Innovate Rights conference explores new thinking on business and human rights

The first Innovate Rights conference brought together leaders from business, government, academia, and advocacy to discuss how industry can be a positive player on social challenges.

The Australian Human Rights Institute’s first biennial conference seized on the interest in Business and Human Rights, following last year’s passage of the national Modern Slavery Act and the Banking Royal Commission.

UNSW Law Associate Professor Justine Nolan says the two-day conference (15-16 May) explored modern slavery and supply chains, as well as the impact of financial services on human rights.

“Human rights are really firmly on the agenda of many companies and they are eager to learn about what others are doing in this space,” Associate Professor Nolan says.

“The new Modern Slavery law that was passed in Australia last year follows a similar law established in the UK, and other countries like the United States and France are also asking companies to investigate and report on their supply chains.

“There’s a lot of interest from consumers and from society more generally, about how companies impact the environment, the role of financial institutions, diversity within business leadership and new technologies that companies are employing.”

Highlights of the conference included:

  • Gender Equality: Insights for Change – Many organisations have placed an emphasis on advancing gender equality for some time through polices and practice, yet the number of women in leadership positions remains stubbornly low and pay equity is still elusive. Julia Gillard, in her role as Inaugural Chair of the Global Institute for Women's Leadership (GIWL), Kings College London, joined GIWL Director Professor Rosie Campbell and Libby Lyons, Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to discuss the research work that still needs to be done to establish the most effective ways of achieving lasting change.
  • A Blueprint for Business Leadership on Human Rights Increasingly, business is proving it can be a vehicle for the promotion and realisation of human rights. Associate Professor Nolan led representatives from business and the NGO sector in conversation about the opportunities and risks for business in engaging with human rights issues, including a keynote speech by Unilever’s Global Vice-President for Sustainability, Marcela Manubens.
  • The role of finance in preserving human rights – Now, more than ever, finance needs human rights. What innovations can ensure this interaction is substantive and enduring? UNSW Law Professor Dimity Kingsford Smith led a discussion with panellists from super fund Cbus, the Responsible Investment Association Australasia, University of Sydney and NGO Open Secrets.
  • Business Leadership on Indigenous Rights - UNSW Sydney Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous, Professor Megan Davis, Libby Ferrari of BHP Billiton and UNSW Law Professor Gabrielle Appleby talked about the role of business in recognising Indigenous rights and supporting the Uluru statement.
  • A human rights approach to managing survivors of domestic violence in the workplace - Associate Professor Jan Breckenridge discussed with UN Special Rapporteur Elizabeth Broderick and representatives from Commonwealth Australia Bank and QBE Insurance a range of initiatives and what more can be done for employees affected by family violence.

Australian Human Rights Institute Director Professor Louise Chappell says business is increasingly stepping forward to take leadership in areas where government is in retreat.

“One of those areas where business has moved ahead of government in Australia is in Indigenous rights and support of the Uluru Statement,” Professor Chappell said.

“But there are other areas where business is not moving ahead despite many years of discussion and needs to consider new approaches, for example, on the issue of gender equality in the boardroom.”