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How Vodafone plays its part in respecting human rights

10 Dec 2021Empowering People
6 minute read

By Joakim Reiter, Vodafone Group Chief External and Corporate Affairs Officer

Human Rights Day is celebrated every year on 10 December in reflection of the day in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It’s not an exaggeration to say that the UDHR is one of the most important post-war documents ever produced. Available in 500 languages, it’s certainly the most translated document in the world.

At its heart, the UDHR proclaims the inalienable rights that everyone is entitled to as a human being – regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

This year’s Human Rights Day theme emphasises ‘Equality’ and Article 1 of the UDHR - “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” These principles of equality and non-discrimination are at the heart of human rights.

Equality is aligned with the UN’s 2030 Agenda and with the approach set out in the UN’s Shared Framework on Leaving No One Behind: Equality and Non-Discrimination at the Heart of Sustainable Development. The UN believes in addressing and finding solutions for deep-rooted forms of discrimination that have affected the most vulnerable people in societies - including women and girls, indigenous peoples, people of African descent, LGBTI people, migrants and people with disabilities, among others.

Equality, inclusion and non-discrimination, in other words - a human rights-based approach to development - is the best way to reduce inequalities and resume our path towards realising the 2030 Agenda.

For businesses, the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) is a global authoritative framework for State duties and business responsibilities to achieve the vision of “tangible results for affected individuals and communities, and thereby also contributing to a socially sustainable globalization.”

So what does this mean for Vodafone?

First, it starts with the significant role we play in a digital society. Wherever we operate, we contribute to the wealth and development of countries, regions and local communities.

Communications technology is a transformational lever to enable freedom of speech, further democratic participation, improve lives and livelihoods, as well as to promote economic empowerment, especially among the weakest and most marginalised in our societies.

In line with our purpose, and our commitment to enable inclusive and sustainable digital societies, we strive to advance the protection and promotion of a number of fundamental human rights and freedoms, while supporting the full realisation of socio-economic development. We believe that everyone should have the access and ability to benefit from digitisation, including by our targeted actions to close the digital gender gap, as well as improving access to education, digital skills and health for women, girls, and society at large.

By the same token, we aim to ensure that we are not - directly or indirectly - in any way complicit in human rights abuses. The UNGPs guide our approach, starting with our Human Rights Policy statement which sets out our overall approach to making sure we respect people’s rights when we do business.

This is not always straightforward. As an international telecoms operator, our most significant human rights’ risks and challenges relate to our customers’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Governments have the legal right to request communications data and to intercept citizens’ communications, for example, as part of fighting terrorism or serious crime.

These government rights are reflected in the licences we hold in the markets in which we operate. In addition, there are occasions when some governments will exercise their legal rights, under local laws, to impose limits on their citizens’ ability to access and use digital networks and services.

Our Human Rights Policy, Freedom of Expression principles, Customer Privacy Policy and Law Enforcement Assistance Policy set out our approach to managing these risks. As a result, we have robust policies and processes in place to ensure that the requests we get and our responses to them, are fully in line with applicable laws and procedures in the countries we operate in.

We also provide a country-by-country insight into the nature of the local legal regimes and - where we are legally allowed to - the volume of the requests we receive from each country’s agencies and authorities.

In addition, we conduct due diligence to help make sure that we respect human rights. This year, for example, we assessed our approach to children’s rights by using UNICEF’s Mobile Operators Children’s Rights Impact Assessment tool. We were ranked #1 in the tech sector this year in the Global Child Forum’s ranking of 850+ companies in how they respect children’s rights. And we commission external expert guidance on heightened due diligence needed when operating in higher-risk countries such as those affected by conflict. Risks to free expression can be particularly pronounced in countries which are politically unstable or going through a time of transition such as an election.

Second, we have to live according to our values. We strive to uphold the highest integrity standards within our company with respect to our own staff, the staff of our contractors and in our supply chains. This includes our Doing What’s Right Code Of Conduct, policies around health and safety, speak-ups in case of any mistreatment and grievances, and promoting safe and fair working conditions across our supply chains. We also are committed to developing a diverse and inclusive global work force that reflect the customers and societies we serve.

We are respectful of all individuals, irrespective of race, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, belief, culture or religion. To ensure that all colleagues can play an equal and active role in our digital future, we also run a number of diversity and inclusion programs, including our maternity and parental leave policies and support for victims of domestic violence, Most recently, this includes our newly announced ethnic diversity targets of 25% of our global senior leadership by 2030, in addition to our long standing gender diversity targets (40% of senior positions by 2030).

Third, we know we cannot do everything alone, and have a lot to learn from others. Vodafone is keen to play its part in the debate by collaborating and sharing experiences from others to improve our approach. It is encouraging that international businesses are developing a greater understanding of human rights impacts.

We are an active member of the Global Network Initiative, alongside other initiatives such as Joint Audit Cooperation, a joint industry effort around supply chains, as well as the United Nations B-Tech Project which convenes business, civil society and government to advance implementation of the United Nations Guiding Principles in the tech sector.

In the end, we all need to play our part in respecting human rights: action starts with each of us. To find out more about Vodafone’s Human Rights programme, I encourage you to visit Human rights (

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