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The path to human rights

From birth, every human being possesses inalienable rights known as human rights. These have been codified over a long historical process. But they still continue to be violated. KfW is well aware of this threat. We have made an express commitment to promote human rights with our projects and within our projects. The global community’s sustainability goals are helping to make the implementation of human rights a reality.

What is special about human rights?

Human rights are different from all other rights: they apply always and everywhere. Even if a state has not enshrined human rights in its constitution or other laws, they are still valid. Furthermore, they apply to all people, regardless of nationality.

Generally, states pledge their commitment to human rights under international law by ratifying the relevant agreements. Many countries have incorporated human rights into their own national legislation. There are also regional agreements, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Certain human rights are of such fundamental importance that they are legally binding for nations, even if they have not yet ratified the agreement in question. These include the right to life, the prohibition of racial discrimination, and the prohibition of torture and slavery.

Human rights are:

universal – they apply to everyone

inalienable – you can not reject them for yourself or withdraw them from someone else

indivisible – the series of rights belong together; none of the human rights is more important than another

Since the end of the Second World War, the international community has taken gradual steps to formulate human rights and lay these down in binding agreements.

Milestones in human rights and development objectives

Milestones in human rights and development objectives
Milestones in human rights and development objectives

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

As early as the start of the 20th century, a debate began on the international level about enshrining human rights in law. But it was the horrors of the Second World War and the atrocities of National Socialism that proved the decisive factor for codifying these rights. These events led to an understanding that individual states can fail to safeguard legal provisions for civil and human rights.

However, there were concerns. It was feared that a universally binding codification of human rights would restrict the sovereignty of individual nations. This was compounded by the world’s developing division into Western and Eastern blocs after the Second World War, which soon evolved into the political antithesis of one another.

But despite all the objections, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was finally adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. The 56 member states at the time adopted the Declaration without any votes against, but with eight abstentions (among them, the Soviet Union, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia). Since then, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become a point of constant reference. It contains 30 articles, which can be split into four topic areas.

Contents of the UN Declaration of Human Rights

Contents of the UN Declaration of Human Rights

The UN human rights covenants

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was originally a simple resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. The next intended step was for its content to be incorporated into a legally binding treaty. But, as mentioned above, the associated international negotiations were hampered by the worsening Cold War. In addition, new countries came into existence in the course of decolonisation and added their voices to the discussion. This resulted in protracted negotiations. A single draft could not be agreed upon, with two treaty texts written instead. It took 12 years before the international community settled on a final version.

Finally, the Civil and Social Covenants were adopted by the UN General Assembly on 16 December 1966. It took another ten years for them to become binding under international law. The minimum number of ratifications granting international validity to the two covenants was only reached in 1977.

Dr Michael Krennerich, Chair in Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and senior editor of the Zeitschrift für Menschenrechte (Journal for Human Rights)

“Addressing major, structural problems would require responsible, global political and economic action instead of egoism on the part of national governments and profit maximisation strategies from global economic players.”

Dr Michael Krennerich, Chair in Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and senior editor of the Zeitschrift für Menschenrechte (Journal for Human Rights)


The National Action Plan for Human Rights

Human rights abuses by commercial enterprises are repeatedly the cause of scandals, for instance in cases involving violations of working time provisions, prohibitions on child labour or people being expelled from their own lands. Up to this point, in a globalised economy with supply chains spanning the whole planet, it has often been difficult to identify the individuals responsible for these abuses. The core human rights treaties are primarily addressed to governments, defining them as duty-bound to respect human rights.

To date, lawsuits against companies that have violated human rights have seldom been successful or have not been brought at all due to a lack of access to legal remedies. In an attempt to change this, initiatives are now being formed to highlight companies’ duty of care towards human rights along their entire their supply chain.

Irene Maria Plank, Head of the Business and Human Rights Division at the German Federal Foreign Office.

As the Federal Government, we expect all companies to appropriately implement human rights due diligence. They must identify, prevent, and mitigate adverse human rights impacts in their business activities. In particular, we have pledged to help small and medium-sized companies with this. Our goal is for at least half of all German companies with more than 500 employees to perform their human rights due diligence by 2020. Otherwise, the Federal Government will look into legal measures.”

Irene Maria Plank, Head of the Business and Human Rights Division at the German Federal Foreign Office

KfW is committed to human rights

KfW has adopted “responsible banking” as a slogan. As a state-owned promotional bank and major international development financier, we feel a special responsibility to act sustainably in accordance with human rights. Consequently, in 2008, we issued a self-declaration on matters of human rights.

UN sustainability goals and human rights

Alongside agreements on human rights, the international community has also set development objectives. Namely, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights treaties already include important content that is closely related to developmental objectives such as the right to health, education and political participation. However, for a long time, human rights and development were not discussed in the same breath. It was not until the 1990s that the interdependence between human rights and development objectives increasingly became a focus of attention. This is also demonstrated by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the 2030 Agenda.

The 2030 Agenda: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

At the UN General Assembly in September 2000 in New York, the global community set itself eight collective goals: the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These were intended to be achieved by 2015, which was only a partial success. In 2015, the MDGs were replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are known as the 2030 Agenda, as the aim is for the 17 goals to be met by the year 2030. The SDGs were set out more specifically in 169 targets.

Human rights are an essential legal and political foundation that makes it possible to achieve the SDGs. Civil and political rights receive less attention in the SDGs, although their content includes many references to economic, social, and cultural rights. In addition, the SDGs saw the global community set itself targets beyond the realm of human rights — specifically, in the areas of the environment, climate change mitigation, and peace.

Significance of SDGs for companies

SDG 17 agrees to a “global partnership” as a means of achieving the objectives. This global partnership not only includes government representatives, but also actors in the worlds of civil society and business. This underscores the importance of companies and promotional banks.

KfW Group affirmed its commitment to the SDGs by being a founding member and sponsor of the “Sustainable Finance Cluster”. This is a platform used by key players in the German financial industry to commit to strengthening green and sustainable financing methods — as well as, in explicit terms, committing to the UN sustainability objectives.