Children's Rights and Business Principles launched

Children's rights took a step forward on March 12, 2012 with the London launch of the Children's Rights and Business Principles. On that day, UNICEF, The Global Compact and Save the Children gathered together a group of business professionals, children's rights advocates, and academics for a day-long programme of discussions and debates centred around the Principles, which aim to ensure that the business community not only respects, but also proactively supports children's rights.

The event sought to give a full picture of how the Principles came to be, to open dialog with businesses about their current practices with regard to children's rights, and to address potential dilemmas and challenges with solid recommendations on implementing the Principles. In a pre-recorded video, Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon underlined the importance of children's rights in the business sphere and called on business leaders to embrace the Principles, reminding them that: “Children are an essential part of the environment in which businesses operate..., [and] businesses have an increasing responsibility to respect the rights of society's youngest members.”

Word from the sponsors

Setting the tone for the day, UNICEF noted that, to date, a children's rights perspective has been missing in the business world, and that “the Principles seek to fill this gap.” Save the Children reminded the audience that not only had 600 adult representatives from business, government and civil society been consulted in drafting the Principles, feedback was sought and received from 2,000 children in 9 different countries. The Principles, they hoped, would be a practical way to address children's rights and serve as a “hands-on tool that can help big and small companies to develop child rights efforts in their spheres of influence.” The Global Compact remarked on the high level of innovation reflected in the Principles, which demand more than respect for rights and provide a guiding framework to meet the growing demand from businesses and investors for greater progress in children's rights.

Principles in Practice

The first discussion of the day focused on the overarching Principle 1, which states that all businesses should “[m]eet their responsibility to respect children's rights and commit to supporting the human rights of children.”

With this general mandate in mind, panelists from the business sector shared their thoughts on ways that the Principles could be integrated into corporate strategy and the reasons for doing so. A London-based stock exchange executive talked about how exchanges could set and raise human rights standards, encouraging investors to look at these issues and in turn prompting companies to respond to concerns raised.

Taking this to the next level, a sustainability officer from Sweden then explained that companies should accept the Principles and children's rights in general as part of their core values, moving beyond just compliance with a set of rules, policies, or regulations. It was also emphasised that, because of children's uniquely vulnerable position, focussing on the way that businesses impact children would also improve respect for human rights overall and mark a move towards greater sustainability. Lastly, a representative from a textile and apparel council in China further clarified that all policies related to social responsibility should be transparent if companies are to know the needs of society and how to meet these needs.

Children's rights in the workplace

The debate next moved to child labour and working children, covered in Principles 2, 3 and 4.

A representative from the International Labour Organisation opened by giving a brief rundown on international child labor standards and explained the differences between unacceptable child labour and productive, working activity for young people. He reminded companies that they have an obligation to follow these standards, in particular conventions on the minimum age for entry into employment and on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour. Companies should not only integrate children's and worker's rights into their own policies, he argued, they should work to encourage similar moves in all sectors, even those in which they are not directly involved. In addition, they must remember that corporate citizenship goes beyond the supply chain – governments need to be able to enforce the rule of law and to provide necessary services to children, which requires that companies pay their fair share of taxes to countries in which they operate.

A global coordinator from Sweden gave an example of a difficult situation faced in Turkey a number of years ago when compulsory schooling kept children in education only until age 12, leaving a 3-year gap before these children would be old enough to work full-time jobs. Seeing this disconnect, the company met with the government and worked to increase the minimum age for leaving school. An analyst from a Norwegian bank then explained how when making investment decisions, it is always important to examine corporate behaviour in relation to child labour. Businesses must strive to preserve wealth for future generations, she cautioned, and they cannot do that by exploiting those same generations now. As such, companies must map out where they have impacts on child labour and child rights and work to address these issues.

Children's rights in the community and the environment

Looking to Principles 7, 8, 9 and 10, a new panel set out to discuss children's rights in relation to land and the environment, security, emergencies, communities, and government.

The head of corporate responsibility for a UK insurer talked about the work that his company had done with street children, noting that to make a genuine difference, companies must do more than simply fund project work – they must change their perspective to shine a light on children's rights. By using marketing expertise to implement the Principles, companies can bring both attention and funding to a particular issue. Moreover, when businesses get directly involved in advocacy, they can often open doors that other sectors cannot.

A bank manager of community investment from the Netherlands also shared her company's work on children's rights, highlighting in particular a project on access to quality education. The project was and continues to be largely employee-driven, meaning that bank workers brought their own enthusiasm, skills and experience together to further children's right to education with guidance from civil society. A sustainability manager from Argentina echoed the importance of cooperation across all sectors, and challenged businesses not only to integrate children's rights into all levels of management and policy-making, but also to seek the participation of children in business planning and evaluation.

Challenges identified across the panel related primarily to implementation of the Principles and making sure that children's rights stay at the top of the business agenda. One strategy discussed to achieve this was to form a specific group within the organisation dedicated to children's rights, which could start reviewing existing policies and seeing how they fit in with the current framework. It was remembered that bringing the Principles into effect will inevitably be a process, and that companies must be driven by the value of respecting and supporting children's rights rather than simply the profit motive. Going beyond respecting children's rights to actively supporting children's rights will require a new perspective, a commitment to using employees' experience, skills and time to add genuine value, and a willingness to work with all actors across every sector.

Children's rights in the marketplace

Rounding out discussions on the individual Principles, panelists moved on to discuss the last two remaining provisions: Principles 5 and 6 on products, services, advertising, and marketing for children.

The talk focused largely on examples of specific products and initiatives, with a marketing officer from Unilever first presenting a campaign on hand-washing and disease reduction linked to their experience with personal hygiene products. A corporate responsibility vice president for a Norwegian telecommunications company talked about the power and reach of mobile phone networks, highlighting a company programme offering text and voice services to give health support to pregnant women in Bangladesh with the goal of reducing infant mortality. She also addressed concerns about keeping communications for children safe, and the importance of raising awareness of related issues for children's rights like digital bullying.

Last but not least, a social entrepreneur from India talked about her organisation's goal to ensure that every child aged 10 and over is able to open a savings account with a bank. Although banks might be resistant given concerns about the profitability of offering financial products to children, she maintained strongly that all children have a right to financial education and that they must learn to deal with money from a young age.

Recap and concluding remarks

To bring things to a close, moderators from the day's four panels came together to draw out some of the difficult questions and issues that were raised throughout the day. The moderators felt there was a huge task in terms of mainstreaming children's rights, and encouraged the audience to think about how they could make the Principles a main driver for business. Other concerns were that small and medium business enterprises might have greater difficulty in implementing the Principles, and that differences in culture, religion, and traditions around the world might make for a complicated children's rights strategy.

Looking to the way forward, it was felt that the Principles must be given a broad application, meaning that businesses must look for solutions to the social failures and children's rights violations that exist in their spheres of influence. They must strive not just to check off boxes to say that certain criteria have been met, but to do things that genuinely benefit children's rights. The Principles themselves must also reach a wide audience – consumers must be prepared to accept their value alongside companies, and governments and civil society must work with businesses to ensure that children's rights receive the respect and support to which they are now entitled.

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