Engaging Business Globally on Human Rights

By Katryn Wright, Programme Manager, Global Business Initiative on Human Rights

Engaging Business Globally on Human Rights

For a long time, the policy debates, advocacy campaigns and practice sharing about business and human rights has been concentrated in the corridors of London, Geneva and New York. In 2009, the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights (GBI) identified that awareness of how companies headquartered in emerging and developing markets can and do impact their societies, and the steps such companies can take to address these impacts was often neglected. Therefore, through learning amongst peers and outreach to other businesses, GBI set out to build a truly global community of corporations from all sectors knowing and showing that they respect the dignity and rights of the people they impact and interact with.

GBI has formed partnerships and held awareness-raising events in India, Colombia, Egypt, Brazil, Malaysia, Kenya, the United Arab Emirates, and China. We have worked with 28 local organizations, and engaged with almost 700 business leaders, including over 100 from state-owned enterprises.

Here are five things we have learnt about working in these different and diverse contexts:-

There are national or regional entry-points to discuss human rights explicitly with business, and the challenge is to build from these: The language of human rights is rarely easy anywhere, rights are often controversial or overly politicized, especially in the many emerging and developing markets. But we have found there to be entry points in regional and national policy, laws, histories, norms and current affairs, as well as framing the universality of human rights and a country’s international commitments. Such entry-points have included: The ASEAN charter; Constitutional and legal developments in China and Kenya; new CSR and stock-exchange developments in India; indigenous peoples’ rights and forced labour in Brazil; recent oil and gas finds in East Africa; overseas investment challenges facing companies from BRICS and CIVETS; and freedom of expression and freedom of association in Egypt (pre- and post-revolution). From here, one can then move to a dialogue about global standards, the UN Guiding Principles and converging international expectations.

Business leaders are recognizing that traditional CSR practices do not provide a social license to operate, and that managing impacts and respecting human rights is increasingly a business imperative: We have found that companies that have for decades invested in corporate philanthropy and local infrastructure, education and healthcare, are realizing that this is not an effective strategy to establish sustainable relationships with stakeholders. Major companies, especially multinationals, in every location where we have worked, have faced issues around discrimination, freedom of association, land use/acquisition, local conflict and tensions, child labour and so on. They are fatigued with attending conferences about declaratory CSR and philanthropic activities – but are eager and interested in participating in meaningful and pragmatic conversations on how they can move to ‘knowing and showing’ that they respect human rights by implementing corporate policies and practices that are aligned with the UN Guiding Principles. Further, the human rights principles of participation, respect, equality and dignity offer a far better route to securing the social license to operate for individual companies and industries than charitable CSR efforts, and directly links to the challenge of countries achieving sustainable economic development that works for all.

Champions exist, and coalitions of diverse, local stakeholders acting together appear to be critical for the successful development of the Business and Human Rights agenda: Wherever we go, we find remarkable individuals and organizations working on Business and Human Rights, and acting as local and regional champions. We have had the pleasure of working with coalitions of individuals and actors drawn from business associations, government representatives, law firms, universities, worker’s organizations, Global Compact local networks, national human rights institutions and civil society organizations to deliver business and human rights programs. Such champions are critical, and bringing together a range of organizations (who often have not worked together) ensures inclusion of all perspectives and access to the diverse skill sets and knowledge required to move the agenda forward.

There is a major and urgent need to build capacity within companies and among other actors: We have found that companies are willing and interested to talk with other businesses about human rights challenges and how they practically implement respect for human rights. But, moving from discussion and dialogue into action is urgent. In order to affect this shift to action, we need to address the limited capacity within companies and capacity of those supporting organizations. Ideally, this capacity will be developed in local institutions that have existing credibility, appropriate language skills and relevant local knowledge.

Work on all three pillars of the UN “Protect, Respect, Remedy” Framework and Guiding Principles must be accelerated in order to shift practices around business and human rights. There are more and more active dialogues across the globe on corporate respect for human rights (pillar 2 of the “Protect Respect Remedy” Framework). Starting with conversations about the second pillar is useful, but all three pillars of the framework are interdependent and more active conversations are needed on the state duty to protect human rights, and the need for more effective remedies when human rights abuses do occur. Business-to-business dialogue on implementation needs to be complemented with state-to-state dialogue.

As we continue our work and set out the next 3 years of our work plan, GBI would be interested in hearing from individuals and organizations working about their experiences and strategies towards working in emerging and developing markets and engaging on the UN Guiding Principles.

Editor’s Note:

The Global Business Initiative on Human Rights (GBI) is a unique business-led initiative focused on advancing human rights in a business context around the world. GBI currently has 18 corporate members from 11 industry sectors with representation from Latin America, Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East. Through core group work streams and business outreach activities GBI seeks to build a global community of business leaders sharing good practices, identifying barriers to corporate respect for human rights in diverse contexts and inputting into international policy developments. Our work plan is divided into two parallel tracks: first, Action-Learning around the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights; and second, Business Awareness and Capacity Building through events and workshops in emerging and developing markets. GBI works in collaboration with the UN Global Compact Office.

For more information visit: www.global-business-initiative.org

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