“Human rights are not simply there”

December 10th is International Human Rights Day. In this interview, Renata Jungo Brüngger, member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG responsible for Integrity and Legal Affairs, and Michael Windfuhr from the German Institute for Human Rights explain why this day is so special, what challenges still lie ahead of us, and how Daimler faces up to its corporate responsibility.

There is a vast array of campaign and commemorative days – from International Women’s Day through Anti-Corruption Day and all the way up to International Mountain Day. Why do we need an International Human Rights Day?

Michael Windfuhr: For me, International Human Rights Day is the “mother of all commemorative days” because, when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, it marked the start of the post-war order and the modern international law. The declaration was the international answer to the time of National Socialism in which entire sections of the population were systematically denied human dignity – up to the point of genocide. How special this day has become is also reflected by the debate on the human rights situation, which the German Parliament holds every year on the same day. Human dignity has become a reference point of essentially all new constitutions of the past decades.

How important is a “Human Rights Day” in a democratic constitutional state like Germany?

Renata Jungo Brüngger: Unfortunately, respect for human rights is still not a matter of course even today. That is why we have to also address the issue in a constitutional state, especially since there are always further developments. Think, for example, of digital fundamental rights. In addition, human rights are global. That's why we - especially as a global player - can't just look at the situation in Germany. As a founding member of the UN Global Compact, Daimler has an obligation that we want to fulfill.

What challenges do you see for the current human rights situation worldwide?

Michael Windfuhr: This is a very broad question. In summary, however, I would say that I see three challenges. First, we were wrong after the end of the Cold War. In our euphoria, we believed that democracy and human rights would establish themselves quickly worldwide. In the meantime, we are observing that there are counter-movements in many countries, that democratic institutions are being partially dismantled and that liberties are being curbed. Autocrats do not like to be controlled or held accountable. Secondly, after a decade of new beginnings and participation of civil society organizations, the scope of civil society is shrinking again in many countries, ranging from environmental groups to industry associations. Thirdly, there is also resistance by conservative forces to the achieved liberalization in the family and personal areas - for example, with regard to the equality of women, the right to choose one’s religion or to have none. These trends show that human rights are not just there because they have been written down. We must work actively to stand up for them.

Daimler has anchored respect for human rights in its sustainable business strategy. Why? Isn't the protection of human rights the responsibility of nation states?

Renata Jungo Brüngger: Of course, nation states have an obligation. However, the UN guiding principles on business and human rights clearly define that companies also have a responsibility to protect human rights. Daimler accepts this responsibility - also because our customers and we want vehicles without any violations of human rights.

Renata Jungo Brüngger, member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG responsible for Integrity and Legal Affairs, and Michael Windfuhr, Deputy Director of the German Institute for Human Rights.

What can companies do?

Renata Jungo Brüngger: The task is not an easy one. We have more than 60,000 direct suppliers, who in turn have their own suppliers. Sometimes a supply chain has up to seven sub-levels. However, we only have legal recourse to our direct suppliers. We are facing up to this challenge with our Human Rights Respect System. In this way, we systematically monitor our own companies and our supply chains for compliance with human rights risk-based. The dialog with suppliers is very important in this regard. As a large company, Daimler in particular can certainly influence the conditions to some extent. Another lever for us is the technology. For example, we are working on batteries that require less high-risk raw materials such as cobalt.

Where does the corporate responsibility for respect of human rights begin for you? And where does it end?

Michael Windfuhr: Many companies have benefited enormously from globalization. Value creation has become more international, new markets have opened up, value chains have become longer and more complex. The other side of the coin, however, is that companies now also operate in countries where human rights are not adequately protected. The UN guiding principles state that companies must identify these risks and deal with them as needed. This does not mean that they can eliminate all the risks themselves - a functioning constitutional state is still essential.

The German government is currently discussing a draft law on companies duty of care with regard to human rights What do you think about that?

Renata Jungo Brüngger: Daimler is already working constructively with the German government within the framework of the National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights. In principle, however, I believe that voluntary measures make more sense. But, if there is to be a legal framework, it should set an international standard. The possible targets must be feasible for companies.

We are in the midst of a fundamental structural change in the automotive industry. In view of the sometimes difficult working conditions in cobalt mining or the environmental impact of extracting lithium, how many risks does switching to electric mobility entail? What are the human rights implications of climate protection?

Renata Jungo Brüngger: It's true that electric mobility requires high-risk raw materials such as cobalt or lithium. We are working intensively to purchase them sustainably. Among other things, we have audits carried out to monitor this. At the same time, we strive for structural improvements on the ground, for example, through our cooperation with the Good Shepherd Foundation, a non-governmental organization, which manages social projects in the Congo. However, risks still exist independently of electromobility. In the case of mica, which provides the gloss in paint, we looked at mines in India and excluded one supplier from the supply chain.

Mr. Windfuhr, what is your perspective on this transformation?

Michael Windfuhr: New risks are indeed emerging. This makes it all the more important not only to think about sustainability from a technical point of view, but also to pursue a holistic approach and to identify and tackle the social and human rights risks that arise with the new products along the value chain. I therefore believe that Daimler is right to include respect for human rights as one of its six central goals in its sustainable business strategy.

The understanding of human rights differs worldwide. How can global players like Daimler deal with this?

Michael Windfuhr: The vast majority of the world's states have ratified the human rights conventions and thus committed themselves to their observance. Many modern constitutions contain a catalog of fundamental rights. From a purely legal point of view, the understanding of human rights is and can therefore not be so different. Not to forget the perspective of those affected: Who wants their children to have to work? Who doesn't want to be able to choose their profession freely? Who wants to experience discrimination as a minority? At the same time, we must focus on the really important aspects and topics of human dignity.

Finally, I would ask both of you to complete the following sentence: On International Human Rights Day in 2050, we will …

Renata Jungo Brüngger: … hopefully have achieved all the United Nations sustainable development goals and can say that all supply chains are transparent.

Michael Windfuhr: … be much more concerned with the consequences of climate change than today. That makes it even more important that we work to overcome this problem in a way that is sensitive to human rights. I am optimistic that if we act quickly and consistently, we will still have the chance to deal with this change.

Michael Windfuhr studied political science, German philology and literature, geography and philosophy in Heidelberg. He then helped to establish the international human rights organization FIAN (Food First Information and Action Network), where he spent almost 20 years in various management positions. Windfuhr then moved to the Diakonisches Werk of the Evangelical Church in Germany and finally to the German Institute for Human Rights, where he has been deputy director since 2011. In 2016, he was also elected to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for four years.

We use cookies

We want to make our website more user-friendly and continuously improve it. If you continue to use the website, you agree to the use of cookies.