What Are Rights And Why Are They Important?


What Are Rights And Why Are They Important?

Legal rights in social enterprise module

Rights and a Rights-based Approach



Rights are something we are owed because we are human. Rights are owed to an individual or group, by another individual or organisation such as the state. If they are not used properly, then individuals and groups can start legal proceedings and often get compensation of some kind, as a result of the wrong.

What does that mean for a social enterprise? Social enterprises owe certain rights to their employees. For example, the right to fair pay. Social enterprises normally have certain obligations to their collaborators and service providers, like checking whether their suppliers are using the proceeds of crime or are involved in exploitation. Social enterprises often work on improving certain rights in their communities like children’s rights, the right to a healthy environment and provide a social benefit as part of their organisational mission and purpose.

Rights based approach

A rights-based approach isn’t exactly the same as an ethical approach, or a responsible approach to enterprise. It is related to, but not the same as corporate social responsibility and environmental, social and governance. It is one of many lenses you can use, and it fits alongside global standards like the BCorp mark and legal frameworks such as equalities law.

A rights-based approach focuses on what we all share being human. It aims to center rights and people in everything we do. It is about acting with and delivering services or products that are fair, equal, respect people and their dignity.

What does that look like in a social enterprise? Rights-based approaches:

  • focus on the most marginalised people and groups as a priority group to deliver social benefit with
  • look at the obstacles and barriers people accessing services encounter and how these barriers relate to legal rights
  • investigate the relationship between the people who are responsible for delivering the rights (normally the state) and the people who are owed the rights (our communities, customers, clients, collaborators and colleagues)
  • work in partnership with people to find out more about our rights and raise awareness of how to use them through our work as well as marketing

Scales/question mark - “A black scale with a white question mark”

11 Reasons Why Rights are Important to Social Enterprise

Rights are important to social enterprises for more reasons than just risk. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)’s guide for business about human rights clearly explains that rights are important because they help you to:

  1. “…assess and manage risks to your business…”
  2. “…protect your business reputation…”
  3. [and]“…open up new commercial opportunities.”

Example from Scotland

Many countries like the UK have signed up to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights but progress is not keeping pace with promised action plans. For example, the Scottish Commission for Human Rights analysed businesses across Scotland and their progress on legal rights in 2017 and 2018. It found that whilst the Scottish Government policies and initiatives about rights and business are being developed, “there remain a number of significant gaps and challenges”. The report found common misunderstandings about the importance of rights to businesses, including: the (lack of) relevance of rights to day-to-day work, being a small company not listed on the stock exchange, and the lack of common indicators for reporting progress on rights.

Legal rights are often assumed to be a human resources issue. However, rights can be used as a lens to analyse all your work and relate to all the internal, external, development and partnership work in our social enterprises.

Lens - “Text reading ‘Rights can be used as a lens to analyse all your work”. On the right a camera lense."


Here are eight more reasons why rights are relevant and important to our work as rural social enterprises:

  1. It helps us improve people’s lives in rural areas. By working with a rights based approach we are identifying and improving areas where our rights are not working (for example, if essential public services are closed without consultation in a rural area)
  2. It improves the products and services we deliver. By ensuring that they are legally compliant, don’t have unintended negative impacts and are accurately designed with the people impacted by them (which hopefully also means more profit for our communities and social mission)
  3. It can help us get funding. Whether from donors, governments, or crowdfunding initiatives, by demonstrating that the services and products we sell are centring and valuing people (for example, the Scottish Government’s Fair Work First agenda and Scottish Business Pledge highlight the rights of workers including the right of freedom of association and the right to join a union)
  4. It prompts us to work towards and hopefully contribute to existing national goals and global standards. Like the National Performance Framework (Scottish Government), the Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations), The UN Global Compact and UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It also links to our social purpose or charitable objectives (as these normally have rights at the very core)
  5. It’s the law. In countries like the UK, public authorities and social enterprises providing public services must ensure all our human rights are protected and there are consequences if rights are not protected (like going to court which can be very expensive)
  6. It reminds us that everyone we interact with deserves dignity and respect. Including our customers and clients, our collaborators, and our colleagues at work (which hopefully means fewer complaints, happier people and people wanting to work with us)
  7. It reminds us that we are all human and have a common humanity, which can help us to communicate well together. This is especially important amidst the challenges of a cost of living crisis, climate crisis and polarised politics
  8. At the end of the day, thinking about rights and respecting everyone will ultimately mean that we leave a better rural community for the next generation of children and younger people

Reflection questions and further learning

Reflection questions

  • Has your understanding or rights changed? How and why?
  • Why do rights matter to your work as a social enterprise?
  • Are there any more reasons why rights are important to rural social enterprises that we haven’t listed?

If you are new to rights and a rights-based approach you might like to explore:

  • This short 2-minute video by Juliet Harris from Together explains why rights are important
  • These 26 postcards by the British Institute for Human Rights, Warrington Speak Up and Photo symbols explain different legal rights with plain language and images

If you would like to learn more detail about rights and a rights-based approach these resources will deepen your knowledge:

  • Equally Ours have a framework for the voluntary sector about using an equalities and rights based approach. The how to use the framework section explains that it can help you with 1) better outcomes, 2) motivating staff and volunteers, 3) meeting legal obligations, 4) attracting funding especially public sector funding, 5) avoiding legal action, and 6) complying with regulators standards and code of practice.
  • The Scottish Human Rights Commission has explainer videos and an assessment tool that help you assess whether you are using a rights-based approach.
JRSKnowhow logo - 'JRSKnowhow logo"

InspirAlba logo - "Inspiralba logo"