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Walking the Talk
Attention, Business Leaders:
Environmental Rights, Human Rights Inextricably Linked

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.

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

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 transparency, 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.

“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 level, 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 Principles 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 lobbying, 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 engagement 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 climate policy (a position the Chamber has since reversed).

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 human rights.”

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 week 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 rights.

For every company pursuing a net-zero strategy, it is a message for all of us to make human rights central, too.