When It Comes to Human Rights, How Can Business Move from Impact Assessments to Meaningful Change?

February 23, 2015
  • Chloё Poynton

    Former Manager, BSR

  • France Bourgouin

    Former Manager, BSR

France Bourgouin, Manager, Advisory Services; Chloe Poynton, Manager, Advisory Services, BSR

Since the release of the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights four years ago, company leaders have recognized that human rights due diligence is a critical risk-management tool. Many companies have adopted due diligence processes, and this has improved their human rights processes internally, as evidenced by the proliferation of corporate human rights policies, impact assessments, and tools for integrating respect for human rights throughout operations.

But have these changes to internal processes led to improved human rights impacts on the ground?

At a recent BSR panel discussion with Barclays, the Danish Institute for Human Rights, and Unilever, we reflected on this question, and three themes emerged that underlined how business can use these processes to drive meaningful impact:

  • Rights-holder participation: This approach allows rights-holders to influence the process for conducting impact assessments, as well as the findings and decisions that result from that process. There are opportunities for companies to build on the lessons learned from community-based impact assessments—such as those supported by Oxfam and Rights and Democracy through their “Getting It Right” tool—to ensure that the voices of rights-holders are central to all due diligence activities.
  • Accountability: While rights-holders should be able to hold companies accountable, accountability mechanisms typically focus on legal avenues that rights-holders can take after their rights have been infringed. It is more effective to prevent the abuses in the first place by holding companies accountable to a rights-compatible process. For example, new reporting standards such as the Human Rights Reporting and Assurance Framework Initiative and public rankings of companies’ human rights performance increase transparency and provide new tools with which rights-holders can hold companies accountable publicly.
  • Partnership: Many human rights challenges are not unique to a specific operation, company, or even industry. When challenges appear systemic and intractable, partnerships between key stakeholders can create an effective platform to help companies address some of these tough issues. The Fair Labor Association, for example, recognized that a partnership among civil society organizations, universities, and companies could provide a more effective approach to protecting workers’ rights around the world than individual stakeholders working independently.

In reflecting on these themes, we’re excited to see the business and human rights space continually challenge itself to create the meaningful change the UN Guiding Principles first envisioned. BSR will continue to engage on these themes and we look forward to working with companies and civil society to advance our thinking.

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