results – regardless of underlying motive.

Kathleen Hall is a Gazette reporter