Celebrating Human Rights Day

This year, Human Rights Day is focussed on the impact of COVID-19, asking how do we fully recover and build back a world that is better, more resilient, just, and sustainable?

Few minutes to read
By Barnaby Lewis
Published on

Celebrated every year on the 10th of December, Human Rights Day commemorates the United Nations General Assembly adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) back in 1948. Society has made substantial progress since that time, especially over the last nine years that the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights have been used. But there’s still a long way to go. ISO is committed to a society where the importance of human rights is fully recognized, and we’re helping others to play their part through International Standards that directly contribute to human rights as well as realizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This year, COVID-19 has challenged the way that we think and operate as a global society. The pandemic has shown up both inherent weaknesses in the way that we do things and identified new areas where we’ll need to focus in future. The UN, who organizes the international day of recognition, is unambiguous about the scale of the challenges ahead:

We will reach our common global goals only if we are able to create equal opportunities for all, address the failures exposed and exploited by COVID-19, and apply human rights standards to tackle entrenched, systematic and intergenerational inequalities, exclusion and discrimination.

There’s little doubt that many businesses and individuals will struggle to re-establish themselves after the COVID-19 crisis. As 2020 draws to a close, a potential COVID vaccine is bringing cautious optimism. But the disease is far from over and the full force of COVID’s economic impact is yet to be realized. In many cases, the crisis has served to highlight existing weaknesses in systems, institutions and organizations, testing them to, and often beyond, their limits.

human rights and Sustainable Development

As people, business leaders and governments assess the scale of the damage, those with vision are asking themselves “how can we do this better?” The UN’s aim is that in looking at ways to build back better, human rights will be given a central place. As leaders everywhere address a massive and unexpected problem, it’s time to look at the fundamentals, and the UN is clear about the way in which that task should be undertaken: end discrimination of any kind; address inequalities; encourage participation and solidarity; promote sustainable development. In many of these areas, there’s a clear support role for International Standards.

The SDGs are built around recognition of human rights, recognizing that sustainable development is only possible with human dignity at its core. In this way, human rights are driven by progress on all SDGs, and the SDGs themselves are driven by advancements on human rights. By supporting ISO members to maximize the benefits of international standardization and ensure the uptake of ISO standards, we’re helping to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Environmental, social and economic dimensions are all directly addressed by ISO standards. Organizations and companies looking to contribute to the SDGs will find that International Standards provide effective tools to help them rise to the challenge. For each Goal, ISO has identified the standards that make the most significant contribution. With ISO standards covering almost every subject imaginable, from technical solutions to systems that organize processes and procedures, there are numerous ISO standards that correspond to each of the SDGs.

10 years of human rights at the core of social responsibility

ISO 26000, the International Standard for social responsibility, is one of the most widely used and recognized ISO standards. 2020 marks ten years since its first publication. Since that time, it’s been helping to integrate the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by providing guidance to those who want to contribute more to sustainable development. Over the last decade, ISO 26000 has established itself as more than just the “right thing” to do. The ground-breaking ISO standard is increasingly seen as a way of assessing an organization’s commitment to sustainable development, including human rights, at the same time as improving its overall performance. Importantly, human rights are highlighted both as a principle and a core subject of ISO 26000, which helps identify human rights risks situations, and gives guidance on due diligence and grievance resolution.

The standard was launched in 2010 following five years of focussed negotiation between many different stakeholders across the world. More than five hundred experts, including representatives from government, NGOs, industry, consumer groups and labour organizations around the world were involved in its development, which means it represents an international consensus. Both Dante Pesce, Vice-Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, and Staffan Söderberg, Vice-Chair of the ISO working group that developed ISO 26000, point out that the standard has helped many understand that human rights are key to any business or organization that wants to contribute to sustainable development.

Since publication ten years ago the standard has been adopted by more than 80 countries, most of which are developing countries, and we see how it has inspired public policy and businesses in Indonesia, Chile, India, China, Japan, the United Kingdom, Korea, the European Union among others.

Find out more about ISO 26000 and our other popular standards.

Barnaby Lewis
Barnaby Lewis

Press contact


Journalist, blogger or editor?

Want to get the inside scoop on standards, or find out more about what we do? Get in touch with our team or check out our media kit.