Advancing Human Rights: Three Lessons for Businesses

September 18, 2013
  • Faris Natour

    Former Managing Director, Advisory Services, BSR

Faris Natour, Director, Human Rights, BSR

For years, one big challenge of working at the intersection of business and human rights was explaining to my family what it is, exactly, that I do every day. In the last couple of years, though, that challenge—at least—has disappeared.

Today, it's rare to open the paper (or your favorite news app) and not see a business-related human rights story. But while increased awareness is a great first step, we need to move to the next phase: real action by business and governments that tangibly improves the lives of those whose rights are affected by business operations.

Companies in all sectors face human rights risks across all aspects of their businesses. The revelations about widespread government surveillance of internet and phone communications are just the latest example.

Travel, hospitality, and construction companies have joined the fight against human trafficking. Apparel, footwear, and toy companies are struggling to improve poor working conditions in global supply chains. Food, beverage, and agriculture firms are working to eliminate child labor. Meanwhile, financial services companies are trying to better understand their role as investors in helping address these risks.

Since the United Nations endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which outline the responsibilities of states and businesses, corporate awareness of human rights issues—as well as pressure from investors and human rights organizations—has grown.

Governments also have adopted policies to encourage business action. Earlier this month, the U.K. passed a national action plan for business and human rights, and in June, the European Commission released its guidance on implementing the Guiding Principles for the oil and gas, information and communications technology, and temporary work industries.

But now that we've completed step one—acknowledging that we have a problem—it's time for businesses to achieve real change. Companies must consider human rights impacts as part of every consequential business decision. To help get us there, corporate human rights managers should keep these three considerations in mind:

1. Integration is not just a buzzword: Becoming a "rights-aware company" that considers human rights as part of every key decision is essential to respecting human rights. Of course, meaningful impact on human rights of affected individuals is typically realized over the long term, while the short-term impact—better decision makingis hard to measure. But the investment is worth it.

Integration means building a rights-aware culture through policies, training, incentives, and the sharing of successes, failures, and lessons learned. This will look different for every business. Some are joining multicompany initiatives, such as BSR's Human Rights Working Group, which developed a guide to help companies add human rights information to their existing ethics and compliance training programs.

2. Rights holders don't bite: Even the most committed managers often feel uncomfortable with the idea of directly consulting the individuals and communities whose rights could be affected by their company's operations.

While it's understandably difficult to open up to your fiercest critics, especially on sensitive and sometimes legally fraught topics, engaging with rights holders is the most effective way to understand how the company's impacts are felt and perceived—and which mitigation measures would be most effective. Engagement is a key provision in the UN's Guiding Principles.

Companies that do this well can turn even a public shouting match into a productive and more private two-way dialogue focused on solutions that work for both sides.

3. It's the government, stupid: For businesses, most human rights dilemmas involve a government's failure to protect its citizens. In places where local laws conflict with human rights standards, where good laws aren't properly enforced, or where governments lack transparency, companies face particularly complex challenges. Stronger government protections mean better operating environments.

But governments' duty—and, in some cases, failure—to protect human rights hasn't received nearly as much attention as the corporate responsibility. While the onus is on governments to act, companies can be powerful advocates for public policies that strengthen human rights and increase transparency.

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have advocated more transparency for U.S. government surveillance programs. This is a good example of what businesses can do.

If everyone working at the intersection of business and human rights can make progress in these three areas, we can hugely improve human rights. In an ideal world, we would again struggle to explain what we do—not because human rights problems would be so complicated, but because they'd be so rare.


This article also appeared in Guardian Sustainable Business in advance of our co-hosted event on business and human rights in New York on September 17, 2013.

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