• Sara Schoenfeld

An All-Stakeholder Approach to Foundational Rights


As we seek to promote a human rights framework rooted in international trade, we need to begin by defining the term “human rights.” While the definition of “human rights” is somewhat subjective and may vary, modern society seeks to encourage an expansive set of rights under this term. This is intentional -

Setting high goals in the area of human rights benefits all – world actors should have firm ideals for which to strive.

The Trade Impact Foundation categorizes human rights into the following key general categories: (1) Foundational Rights; (2) Rights related to Poverty and Standard of Living; (3) Rights related to Gender and Tolerance; (4) Labor Rights; and (5) Environmental Rights.

In this post, we examine the category of Foundational Rights, and begin our discussion of its intersection with international trade.

Which Human Rights should be considered FOUNDATIONAL RIGHTS?

This is not a simple question.

Human rights may be defined as “rights . . . regarded as belonging fundamentally to all persons” (Merriam Webster), or as a right “believed to belong justifiably to every person” (Oxford dictionary). The term is not defined in a limited manner, ultimately because these concepts are innately subjective.

The UN describes human rights as those universally protected and inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Specific rights set out in the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and more.

Moreover, each country and region may define human rights in their unique way.

And so, with this subjectivity in mind, we move forward to discuss the category of rights we term Foundational Rights. These should be considered the group of rights which serves as the backbone of all other human rights – foundational rights enable an environment where other rights may flourish. For example, the value of gender rights is greatly diminished where a quarter of the female population lives in fear of persecution due to their ethnicity or religion. Similarly, the value of robust labor rights is lessened in an environment of constant crime and corruption.

Generally Foundational Rights refer to those related to Peace and Safety. The right to peace provides for freedom from war and persecution. The right to safety provides for freedom from crime such as kidnap, rape, murder, forced labor and more.

These rights also include the right of conscience, which provides for tolerance of opposing views and beliefs within society without fear of persecution based on such differences. Another basic right is the right to self-determination, promoted by the United Nations to develop friendly relations and prevent war between nations.

Pursuit of these Foundational Rights centered on Peace and Safety warrants a common emphasis on local rule of law and ethical governance. But how can international trade promote rule of law and ethical governance?

Understanding the relationship between international trade and Foundational Rights

Greater participation in the international trading system provides an opportunity, particularly for less-developed countries, to increase gross domestic product (GDP) and economic prosperity. This incentive of increased participation in the global trading system necessarily promotes a greater emphasis on rule of law by governing authorities.

Generally speaking, increased rule of law tends to enable greater foreign investment and economic growth. For example, where a multinational company is considering expanding into new markets in Africa or Latin America, they will typically consider a variety of factors including the stability of government, transparency of laws, dispute settlement and enforcement, as well as reliability of the law – when a law is “on the books” can it be assumed the law will be enforced? Will varying interpretations serve as yet another obstacle to reasonable business decision-making? In some countries, obtaining business certainty would require in-person consultations with local agencies on a variety of issues.

In fact, since 2013, the US Chamber of Commerce and its Coalition for the Rule of Law in Global Markets have published the Global Business Rule of Law Dashboard to bring into focus the close relationship between business and the rule of law environment. The 2019 Dashboard provides:

“The business case for rule of law has been well established. Companies perform best in open, transparent and meritocratic environments where there is proper enforcement and adjudication of the law.

The link between rule of law and prosperity is definitive. Countries that adhere to principles of good governance attract and develop top-caliber companies, which are better equipped to make long-term investments, create jobs, pay taxes, enact high labor and environmental standards, and put down roots in the communities where they operate.”

In addition to the organic incentive for stronger rule of law provided by the international trading system, trade may positively impact foundational rights through a variety of other ways, such as the following examples:

  • Facilitation of free trade agreements (which generally aim to promote uniform and enforceable rules and standards)

  • Expectations of multinational corporations for a minimum required level of standards and compliance by local suppliers and distributors

  • Various legal frameworks and requirements of other countries drive higher standards in the local community and promote greater stability and rule of law. For example, export controls and sanctions regimes are in the background of all business dealings with multinational corporations, and import and/or market requirements in the place of consumption drive safety, quality and other manufacturing standards.

What is the role of corporations in promoting local rule of law?

With regard to corporations and social impact, we have seen the rule of law mainly discussed in terms of internal promotion of rule of law – facilitation of an ethical corporate environment with a focus on compliance and anti-corruption policies.

While ultimately subject to the local governing authority’s rules, and acknowledging the obvious importance of maintaining favorable relations with local authorities, we must nevertheless acknowledge the potential for large corporations and industry groups or coalitions to enhance local rule of law through a thoughtful and practical approach.

Behind apparent conflicts of interests lies a primary interest that is more aligned than ever before – consumers search for social impact value within the products they purchase; visibility to the social impact behind purchases is growing each day; connectedness to the true nature of local environments across the globe are known to us through social media on a faster and more expansive way than ever before.

An all-stakeholder approach applied to Foundational Rights

Many intergovernmental bodies and NGOs focus on promoting the rule of law. But, given the ongoing instability in so many parts of the world, one must consider the role of the business community within this objective.

Specifically, as we move further in our pursuit of balancing societal interests along with profit pursuant to stakeholder capitalism, we must ask these questions:

1. Does business have a responsibility to promote the local rule of law at locations of operation and across the broader world?

2. If so, what is the role of business within this complex and foundational human rights issue – how can we optimize corporate impact on the rule of law and ethical public governance around the world?