In honor of International Human Rights Day, we are kicking off a three-part series featuring our human rights experts’ reflections on the evolving business and human rights landscape in 2017, as well as their perspectives on emerging issues we anticipate in 2018.
In 2017, BSR’s team of human rights experts tackled close to 50 projects and collaborated with more than 80 companies around the world. We worked on everything from empowering women in factories to conducting human rights impact assessments and establishing grievance mechanisms.
As this exciting and busy year draws to a close, I asked my colleagues to reflect on what we've learned in 2017 and what it means for the year ahead. 2018 will be the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
At this time 70 years ago, the UDHR drafters were hard at work, formulating fundamental concepts like whether women should have equal rights at a universal level, or whether it should be left to national level cultures and preferences. It can be easy to fail to appreciate the inspiration (and guts) it took to produce a document like this at a global level, but over the next year, we plan to reflect on the progress the human rights field has made and explore those topics that are likely to define the next 70 years of work in this space.
—Margaret Jungk, Managing Director, Human Rights, BSR
Dunstan Allison-Hope, Managing Director (San Francisco)
For me, a big development in 2017 has been the growing interest in the social, ethical, and human rights implications of disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI). For example, we have seen the creation of the Partnership on AI and the publication of new AI principles by the Software and Information Industries Association and the Information Technology Industry Council. The annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights hosted a track on technology and human rights for the first time this year, where we ran a discussion on realizing access to remedy when decisions are made by machines rather than people. We hope that this interest in human rights and technology extends beyond the technology industry to other sectors that use technology.
Ouida Chichester, Manager (San Francisco)
In my work in 2017 on women’s empowerment and human rights, from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America, I increasingly saw the language of human rights being used by communities when engaging with companies. Communities, even very remote ones, are becoming ever more adept at using the discourse of human rights to present their interests to companies.
This is likely in part the result of increasing international NGO efforts to train communities in the use of human rights language and the UN Guiding Principles approach. These trainings include things like using mobile phones to document and report abuses. You no longer hear women saying things like, "The security guards around your company are making me feel unsafe and unable to move about in my own community without harassment." Instead, you hear them invoke the stronger human rights language: "This is about my rights—and these security guards are infringing upon my freedom of movement." The companies that are learning that language alongside the societies where they operate are much better equipped to deal with community concerns and challenges, and are better able to address human rights risks and take proactive steps to protect and promote human rights.
Salah Husseini, Manager (New York)
Companies are ambitious entities, and if the last 15 years demonstrate anything, it is that when a company sets its mind to something—self-driving cars, instant deliveries, a phone that can scan your face—it can make it happen. This is why I'm excited to hear so many companies expressing an ambition to work with their industry peers to effect systemic change on human rights rather than take an individual approach. Human rights violations don't take place in a vacuum, and a unified company approach to issues like privacy, complicity with authoritarian regimes, or decent working conditions could change the world overnight. I know that sounds idealistic and impossible. But hey, 15 years ago, so did having your entire music collection in your pocket.
Jean-Baptiste Andrieu, Associate Director (Paris)
I observed in 2017 that a global coalition of actors are working intensely on the issue of recruitment and migrant workers. The link between unethical recruitment practices—the payment of fees in particular—and forced labor has been clearly established. NGOs, academics, unions, and companies now share a common understanding of the importance of tackling this issue. With so much interest, a lot of initiatives have emerged, many reports have been written, and tools have been developed. This is a good thing! In 2018, it will be important to ensure that solutions to this issue are not duplicative and are mutually reinforcing. One solution could be to build a coalition of collaborations promoting responsible recruitment practices. BSR’s Building Responsibly will be willing to contribute.
Michaela Lee, Associate (San Francisco)
There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” For years, companies have dealt with human rights issues on an individual basis, often due to having nascent or under-resourced programs that get caught up in putting out fires. Today, a greater number of companies have stable programs that have allowed them to refocus efforts on untangling the more complex human rights issues underlying their value chains. This increasing capacity and ambition is fueling the continued development of collaborative initiatives to tackle intractable issues.
Over the past 15 years, we've seen an exponential increase in the number of collaborative initiatives and successful case studies that demonstrate the efficacy of collective action. Collaborations that came out at the turn of the century—the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights and the Fair Labor Association—have filled governance gaps and advanced the human rights field. These established initiatives will continue to amplify business efforts even as new collaborations—like this year’s Building Responsibly and the Responsible Labor Initiative—pop up to tackle other issues. I look forward to the strengthening of collaborative efforts in 2018 that will help us "go far" and "go together."