ISSUE 53: The Saviour Narrative: An Emerging North-South Challenge in Protecting Human Rights

Author: Clarita Montant 

During the recent United Nations Forum on Business and #humanrights – attended by our Clarita Montant – Ms. Omari Lichuma highlighted what she calls the “savior narrative”: laws, guidelines and lessons created by States in the Global North that target the protection of human rights in the Global South, but without direct involvement or full #cultural nuance appreciation of those very people in the rule-making process. In our experience, the success of progress on human rights protection worldwide will depend on full and meaningful engagement by representatives of countries with the worst human rights records. And perhaps counter-intuitively, this needs to start with listening to understand and integrate space for distinct cultural realities into any global solutions for human rights progress.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) outline the responsibility of governments to protect human rights. In line with the UNGPs, legislators have worked on codifying mandatory human rights at the national level as a way to create responsible business legal requirements. Most of these laws have been passed in European jurisdictions, including in France, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and others. The European Union (EU) itself is proposing an EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive. Outside of the EU, Australia has also adopted the Australian Modern Slavery Act. Each provides some distinct and helpful instruments that guide not only their governments’ programs to protect human rights at home, but their businesses’ responsibilities to respect human rights wherever they operate worldwide. The common denominator is that most mandatory human rights legislation has been adopted in the Global North.

While multinational companies have generally been supportive of such legislation, having so many different directives to abide by can create confusion and result in compliance obstacles for them. This has been one of the most prominent challenges raised by our clients in 2022. Indeed, recent reports that many global companies are not complying with national anti-slavery reporting requirements[1] may be more indicative of companies’ ESG reporting overload than their lack of commitment to respecting human rights. The senior management teams we work with in global energy and mining companies struggle to dedicate the formidable resources needed to respond to the dozens of distinct ESG rating and reporting requirements they face each year.

Dialogue at the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights highlighted a less visible but no less important challenge. At the Forum, scholar Caroline Omari Lichuma addressed human rights progress in the context of the reinforcement of colonial power relations between the Global North and the Global South. Ms. Omari Lichuma highlighted that since some of these laws have jurisdiction outside of the countries in which they were adopted (e.g., a company headquartered in Paris with operations in Africa) colonial history associated with the importance of historical context and legacy issues cannot be ignored. Indeed, even though these laws are meant to help and create a positive impact, they are made by States in the Global North, supposedly for people in the Global South. But too often those very people whose rights the legislation aims to protect have not had any part or say in the law-making process. Ms. Omari Lichuma referred to this issue as a continued “savior narrative”.

In our human rights assessment and remedy work for industries, investors and governments worldwide, we are beginning to see the often-ignored signs of the savior narrative impacting how rights are protected and respected in practice.

In Brazil, a modern slavery assessment of remote supplier operations for an Australian steel manufacturer found that many workers don’t report conditions that might be considered a form of slavery in Australia because their jobs provide highly desirable opportunities in such remote areas. The lesson here is not that such conditions should go unreported, but that the reporting requirements must be coupled with requirements to integrate worker awareness and supplier capacity building to meet conditions before the intended benefits of global reporting can be achieved.


In Senegal, the government we’re working with to strengthen environmental and social legislation sees the benefits of French and other European models for requiring human rights due diligence but recognizes that applying those models at home will face huge challenges among a population that remains resentful of being patronized by their colonizers. For such models to have a chance for success, they will need to be substantially tailored to be culturally-appropriate without being watered-down.

Making progress on human rights faces many challenges going forward. While the passage of international legislation and guidance by developed nations has been the spearhead for strengthening human rights protection, continued progress will need to be sensitive to the nuances of the savior narrative that inhibit effective protection of rights on the ground.

[1] See, for example

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