Still worried about the Business and Human Rights agenda?
You need to read this interview with Human RIghts Consultant, Hannah Clayton. You’ll learn from her years of experience helping companies with human rights issues.
Business and Human Rights
Q. Which companies are doing well on the business and human rights agenda?
An EIU survey in November 2014 found that 83% of senior corporate executives agree that human rights are a matter for business as well as governments. This is a significant step change over a relatively short period of a decade or so.
In terms of which companies are leading the way, there are a few well known and often referenced pioneers. Unilever, under the visionary leadership of Paul Polman, first springs to mind. Others such as Nestle, Nike, H&M, Vodafone, Microsoft, BP, Ericsson, Google and Shell have also been engaged in this agenda for a while and taken important steps on certain business and human rights issues most salient to their business.
I find it difficult to single out a list of companies that are ahead of the pack across the (very broad) business and human rights agenda. However there are initiatives underway to rank companies human rights performance so investors, shareholders, consumers and other interested parties can compare and contrast. The Corporate Human Rights Benchmark Initiative aims to rank 500 companies across four sectors with significant human rights risks. Ranking Digital Rights will evaluate major ICT companies on their respect for freedom of expression and privacy. The methodological challenges for both are big, but I think they are really important initiatives to watch and it will be interesting to see which companies come up on top.
It is fair to say that some oil, gas and mining companies were early movers on the business and human rights agenda, together with apparel and footwear companies such as Nike which faced huge challenges over child labour in the 1990s. Extractive companies have significant social and environmental impacts on the communities around their operations, and indeed their operations pose risks to employees and contractors around health and safety for example. So they have had to think about how to address these for a long time.
I think companies in this sector have valuable experience to share in building stakeholder relationships and effective stakeholder engagement. This is critical to industries that need the support of communities to secure their social licence to operate. Other sectors could also look to the models of peer networking and sharing of learning and best practice on social and environmental issues in the extractive sectors. Industry associations IPIECA and ICMM support their members to implement best practice in areas such as human rights impact assessment and due diligence. And thirdly there are probably some interesting lessons from extractive companies’ involvement in multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.
Who is embracing Human Rights?
Q. Where are you seeing activity on the business and human rights agenda now?
In terms of company actions I think there are some interesting developments in the ICT sector, for example practical guidance on human rights for the cyber security industry published by techUK and Vodafone’s transparency report outlining government demands for customer’s data. There are complex and critical policy challenges around freedom of expression, privacy, internet governance and the role of the private sector and the state that will only grow in importance. The recently launched UNGPs Reporting Framework is also generating activity and I’d expect to see more developments in the field of company reporting on human rights in the next couple of years (see next answer below!).
In terms of the wider agenda I think there is one area that deserves more attention and where activity is beginning to build. International trade agreements and investment treaties can be positive in terms of development, but they can also have serious implications for human rights if they undermine the ability of governments to legislate or drive forward policies designed to advance progressive social and/ or environmental aims. A key concern is the mechanism by which disputes between companies and governments are resolved, known as investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). Specifically concerns at the lack of transparency and disproportionate power of corporations in the process. It’s a technical and complex area, but are some good initiatives out there seeking to raise awareness of the issues, e.g. Investment and Human Rights Learning Hub at LSE. I think it is a critical and current business and human rights issue.
I think the UNGPs Reporting Framework is a key initiative and will play an important role in driving forward company progress on the responsibility to respect human rights. Reporting matters as it provides an opportunity for a company to reflect on and measure how they address human rights impacts, and to communicate this to internal and external stakeholders. But reporting can vary wildly in quality and I don’t think it useful if it is approached as a ‘box-ticking’ or purely PR exercise. Tools, such as the UNGPs Reporting Framework, that seek to support companies to produce better reports on human rights must be a good thing. However, I think it will take a while to see concrete impacts. It will be interesting to follow some of the early adopters of the framework – Unilever, Ericsson, H&M, Nestle and Newmont – to see what differences it makes to practice. A key challenge may be getting it picked up and used by companies not yet engaged in the business and human rights agenda.
UK and Human Rights
Q. You recently did a stint at the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth Office working on business and human rights. How does the FCO see this as important to business? And how is business responding?
Yes, I was a Human Rights Adviser in the Human Rights and Democracy Department. I worked across a range of human rights policy areas, but most closely with the Business and Human Rights team on implementation of the UK National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. This is a cross-government agenda, but was led by the former Secretaries of State for Business and Foreign Affairs so BIS and FCO have been leading the pack.
The UK was the first government to publish a National Action Plan, as recommended by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The introduction states clearly that the government believes that the promotion of business and respect for human rights should go hand in hand. It is easier for business to operate in stable, conflict-free environments often characterized by the safeguards that are good for human rights – democratic freedoms, good governance, the rule of law, property rights, civil society etc. These safeguards also create fertile conditions for private sector led growth. The FCO’s objectives are to promote Britain’s prosperity and security in a way that is compatible with British values. This means promoting British business in a way that is consistent with UK values, including human rights.
In my experience UK companies by and large welcomed this clear policy commitment from the UK government as it helped to clarify government expectations and actions, hugely important to business. Businesses were very engaged in the consultations leading up to the Action Plan, and were sometimes ahead of the curve on explaining why it is in businesses interest to respect human rights in practice.
Q. There are lots of consultants, lawyers and accountants interested in helping out with due diligence frameworks. Presumably you see that as a positive development for human rights, but do you have any advice for companies when it comes to such tools? In particular, is it better to have a long and prescriptive framework or a short and openly-questioning one? And why?
I think it is positive if these tools do really help a company to identify, address and minimize negative human rights impacts, and support the relevant people to take the necessary action to do so. They are less positive if reduced to a ‘box ticking’ exercise not backed up by an organizational culture that recognizes the importance of respecting human rights to the business, encourages critical reflection and questioning and encourages people to speak up and act to address problems. This comes from leadership driven by values, not only economic profit.
In terms of which tools are best, I think this largely depends on the context of the company, e.g. size, sector, variety and scope of human rights risks. Guidance on human rights due diligence frameworks for different sectors and contexts is growing, and can be a helpful reference tool for companies.
I do think that it matters how the tools are developed. The key people/ teams/ departments that will have to use the framework should be involved in the process to ensure buy in and understanding and increase the likelihood of implementation. An approach that outsources all the development to external consultants is less likely to be successful. However, it is also important to draw on external expertise including human rights specialists if required and importantly the individuals/ communities likely to be affected by the companies’ human rights impacts.
Chief Human Rights Officer
Q. Do you think we will see the development of a group of Human Rights professionals within business? Perhaps a Chief Human Rights Officer?
Some companies do have specialist human rights roles, for example BP and Nestle. They offer a really valuable internal source of advice, support and expertise. They can also be critical for raising awareness and increasing capacity on human rights internally. But I’d be concerned if human rights issues were only considered by small group of people within an organization, which is something to guard against with a dedicated ‘human rights’ position. Such wide ranging and important set of issues really do need to be mainstreamed across a business as they are relevant to a wide range of functions of a business, e.g. procurement, purchasing, community relations, health and safety, human resources etc.
So I guess it depends on how a ‘Chief Human Rights Officer’ works – whether they catalyze, engage and facilitate others – and where it sits in the organisation. It’s important to have engagement at the highest level of a company. Some companies have human rights working groups made up of senior leaders of all the most relevant functions rather than a specific post, which is also a potentially useful model.
Q. CSR is dominated by soft law initiatives and identification of non-legal risks. What can the business and human rights community learn from CSR?
Business and human rights also has its fair share of soft law initiatives, in fact hard law regulating business conduct relating to human rights is more the exception than the norm. It is also not only about legal compliance and identification of legal risks.
I see the business and human rights agenda more as an extension or development of CSR. Companies are integrating managing human rights risks into existing processes for managing social and environmental risks, and thus learning a lot from the CSR/ sustainability field. This is assuming a definition of CSR that goes beyond corporate philanthropy and relates directly to the core impacts of the business. I know there are debates about definitions and how human rights and CSR relate – it would be interesting to hear your and your reader’s views!
Ed – My view is that CSR should always be defined very broadly, after all CSR is about connecting companies to relationships that exist and to consequences of corporate behaviour.
Q. Why did you start work in human rights, and do you have any advice for anyone who is interested?
I studied law and anthropology and have always been interested in how people interact and how societies seek to take account of and manage a wide range of needs and interests in a fair and equal way. I started off my career in international development which exposed me to a range of social justice issues and I became interested in the human rights framework as a way to address these. It’s far from perfect, but it is the framework that makes most sense to me in terms of how we should treat each other and how governments and powerful organisations in societies should act towards individuals. I dabbled with becoming a human rights lawyer, but realized I was most interested in how to encourage and facilitate good practice within organisations to reduce the risks of human rights harms. I started out working with government and public bodies which brought me to companies and the business and human rights field.
In terms of advice, I guess I’d say that this field is really broad and covers a lot of different issues and specialisms. So it might be helpful to think about what most interests you (e.g. child rights, gender, land rights, indigenous people, security and human rights?) and look to build experience there. You can also work on business and human rights from a lot of different perspectives, inside companies, as a consultant, within government, within international organisations, in civil society. Where is the best fit for you? There are lots of interesting jobs where you can make a difference on human rights, by many of them won’t have ‘human rights’ in the title, you’ll have to dig a little deeper find them. And lastly, network!
Q. What are your top tips for an organisation that is starting on their human rights journey?
That’s a difficult one as companies are so diverse and there are many different potential paths. A couple of things strike me as important.
First, talk to your peers. Peer learning networks and/ or industry associations can be valuable sources of expertise and safe spaces to share challenges and opportunities.
Second, talk to lots of people and engage both internal and external stakeholders. Work in partnership if opportunities arise. Being as open and transparent as possible about your companies’ human rights risks and what you are doing to address these.
Third, reflect on your key priority areas – where are your greatest human rights risks? Start by focusing your actions here. Make sure you engage wide range of stakeholders to identify these priorities, including those most likely to be impacted.
Finally, use the multitude of resources and information available. Don’t reinvent the wheel! There is lots of practical guidance out there which can help you, start by looking at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.
Hannah Clayton is a freelance business and human rights consultant. She has just finished a year in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advising on implementation on the UK National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. Prior to this she worked with companies in a range of sectors on integrating human rights into their policies, processes and practice. You can find Hannah on LinkedIn or at firstname.lastname@example.org