What links the two major themes to emerge from the day — COVID and climate — is the need for companies to take steps to assist vulnerable people in supply chains, and to ensure their needs are always taken into account.
Today, the UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights kicked off — with high-level business commitments to prevent human rights violations in their operations, to prepare for next year’s ten-year anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and to realise the ambition to "build back better."
The opening of the Forum gave a sobering assessment of how the COVID crisis has reversed business and human rights gains.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that COVID restrictions were being exploited to suppress rights and to silence dissent. She pointed out that supply chains had suffered most, with female workers disproportionately affected.
UNICEF’s Sanjay Wijesekerg said decades of progress on child labour and child marriage were being lost. He was one of a number of speakers throughout the day calling on governments to use their financial leverage during the crisis to enforce respect for business and human rights.
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“Vast bail-outs from governments, which are welcome — to support business and retain jobs — should now include conditionalities on companies for time-bound action plans to introduce environmental and human rights due diligence,” Business and Human Rights Resource Centre Director Phil Bloomer told the Forum.
In a special session on lessons from the pandemic, Tony Khaw — Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for semi-conductor producer NXP — explained how they had been able to help foreign migrant workers, always the most vulnerable in the company’s workforce across 26 countries, who were unable to return home because of travel restrictions; and Shubha Sekhar, Director of Human Rights: Eurasia & North Africa for The Coca-Cola Company, described how human rights specialists had been embedded in the company’s crisis-management teams.
Both companies found the advantage that comes from the fact that “due diligence” meant they had already established highly developed relations with suppliers, which had enormous benefits to both companies and to the supply chain when the crisis hit. Small businesses and jobs were saved, but security of supply remained protected.
Corey Klemmer, Director of Engagement at impact investor Domini, said investors also saw how companies with strong human rights records had been shown to be more resilient. The business case for human rights respect clearly exists in bad times, as well as good.
However, a second theme running throughout the day was what UN Global Compact Executive Director Sanda Ojiambo called a “growing disconnect” between companies adopting human rights policies and taking action to implement them.
The fourth Corporate Human Rights Benchmark annual report — launched today at the Forum — finds the most improvement this year has been in public commitments to respect human rights by business, but that a large number of companies had failed to record improvement during the year; and still, 79 of the 230 companies assessed scored zero for human rights due diligence.
The day’s closing CEO panel put this down to an issue of leadership.
UN Working Group Chair Anita Ramasastry said the leading companies were the ones “where the CEO can speak easily about the Guiding Principles and not just having a company human rights statement. It means employees, investors, stakeholders and consumers really notice.”
Meanwhile, for anyone afraid that cross-industry collaboration between companies on broader societal issues might impinge on their competitiveness, the best answer came from Michele Thatcher, SVP and Chief Counsel at PepsiCo, who said: “We even found ourselves at Coca Cola headquarters in Atlanta, talking human rights.”
Another key finding in the Human Rights Benchmark report was in a study of automotive companies, which finds almost no correlation between companies who rate well on climate action and those who do so on human rights. The two appear to be treated entirely separately by the industry — it’s as if the term “climate justice” had never been invented.
The case to link the two was made by former Irish President Mary Robinson, who used the Forum to appeal to companies to work directly with human rights defenders at the local level — “as they understand the link between the environment, development and rights.”
A positive sign that the linkage is being better understood came from the World Business Council on Sustainable Development’s Filipo Veglio, who explained how the organisation has now changed its membership criteria to require a commitment to human rights, too.
What links the two major themes to emerge from the day — whether COVID or climate — is the need for companies to take steps to assist vulnerable people in supply chains, and to ensure their needs are taken into account in the change processes in which business is engaged.
Richard Howitt will be providing daily updates on the UN Human Rights Forum 2020.