Human Rights – A Primary Responsibility

Tourism Concern Publication: "Putting Tourism to Rights"

In a new report "Putting Tourism to Rights", the British campaigning organisation Tourism Concern demands action to end human rights violations in tourism. The report exposes the violations of human rights that occur as a direct result of tourism through an examination of key articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and subsequent UN declarations.

These include forced evictions, paving the way for tourism development, e.g. for a game reserve in Ghana, the construction of an airport in Indonesia or the conversion of agricultural land into golf courses in the Philippines. Indigenous peoples and traditional fishing communities are particularly vulnerable, as their land rights are usually not secured by title deeds.

The human right to water continues to be violated in tourism, when resorts and other tourism projects undermine people's water supply or pollute this vital resource, e.g. in the Gambia, Cyprus or South India. The exploitation of tribal peoples and their cultures as tourist attractions also constitutes violations of human rates. Drawing upon confidential sources, Tourism Concern reports how Burmese Kayan refugees, members of the ethnic Karen people, are literally "marketed" by Thai businessmen. Tourists pay entrance fees to visit their villages. Their departure as refugees to other countries is being delayed or prevented.

Wages and working conditions for tourism industry employees can be so poor that they violate human rights. This is often the case for the poorly equipped porters who carry the tourists' luggage on expeditions in the Himalayas, in the Andes or on Mt. Kilimanjaro. This work is in many cases endangering their health. The cost can be frostbite, altitude sickness and even death. The most serious human rights violations in tourism happen when women and children are sexually exploited for commercial purposes.

Recommendations for tour operators and tourism trade associations

Few industry-wide corporate social responsibility policies have been produced for tourism and the industry remains resistant to regulation. However, self-regulation has failed to stop the corporate violation of human rights. The report highlights steps for the industry to take, that can help to maximise positive benefits to local communities, limit environmental damage and assure good working conditions for employees.

To respect and protect human rights is a primary responsibility of the tourism industry. Tourism Concern therefore calls upon tour operators and tourism trade associations to adopt policies that reflect the four core elements of human rights diligence set out by the UN Secretary General on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises. These include having a human rights policy, assessing the human rights impacts of company activities; integrating those values and findings into corporate cultures and management systems, and tracking as well as reporting performance.

Tour operators have to take responsibility for and seek to mitigate human rights abuses that occur throughout their tourism supply chains, including where tour operators use third party agents to manage contracts with suppliers. They should utilise existing codes of practice to help mitigate tourism's negative impacts and maximise benefits to local communities, including codes that have been developed for specialised markets.

When contracting with hotels, tour operators should make use of all available social and environmental impact assessments, and labour audits to ensure that the human rights of employees are protected. This must include: a guaranteed living wage; the provision of written employment contracts; the right to paid leave; the provision of safety equipment; training opportunities; and freedom to form or join unions.

Tour operators should ensure that there are no ongoing legal disputes over land ownership on any site which they intend to use. They should provide full information to their staff about their ethical policies and to make this information publicly available through their brochures and on their websites. Furthermore, tour operators have to accept their responsibilities with respect to climate change and should work with governments and destination communities to take meaningful action that will limit its impacts on people and the environment.

Governments remain in charge

"The tourism industry is beginning to wake up to its social and environmental responsibilities, but there are still huge gaps between policy and practice. Positive measures taken by a tourism operator in one area cannot offset bad practice and human rights violations elsewhere," says Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern.

Too often, governments are more concerned with the right to economic development over the rights of the individual, especially if the individual in question is poor and powerless. Now, more than 60 years since the formation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, governments must recognise that human rights should be placed at the centre of any truly sustainable approach to tourism development, says Tourism Concern. In cases where the industry continues to fail to regulate itself sufficiently and to perpetuate human rights abuses, governments must be prepared to regulate.

Putting Tourism to Rights. A challenge to human rights abuses in the tourism industry. By Tricia Barnett Jenny Eriksson, Rachel Noble and Polly Pattullo, Tourism Concern, London, 2009. ISBN 0952856727. 52 pages.

The report is available to buy via Tourism Concern's online shop

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(December 2009, TW 57)