Why the ACFID Code of Conduct requires members to say more than simply ‘Human Rights for All’

Simon Rice

15 Oct, 2019

The ACFID Code requires members to identify people who are vulnerable to human rights violations, rather than a blanket catch-all statement that commits them to upholding human rights for all. Why is this? What is the context for this approach? And how can an agency demonstrate compliance with such a specific and comprehensive verifier?

Simon Rice, the appointed Community Representative on the Code of Conduct Committee, unpacks the thinking behind this. His deep knowledge and wide experience in human rights both domestically and internationally gives this aspect the meaning and context it deserves.

All ACFID members have a stated commitment to human rights, so why are members asked to take remedial action in relation to the ACFID Code of Conduct’s commitment to ‘respect and protect human rights’?

The compliance indicator for that commitment is that a member ‘demonstrates an organisational commitment to human rights’. The way a member’s demonstrated commitment is verified is through a ‘policy, statement or guidance document which commits Members to human rights’, and which notes that ‘human rights are for everyone, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, indigeneity, disability, age, displacement, caste, gender, gender identity, sexuality, sexual orientation, poverty, class or socio-economic status’.

Listing personal attributes is a well-established way of identifying people who are vulnerable to human rights violations. It began with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which guarantees human rights ‘without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’. That list, compiled in 1948, omits attributes of vulnerability we’d expect to see today, such as age, disability, gender identity and sexual orientation.  The UDHR list is repeated in the International Covenant on Economic,. Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Regional human rights treaties take much the same approach, with some variations in the attributes listed. The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights substitutes fortune for property, the American Convention on Human Rights adds ‘economic status’, the European Convention on Human Rights adds ‘association with a national minority’ and the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights includes ethnic origin, genetic features, membership of a national minority, age and sexual orientation.

In the context of natural disasters, the World Health Organisation identifies ‘children, pregnant women, elderly people, malnourished people, and people who are ill or immunocompromised’ as vulnerable.  In a text book discussion of people who persistently ‘encounter obstacles or impediments to the enjoyment of human rights’ Elisabeth Reichert adds to the list people with disabilities, people with HIV-AIDS, older people, and gay and lesbian people. In my own, co-authored human rights book, we discuss the human rights vulnerability of people in armed conflict, indigenous peoples, refugees and stateless people, and workers.

Back to the Code, it’s the need to make explicit reference to the list of vulnerable attributes – race, religion and so on – that is proving to be a stumbling block for some members.  The list of vulnerabilities in the Code verifier is not exhaustive, but it’s pretty comprehensive.  Few members work with vulnerable people across all these attributes, and so may baulk at having to list them all in their policies. This isn’t because a member is not committed in principle to protecting human rights for those people, but because those people are not necessarily the focus of the member’s work.

There are a couple of reasons why we want to see members make explicit reference to the list of people’s vulnerabilities.  One is that that detail helps give real meaning to the idea of ‘human rights for all’, getting past the risk that acknowledging human rights can be a perfunctory exercise in ‘box-ticking’ (as the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights found is often the case, in its report to the 2018 UN General Assembly). 

Another reason is to encourage members to think of the broader context, and to turn their minds to the full human rights implications of their work.  The idea of intersectionality illustrates the point: a person is not only a ‘child’ or a ‘woman’, but has as well an ethnicity, a sexual orientation, a religion and a social status, and is vulnerable on the basis of any of those attributes. This is captured in the Code at 1.2.1, by way of members demonstrating an organisational commitment to the inclusion and representation of those who are vulnerable and those who are affected by the intersecting drivers of marginalisation and exclusion. Another example of how we can’t neatly compartmentalise human rights is the rapidly growing awareness of human rights violations in the manufacturing supply chain: whatever the primary focus of our work, there are other’s human rights at stake.

Since the first Code assessment took place in 2018, ACFID’s Code Secretariat has consistently asked members to ensure that their human rights commitments specifically mention the listed vulnerabilities.  To accommodate the various ways that members document their human policies, the Code of Conduct Committee has outlined three ways in which a member can demonstrate compliance with the indicator:

  1. A member will have a human rights policy that includes all of the attributes of vulnerability outlined in verifier 1.1.1
  2. A member will have written supporting guidance which identifies all of the attributes of vulnerability outlined in verifier 1.1.1 and which supports a high level policy approach to human rights
  3. A member will have other documents that demonstrate its commitment to the human rights of the vulnerable groups outlined in verifier 1.1.1; for example, a member’s policy on gender equity and another policy on disability would adequately demonstrate a commitment to the human rights of people whose vulnerability is due to their gender or disability.


By naming these vulnerabilities, ACFID members are prompted to consider how they arise and are accounted for in their work, and to be alert to the risk of marginalisation and non-inclusion. If a member is inclined to say ‘most of that list is not relevant to our work’, the Code verifier is asking the member to reflect on the extent to which that is actually true – from staffing and service delivery to contracting and the supply chain – and to record their commitment to recognising these attributes of human rights vulnerability.



  • Simon Rice
    Simon Rice

    Simon Rice is the Australian Community Representative on the Code of Conduct Committee. Simon has worked and researched in anti-discrimination law, human rights and access to justice issues, and has practised extensively in poverty law in community legal centres. In Australia and internationally he has trained and advised a wide range of businesses, agencies and NGOs in human rights and anti-discrimination law and has consulted to NGOs on organisational management and strategic planning. He is a Professor of Law at the University of Sydney, and has taught at UNSW, Macquarie University and the ANU. In 2002 he was awarded a Medal in the Order of Australia for legal services to the economically and socially disadvantaged. 

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