The 4th Annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights took place in Geneva Nov. 16-18. Over 2,000 people from around the world joined the biggest ever multi-stakeholder meeting on this theme, an impressive 22% of these from the business community.
Business was not only in attendance, but also highly engaged in a variety of panels, as well as organising multiple side events. Compared to previous years’ forums business engagement has seen a step change. The early fear expressed by Professor John Ruggie, founding father of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, that the momentum created by the Guiding Principles at the outset may diminish over time has not been justified, although challenges do remain.
Governments must do more to meet their international treaty obligations and fully implement and enforce the fundamental human rights standards. This would not only prevent companies from finding themselves in a dilemma where the national law is out of step with international human rights conventions, it would also facilitate the discussions about supply chains. If governments had more effective and efficient labour inspection systems and OSH frameworks focusing on prevention, far less energy would need to be spent by international brands to ensure safe working conditions in supply chain companies.
Another remaining challenge is access to remedy. Access to remedy in cases of human rights violations is not only a right, per se, but a prerequisite for the full enjoyment of human rights. It is only when people have access to justice and remedy when their human rights are infringed that these rights become meaningful. Proper functioning judicial systems are key in ensuring victims have access to remedy in the event of human rights violations. The situation in many countries is unacceptable in this regard; governments have to improve their judicial systems. Extraterritorial jurisdiction will never be a sufficient alternative to well-functioning judiciary systems in host countries, as it will not be accessible in the vast majority of cases.
Business is assuming its responsibility to respect human rights. This is shown in many ways: public commitments on human rights policies; communicating such policies to the workforce; enhancing existing governance mechanisms in companies to include human rights; efforts to improve understanding of impacts; due diligence assessments; internal and external audits; training of management, supervisors, team leaders and employee; building capacity with business partners and suppliers; and setting up company grievance procedures. More importantly, addressing human rights is increasingly becoming an integral part of overall business strategy and hence the responsibility of top management which is demonstrating increased ownership and leadership. In fact, a 2015 Economist Intelligence Unit study shows that there is widespread support among senior executives for the idea that business has an important human rights role. Companies showing leadership, mostly MNEs, are to be complimented, for sure, but building on the momentum needs not only more leaders, but more followers.
The UN Guiding Principles have been a game changer, and much has already been achieved since their adoption just four years ago. Implementing a change management programme with global reach within such a short time frame is impressive. We can reflect now not only on what remains to be done, but also on what has been achieved. It takes time to build a better world. Companies are likely to move faster in their implementation if the expectations of stakeholders are realistic and constructive. Issues will remain. However, the way in which these are resolved will make the difference between being a good company and being a great company. We need to move away from a “naming and shaming” to a “knowing and showing” approach as this will lead to more constructive stakeholder dialogue. This of course also requires companies to behave less defensively and to show more transparently both progress made, and the solutions arrived at in addressing issues.
How can companies best embrace human rights as part of their business strategy? Convincing more companies to embrace the concept, requires a business case to be made that well-developed human rights policies integrated into the overall business strategy lead to more sustainable business success. To name but a few benefits: more engaged employees and higher productivity, leading to higher ratings with investors and a stronger brand image and reputation.
SMEs contribute to over 60% of worldwide GDP; the importance of convincing SMEs to embrace their responsibility to respect human rights is therefore clear. When focussing on a bottom-up approach, and not only on MNEs, we will be able to address issues in supply chains in a more effective manner and make more significant progress. Every company in the supply chain has its responsibility to respect human rights, but SMEs need more support in implementing the UN Guiding Principles.
In building National Action Plans (NAPs), governments should address this challenge very concretely by creating framework conditions that facilitate SMEs’ ability to fulfil their responsibility to respect, and offering training, education and hands-on support. However, governments cannot and should not act in isolation; they should include the social partners as well as other relevant stakeholders. The current number of NAPs is too low and governments should speed up the development and implementation process. Having a positive view of the world, I can see that the good will and the ambition are there, but how to bridge the gap between these and the reality? That is not an easy question, but part of the answer is likely to be the further development of practical tools for SMEs tailored to their needs. With this in mind, I call upon all institutions not only to develop tools and guidance for the “converted” but also for the “unconverted” and to redirect scarce resources and development capacity towards SMEs. The International Organisation of Employers (IOE), representing over 150 national employers’ federations worldwide in 144 countries is actively engaging with many of the best known institutions in this field, as well as with the range of stakeholders.
It is clear that this huge challenge can only be overcome together -- by focussing on creating a critical mass we can be sure of keeping up the momentum.