Four Priorities for the Tech Sector in Applying the New UN Guiding Principles

July 27, 2011
  • Dunstan Allison-Hope portrait

    Dunstan Allison-Hope

    Vice President, Human Rights, BSR

Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council approved new Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights—a major milestone in the history of business and human rights. More clarity exists today than ever before on governments’ duty to protect human rights and thebusiness responsibility to respect human rights.

With this milestone, the key human rights question faced by companies moved from a “why” to a “how”: How should companies apply the UN Guiding Principles to strategy and operations?

There are four basic answers to this:

1. Have a human rights policy expressing commitment to respect all human rights.

2. Undertake a human rights impact assessment to identify key human rights risks.

3. Establish a human rights action plan to mitigate risks and eliminate abuses.

4. Report on these activities.

So far, so-middle-of-the-road-management-speak. Far more interesting is how these important steps can be implemented in specific industries or companies. As the introduction to the Guiding Principles states, they are “not intended as a toolkit, simply to be taken off the shelf and plugged in … When it comes to implementation … one size does not fit all.”

For this reason, we have done some thinking on how ICT companies can apply the Guiding Principles, and we have come up with four priorities, on which we’d greatly welcome your perspective:

1. Engage with users. As recent political upheavals have demonstrated, the role of the end user in human rights is more significant in the ICT industry than other sectors. Whether exposing human rights abuses online or using the internet as a platform for politics, the end user plays a significant role in the human rights impact of ICT. (See “Operational Principle 18” of the Guiding Principles.)

2. Undertake due diligence on business relationships. Many ICT companies have close business relationships with their government- and enterprise-sector clients and often “co-create” products and services with them. However, these enterprise and government customers can use ICT products for a variety of purposes, some good for human rights, some detrimental. This is known as the “dual use” dilemma, and suggests that ICT companies should take time to consider to whom they sell their products and services. (See “Foundational Principle 13” of the Guiding Principles.)

3. Understand opportunities for leverage. The first two items suggest that some of the ICT sector’s most important human rights impacts are likely to be found in circumstances in which the company has influence but not control. For this reason, the concept of “leverage” is important for ICT companies to explore. Leverage to influence human rights may arise through the sales or procurement-contracting process, public policy activities, or through collaboration with other companies or stakeholders. (See “Operational Principle 19” of the Guiding Principles.)

4. Increase comparability in human rights reporting. One of the key principles underpinning corporate responsibility reporting is “comparability,” the idea that report users should be able to compare one company report with another and make decisions based on the information. However, when it comes to human rights and ICT, lack of comparability still rules the day. For this reason, the ICT industry would benefit from a deliberate effort to identify common human rights impacts on which to report. These might include disclosures relating to privacy, security, freedom of expression, relationships with law enforcement agencies, conflict minerals, labor standards in manufacturing, and the protection of vulnerable groups such as children. (See “Operational Principle 21” of the Guiding Principles.)

Later this year, we will publish a longer paper exploring these issues for ICT sector, and we will also hold discussion forums for ICT companies in Paris, San Francisco, and Tokyo. What do you think we should focus on?

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