Human rights must become part of the DNA of all businesses, Cherie Blair QC told the Global Law Summit this morning.

Blair said a business’s human rights agenda was not just an ‘optional add-on’ but must be part of the organisation’s DNA.

Participating in a panel discussion chaired by International Bar Association president David Rivkin, Blair said human rights informed companies’ corporate social responsibilities.

She said: ‘Once you start talking about it being part of the company’s DNA, how you say to the world what you stand for, it then forms what kind of charitable programmes you do.’

Blair (pictured), founder and chair of Omnia Strategy, said business and human rights, in relation to changes to legal structures in England and Wales, enabled her to set up a firm which was not just about the law but looking at the legal reputation and operational risks for its clients. ‘That’s a trend that’s going to grow,’ she said.

Blair said innovation was key in the 21st century, adding: ‘In today’s world what people are looking for when looking to do business [are] the values of the business. They want to feel good about being employed in the company, feel good about being a consumer. They want to feel good as part of a wider family of business in the sense of suppliers and people in the value chain.’

‘The silo approach does not work – and it does not work in the law either,’ she said.

Professor John Ruggie, former UN secretary-general’s special representative for business and human rights, said he was surprised by the involvement of corporate lawyers during his six years of research which led to the development of the UN’s Guiding Principles.

The principles, endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, provide a global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity.

One of the most difficult challenges Ruggie faced, he said, were ‘doctrinal’. The UK government, he recalled, objected to Ruggie’s stipulation of a duty of states to protect against human rights abuses by third parties including business. ‘I put it forward as a general principle. [The UK government] said it’s “treaty-specific”.’

Ruggie recalled spending a lot of time discussing the issues in Whitehall. ‘In the end [the UK government] did not object.’

The UN Guiding Principles, Ruggie said, applied to all companies in all contexts. Citing Unilever as an example, which has 100,000 suppliers, he said: ‘They are not going to monitor [suppliers] 24 hours a day. The guiding principles have built in sensible ways to prioritise those things.’

A reporting framework launched at the summit yesterday ‘stresses the concept of salient human rights risks’, he said.

Companies, he added, did ‘lousy jobs’ at measuring value destruction. The ‘cost of getting things wrong is not measured well at all,’ he said.

Ursula Wynhoven, general counsel and chief of governance and social sustainability at UN Global Compact, said she was excited to see interest, particularly from in-house lawyers, on business and human rights, which had transitioned from being an ‘emerging topic’ 15 years ago when Wynhoven left private practice, to now being ‘much more mainstream’.

‘So many lawyers are being engaged with what’s acceptable, not just what’s lawful.’

But she warned in-house lawyers were still sometimes seen as ‘brakes rather than accelerators for the company’ as a result of their perceived ‘do not’ attitude.