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Where Is the New Roadmap for Business and Human Rights Taking Us?

As delegates from the UN launched the roadmap at day one of this year's Business and Human Rights Forum, full respect for human rights by business was described as a strategic — not just an operational — issue, requiring a change of corporate culture and of business models.

This is the first of Richard Howitt’s daily updates for Sustainable Brands on the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights 2021. Read about day two and day three.

The publication of the ‘next 10 years’ roadmap to mark the tenth anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) was made an even more solemn occasion at the United Nations Business and Human Rights Forum today, as the occasion also marked the recent passing of their author and champion, Professor John Ruggie.

But Ruggie would have been the first to celebrate the achievements of the last 10 years — to have a sparkle in his eye over the ideas going forward and express his well-known sense of humour over the complex challenges in being able to do so.

Above all, he would have used his incredible intellect to analyse what will work in the new programme and the force of his commitment to make the case for it to happen.

So, for businesses, what is the sparkle in the new roadmap and the new ideas which can make it happen?

The ‘just transition’ to the challenges of climate change and the aspirations of the Sustainable Development Goals are at the forefront of the proposals, with companies urged to intensify efforts to prevent and address adverse impacts across their business activities and value chains.

Shortfalls in respect for human rights are recognised not simply through corporate violations; they are seen as systemic challenges, requiring systems-level change. Businesses are invited to enhance collective action with other companies, governments and other stakeholders, to be effective.

The roadmap sustains the ‘smart mix’ between regulatory and voluntary actions established in the Guiding Principles but says the momentum towards mandatory human rights due diligence is a ‘wave’ that should be seized.

There are calls to overcome implementation obstacles — including local legislative barriers to LGBTQ+ rights, and combatting corruption and respecting human rights in conflict zones — through identifying practical factors in countries and localities with which companies must grapple. The roadmap asks businesses to recognise adverse impacts do happen, and throw a spotlight on how human rights harms are quantifiably being addressed in sectors and broader geographies. Regional platforms — a regional ‘race to the top’ — are recommended as key to driving uptake of the UNGPs, which cannot be achieved through the global approach alone.

Full respect for human rights by business is described as a strategic — not just an operational issue — requiring a change of corporate culture and of business models. The new roadmap recommends that integration of human rights due diligence into corporate governance becomes a hallmark of the next decade.

Coherence by governments and in multilateral institutions to ensure respect for human rights by businesses using all public policy levers was an oft-repeated call from the early days of the Guiding Principles. The new roadmap adopts this again and identifies the ‘unique’ role of the United Nations itself to achieve this. However, it says businesses must also be ‘challenged’ to ensure their own coherence. Companies are asked to redouble their efforts to stop practices ‘inconsistent’ with their public pronouncements on business and human rights. Political lobbying is identified as a specific area for action.

The roadmap also sees ‘access to remedy’ as unfinished business — described as a core component of the Guiding Principles, not yet realised. However, the roadmap puts emphasis on people — not simply as victims, but as right-holders. In the next 10 years, corporate support for the concept of ‘stakeholder capitalism’ should be matched by advances in how companies can be ‘meaningful’ in their engagement with stakeholders. Businesses are asked to intensify efforts to preserve civic space and to offer greater protection to trade unions, human rights organisations and individual defenders — whose lives are risked daily in seeking to uphold the principles, where they are most at risk.

The growth of sustainable finance in the next ten years is seen as a major opportunity, with the new roadmap highlighting the responsibility of investors to managing human rights risks in their investment activities and showing how they take action to manage those risks.

Other players singled out for heightened actions towards business and human rights include what are called ‘shapers’, professionals including accountants, management consultants, lawyers, business and law schools, all of whom shape business decisions and who have their own responsibilities for respecting human rights.

Outgoing member of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, Dante Pesce — who spearheaded the roadmap initiative — told delegates that it is an umbrella in which all participants can play their part, providing “strategic orientation, not prescription.”

Pesce echoed the call made annually at this Forum for implementation of the UNGPs, by saying the next 10 years will be “implementation of effectiveness.”

Fellow member of the UN Working Group Anita Ramasastry predicted action in the next decade on topics she said had not yet been sufficiently addressed — including the climate crisis, political action by companies, the informal economy, access to remedy, and recognising rights holders.

“We have to begin discussions with rights holders at the start of the process, not after we have designed systems and frameworks. It is time to align the ‘S’ in ESG to focus much more on human rights,” she told the Forum.

Businesses attending the Forum will welcome this challenge, but join UN leaders in asking: What is effective?

Reviewing your company’s existing human rights approaches against the eight action areas identified in the roadmap will be a good first step.

Can the company’s actions be more localised, more meaningful, more collaborative, more quantifiable and more consistent?

Will companies mobilise their business partners and value chains to extend the attention to human rights to new geographies and localities, which global leaders say is now necessary?

Chair of the UN Human Rights Council, Nazhat Shameem Khan, used today’s official opening of the Forum to call on business to increase the pace and scale of implementation of the UNGPs — saying, “it is especially important in the post-COVID situation and in rapid digital markets pushed forward by the pandemic.”

A decade ago, few would have predicted a global pandemic. In 10 years’ time, the deadline for halving the world’s carbon emissions will have been reached. This is the ‘next decade’ for which the Business and Human Rights roadmap is written.

“2030 is the moment of reality,” Githa Roelans, Head of the Multinational Enterprises Unit at the International Labor Organisation told delegates.

It is this sense of urgency, of emergency, which may ultimately be the driver that leads the roadmap to be successful beyond what has been achieved since 2011.

As Allan Jorgensen, Head of the OECD Centre for Responsible Business Conduct, told the Forum:

“It’s not a question of whether the glass is half-empty or half-full, but that the last 10 years has seen the glass get bigger.”