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Corporate social responsibility

Human rights? Any of our business

19 April Apr 2016 1545 19 April 2016
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The Rana Plaza factory complex collapsed in April 2013, killing more than 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh. The tragedy brought attention and pressure to the longstanding debate about the responsibility of companies in protecting human rights and led people to demand more corporate disclosure.

Over the last decade, the field of business and human rights has seen a dramatic evolution. Companies, investors, and civil society are doing more to tackle human rights issues in the workplace. This evolution is best represented by the UN Human Rights Council’s endorsement in 2011 of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This watershed event was, however, only “the end of the beginning”, in the words of John Ruggie, former UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on human rights and transnational corporations. The UN Guiding Principles affirm the fundamental responsibility that companies must respect the rights of workers, communities, consumers and others potentially affected by their own operations as well as by their business relationships, and demonstrate how they are doing so.

Five years after the endorsement of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, many global companies are increasingly taking action to fulfil their responsibility to respect human rights. Although, a recent study (1) by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) of senior corporate executives revealed that corporate acceptance of a responsibility to respect human rights is widespread, but so is confusion about what that responsibility means in practice. While most companies acknowledge the importance of the issue, 54% have no policy statement referencing human rights, and only 22% have a publicly available statement of policy on this issue.

Despite decades of engagement on human rights by companies, by governments and by the global community, we do not yet have a wide-scale, publicly available way of identifying how companies are performing

Steve Waygood, Chief Responsible Investment Officer, Aviva Investors.

However, demonstrating that a company is aware of the risks and is working to address them is what many stakeholders are asking for. This is why, last month, the CHRB Steering Group, made up of Aviva Investors, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Calvert Investments, EIRIS, Institute for Human Rights and Business and VBDO, launched its pilot benchmark process (1). “Yet despite decades of engagement on human rights by companies, by governments and by the global community, we do not yet have a wide-scale, publicly available way of identifying how companies are performing”, says Steve Waygood Chief Responsible Investment Officer, Aviva Investors. The benchmark, that is based on UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights, is aiming to correct this. It will provide a comparative snapshot year-on-year of the human rights performance of the largest 500 companies on the planet, looking at the policies, processes and practices they have in place to systematise their human rights approach and how they respond when things go wrong. This will be a public good for all stakeholders. including consumers, regulators and investors.

Meanwhile how can companies be encouraged to respect human rights? CSR Europe, the leading European business network for Corporate Social Responsibility, have just published Blueprint for Embedding Human Rights in Key Company Functions (2). The document breaks down the process of embedding human rights into 6 elements which companies should consider regardless of their corporate culture or types of business activities. During the creation of the Blueprint, CSR Europe called upon a series of experts to identify the key elements and cases of best practices within the sector, while gathering information on companies in order to analyse trends and identify good examples to be included in the document. A company can organise the human rights function in a variety of ways, from a cross-functional working group to collectively addressing and managing human rights risks, or clearly allocating separate responsibilities across departments with respective areas of expertise. But this is easier said than done.

For now, companies, governments, NGOs, workers and community representatives will meet in Doha, Qatar, from 19 to 20 April to discuss key business and human rights issues in Asia. The Forum will center on implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, as well as on how to identify how governments and companies can concretely meet their respective human rights obligations and responsibilities, for example through developing national action plans and better managing their supply chains,” said Pavel Sulyandziga, vice-chair of the UN Working Group.

Photo Credits: Getty Images/Munir Uz Zaman

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