Désirée Abrahams: Human Rights Impact Assessments are Like a Promising School Band

By Désirée Abrahams, IBLF

Human Rights Impact Assessments are Like a Promising School Band

Last week, I attended the 31st International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) Conference, held in the stunning, colonial Méxican city of Puebla. I was honoured to be invited to this amazing conference; not only to listen and learn from those working at all levels in the impact assessment (IA) field but also because the session I spoke at was the first of its kind.

After 30 years of IAIA conferences, the 31st opened its doors to a small but rapidly growing field of human rights impact assessments (HRIA). Thanks to the work of the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie, HRIAs or assessments on a company’s human rights impact as a concept, are now largely accepted.

Although, acceptance hasn’t yet translated into extensive adoption. Human rights impact assessments are like a promising school band that has the potential to turn into a big overnight hit.

If a school band, the session on HRIAs at the Conference was its first concert outside of the school gates, and by all accounts, the audience loved the performance. But I hear you question, is this because the audience was filled with the equivalent of the mums, dads and other family members of the school band musicians? Wasn’t the IAIA Conference filled with impact assessment practioners and other folk linked to the community?

Indeed it was, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the IA community or others will readily embrace HRIAs without careful scrutiny. In fact, many in the CSR/ Sustainability community question the added-value of a specific ‘human rights’ impact assessment approach for companies, noting that a ‘good’ social impact assessment (SIA) should be able to pick up most human rights risks and impacts. At the session, I was directly asked for a list of the human rights issues that are not addressed in a SIA. Wouldn’t life be simple if there was such a list! Alas, there is not, and there shouldn’t be, as no one impact assessment, whatever it is called, could ever be the same.

The essence of a human rights impact assessment rests not only on what you do, but how you do it. There are 30+ human rights, so conducting a comprehensive HRIA will require an assessment of all as per the International Bill of Human Rights. Yes, it will be a significant undertaking.

So those that believe that the exercise can be fast-tracked and some human rights can be overlooked in the interests of expediency or that certain human rights do not relate to their business so can be instantly ignored, are missing the point of the exercise. Often, human rights issues are hidden – often they are nascent, so approaching an assessment of this kind will require an open mind.

The human rights issues associated with workers, communities and other stakeholders can be diverse, dynamic, and demanding; some of them may even conflict with each other. Indeed, it is this combination of factors that will make a HRIA more challenging than any other assessment to complete, but all the more useful to the company in the long run.

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