CEF Spotlight

Business and Human Rights: The End of the Beginning

By Christine Bader, author, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil

Bader Slide for Homepage

Attention to business’ impacts on and responsibilities for human rights continues to grow, with front page stories like the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, the role of tech companies in government surveillance, and the social turmoil that comes with natural resource extraction in the U.S. and overseas

Until recently, human rights were viewed as the purview of governments. But that era is quickly coming to a close.

Today’s leading companies are taking a more proactive view, using the new wave of tools, guidelines, and norms that emerged from years of intense international consultations. These companies recognize that risks to human rights are risks to their bottom line; and that embracing human rights is good for business and stakeholders alike.

The Emergence of New International Standards

Until 2011 there was no international consensus about business’ responsibilities for human rights. A 2003 United Nations proposal suggested that while governments bear the primary responsibility for human rights, companies “are also responsible for promoting and securing the human rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” — a position that predictably drew fierce opposition from the International Chamber of Commerce and individual companies (and some support from human rights groups).

In response to the lack of clarity and increasingly polarized debate, in 2005 then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan designated a Special Representative on business and human rights, Harvard professor John Ruggie.

Ruggie embarked on six years of global consultation, holding meetings and gathering evidence and research from academics and stakeholders around the world. (I was part of his team.)

The end product was the United Nations Guiding Principles on business and human rights, which spell out responsibilities for governments and companies on how to prevent and address human rights abuses linked to business. In 2011 the Guiding Principles won unanimous support in the Human Rights Council (which is rare), and have since been used by companies, who have found the guidance about human rights due diligence practical; governments, who are incorporating bits of the Guiding Principles into new legislation, listing requirements, and policies; and NGOs and investors, who are using the principles in their advocacy with both companies and governments.

The Guiding Principles aren’t meant to trump other initiatives on specific aspects of the intersection of business and human rights, such as the Fair Labor Association for apparel and manufacturing, the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights for the extractive industries, and the Global Network Initiative for internet companies.

Rather, the Principles are meant to provide a consistent underpinning for those initiatives on the fundamentals of corporate responsibility for human rights. So no matter what specific initiatives and actions various players implement, we’re all on the same page. 

There is much more to do. As John Ruggie put it in his final presentation to the Human Rights Council, “I am under no illusion that the conclusion of my mandate will bring all business and human rights challenges to an end. But Council endorsement of the Guiding Principles will mark the end of the beginning.” 

Guidance for Companies

So what are next steps — specifically for companies that want to be proactive on human rights?

  1. Establish a policy. Insufficient on its own, but a necessary first step. The nonprofit Business & Human Rights Resource Centre keeps a list of corporate human rights policies, so there is no shortage of examples; and the U.N. Global Compact has published a guide on how to develop a human rights policy.
  2. Conduct human rights impact assessments. Environmental and social impact assessments are now standard practice for many industries; human rights impact assessments are slowly starting to catch up. I oversaw the first human rights impact assessment for a private sector project, for BP in Indonesia in 2001; now tools and guidance are proliferating. Yahoo! now conducts human rights impact assessments before launching new products in new markets, for example.
  3. Go beyond the law to prevent complicity. G.E.’s healthcare division in India discovered that its ultrasound machines were being used to facilitate female sex-selective abortions. Rather than accepting complicity in the actions of its customers, the company took proactive steps to avoid the post-sale misuse of its technology, establishing training and contractual requirements for customers and its salesforce.
  4. Report and engage. Nestle recently published an extensive account of its corporate-wide human rights assessment, conducted in partnership with the Danish Institute for Human Rights. The Global Reporting Initiative has been improving their human rights indicators with every new iteration.

Like every other aspect of sustainability, human rights present an opportunity for companies to demonstrate that their policies, systems, and people are well-equipped to manage their impacts. In this era of ever-increasing public scrutiny and rising stakeholder expectations, companies will be well-served by understanding their human rights responsibilities and emerging good practice to manage risks as well as opportunities.

Christine Bader is author of The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil. She previously served as a manager of policy development for BP and advisor to the United Nations Special Representative on business and human rights.

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