Published 2 years ago.
About a 4 minute read.
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Perhaps the takeaway of the week is that the ‘next 10 years’ of business and human rights coincide with the 2030 deadline for us to halve carbon
emissions — and that environmental rights are now very clearly seen as human rights. Companies pursuing a net-zero strategy must make human rights central, too.
Much of the talk at this year’s Forum
has been about making action on business and human rights “meaningful.” But a
parallel challenge is to make global discussions based in Geneva meaningful
to companies and stakeholders at the local level.
The Forum’s sessions on the advancing tide of mandatory due diligence addressed
the question of what this looks like from ‘bottom-up.’
Utilising blockchain to enable supply chain
the use of aggregated data and common standards to make it easier for small and
medium-sized enterprises, along with national measures to provide training and
capacity-building, were advocated by session facilitator Shemina Amarsy,
adviser at the International Trade Centre.
But bigger, multinational companies were identified as having most potential to
make a difference.
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“The companies have the greatest power to incentivise SMEs to implement human
rights, particularly in producer countries,” Johnson Ching Yin Yeung,
Regional Coordinator for the Clean Clothes
Campaign, told the Forum.
He identified awareness amongst workers at factory floor
respect for freedom of association and transparency throughout the supply chain
as critical, adding: “If civil liability doesn’t extend beyond tier one and to
auditors too, it will be meaningless. It is not about which tier, but
transparency of the whole supply chain. Otherwise in a country like India,
89 percent of workers would not be covered.”
Tyler Gillard, Head of Due Diligence at the OECD Centre for Responsible
Business Conduct, put it even more simply: “Take time to read the guidance —
if you increase your own awareness, it can be easier.”
Anita Ramasastry, outgoing member of the UN Working Group, gave her last
speech to Forum in her current role, underlining that localisation and
contextualisation of the UN Guiding
are key themes of this week's discussions and of challenges going forward.
Meanwhile, the Forum session on lessons from COVID emphasised that protection of
rights remained possible during the crisis. Tony Khaw, director of corporate
social responsibility for Dutch-based semi-conductor manufacturer NXP,
told the Forum how the company was tackling the problem of bonded migrant labor
during the pandemic. It had opened a helpline and worked with local civil
society organisations where its factories are located across Asia to
maintain support for vulnerable workers at risk of losing their livelihoods.
At a Forum whose objective is to foster engagement between governments, business
and stakeholders, today also saw a debate about the terms on which this
engagement can take place.
“Responsible political engagement” was said to be a human rights issue, with
companies asked to apply due diligence to
as with other business activities. Transparency for lobbying and donations,
coherence between company sustainability and human rights efforts with the
government affairs function, and Board sign-off on political
were highlighted for action.
Companies were asked to hold business associations to account — for example, the
companies that left the US Chamber of Commerce over its lobbying against
(a position the Chamber has since
Specific tools to assist companies were recommended — including the B Team
toolkit on trade association misalignment on climate policy, the policy
influencing standard of the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment and the
Model Code of Conduct of the Center of Political Activity.
“It’s about taking responsibility not just for the impact of the company, but
its impact on the system,” said the Erb Institute’s Tom Lyon.
As Nora Mardirossian of the Columbia Center told the Forum: “Lobbying
has been a taboo, with rights-holders harder to identify. But companies should
be speaking out in favour of states’ right to regulate in the public interest
and argue positively for the Sustainable Development Goals and the defence of
But the closing session — which was partly a celebration of the first 10 years
of the UN Guiding Principles; partly a wake for the memory of their author, the
late Professor John Ruggie — was most of all a call to action based on the
roadmap unveiled earlier in the
to raise the scale and pace of their implementation.
Perhaps the takeaway of the week is that the ‘next 10 years’ of business and
human rights coincide with the 2030 deadline for the world to halve carbon
emissions — and that environmental rights are now very clearly seen as human
For every company pursuing a net-zero strategy, it is a message for all of us to
make human rights central, too.
Published Dec 1, 2021 1pm EST / 10am PST / 6pm GMT / 7pm CET
Richard Howitt is a strategic adviser on Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Business and Human Rights. He is also a Board member, lecturer at Audencia Business School and host of the Frank Bold ‘Frankly Speaking’ responsible business podcast. Richard was Member of the European Parliament responsible for the EU’s first rules on corporate sustainability reporting and subsequently Chief Executive Officer of the International Integrated Reporting Council.