Two Years Later: How Far Has Business Come in Meeting Its Responsibility to Respect Human Rights?

December 5, 2013
  • Elissa Goldenberg

    Former Manager, BSR

Elissa Goldenberg, Associate, Advisory Service, BSR

One week before International Human Rights Day, more than 1,700 representatives from business, government, and civil society gathered in Geneva for the second UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. During the opening plenary sessions, one message rang clear: While progress has been made on implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), adequate protection and respect for human rights requires coordinated, multistakeholder action.

This idea was reflected in the forum’s agenda, which included representation from all stakeholder groups in most of the panel discussions. While a multistakeholder approach is required, there was also recognition that each group would benefit from internal discussions about the progress made, the challenges that remain, and the support required to further implement the UNGPs. The business session—organized by BSR, the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights, the International Chamber of Commerce, the International Organisation of Employers, and the UN Global Compact—addressed these questions through a conversation on how companies are engaging stakeholders.

This event revealed the diversity of ways companies are implementing the UNGPs, by developing human rights policies; conducting human rights impact assessments and using the results to update policies, tailor trainings, and centralize due diligence processes; creating cross-functional teams to manage the variety of impacts across the company; and securing buy-in through “field trips” for board and executive teams to visit local rights-holder communities.

Some companies are translating the UNGP’s high-level expectations into sector-specific actions. One participant described her efforts to shift her company’s focus from supply chain labor rights to a more holistic approach that looks at human rights impacts throughout the company. Other participants said their companies are adopting an approach to supply chain management that puts risks to rights-holders at the center of the conversation.

The forum also underscored three main challenges companies still face when it comes to implementing the UNGPs: First, companies struggle to determine which issues to focus on, especially when they have limited resources and they recognize that every human right is important. The second challenge relates to engaging with small to medium-sized business partners on human rights and ensuring that they are meeting their own responsibilities related to the UNGPs. Finally, companies find it difficult to distinguish the differences among causing, contributing to, or being linked to a human rights impact—which affects how they should use their influence to address the infringement and prevent it from happening again.

Throughout the event, companies also identified what is needed to catalyze progress, including stronger government action, both in terms of better law enforcement and national action plans that are informed by multistakeholder dialogue. Another discussion highlighted the need to change engagement with NGOs, moving from “naming and shaming” to a focus on joint solutions. Finally, participants discussed the need to align related policies such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises with the UNGPs.

In the end, I came away from the event inspired by discussions that focused on what is working and what could be improved. Participants were eager to share their experiences and remained optimistic that—along with effective engagement with civil society and government—business will continue to find innovative ways to meet its responsibility to respect human rights.

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