Walking the Talk
How Business Can Avoid Fuelling Conflict and Work to Build Peace

On the third and final day at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, it was clear all businesses are being asked to address a fourth ‘p’ — peace. As well as helping to prevent conflict, companies are increasingly taking responsibility for sustaining peace.

Courageous business leaders have stepped forward in the history of many countries to bridge the divide of conflict, where politicians or diplomats have failed.

In the modern era, Martin Naughton, who conducted cross-border business during the worst years of the troubles in Northern Ireland; Murad Al-Katib, whose agri-business has combined its sustainability efforts with feeding millions of Syrian refugees; and Sarah Beydoun, who has built a fashion business empowering disadvantaged women helping to combat instability in Lebanon, have been amongst distinguished recipients of the Oslo Business and Peace Prize — nominations for which in 2019 are currently open.

The UN Forum on Business and Human Rights heard current examples from Norwegian telco Telenor Group, describing its role in overcoming conflict in Myanmar; and the Red Colombia platform of 20 companies prepared to speak out, to protect human rights defenders under threat in their country’s fragile peace.

In my commentary from day two, I highlighted how many companies are actively working to avert complicity with human rights abuses by security forces in countries in conflict worldwide. But the last day of the Forum featured a ‘Business for Peace’ strand, which goes beyond corporate engagement in the 34 countries in a current state of conflict in the world, to how companies can be ‘peace builders’ in what the Alert 2019! report identifies as the further 83 countries where internal tensions require conflict prevention or resolution.

Put together, this represents more than half of the world and over one billion people directly affected; and calls for much broader business action than those companies already committed to specialised initiatives, such as those on conflict minerals or in the voluntary security principles. 

Instead, this is a challenge to all businesses to positively contribute to the building of peaceful societies — with companies bringing their skills, resources and leadership to combat the social and economic inequalities that address the root causes of conflict itself.

This is about respecting human rights, but doing so by promoting human security — how risks and vulnerabilities affect individuals in the countries in which they operate. 

As well as preventing conflict, it also sees companies taking responsibility for sustaining peace.

Case studies on Liberia and Sierra Leone published this week by the research organisation Swedwatch, on business impact in developing countries, reinforce the finding that armed conflicts associated with natural resources are up to twice as likely to relapse into conflict in the first five years after a peace agreement has been signed.

This is a particular call to action for purpose-driven business. A special case is in business committing to “transitional justice” — taking part in truth and reconciliation efforts, which allow companies alongside other social actors to acknowledge their own role in past conflict — as in Colombia — thereby helping to embed the peace.

The Forum heard “Voices from the Ground” peace activists from there and other Latin American countries, arguing that reparation should support collective efforts to rebuild communities and not simply monetary compensation to individuals.

This is itself an interesting challenge back to UN-driven efforts towards “access to remedy,” according to the UN Guiding Principles. 

For readers whose company’s own impact on peace and conflict may seem far away in their value chain, a starting point is in your own sustainability reporting.

Business and peace provides a classic opportunity to bring the human rights agenda together with the SDGs, by assessing your own business contribution to SDG 16, aimed at “peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.”

This year’s WBCSD Reporting Matters report showed only 38 percent of companies reported on SDG 16, the third lowest amongst the SDGs in all business reporting.

In response to this challenge, the UN Global Compact, organisers of today’s special session, have set up a specific Action Platform to oversee new indices for reporting SDG 16. It aims to help companies better understand how they can apply the consequent SDG targets, including for reducing violence, combatting illicit finance and strengthening relevant national institutions. 

Companies I know from my work on integrated reporting are helping to spearhead these efforts — including Enel, Linklaters, Sumitomo Chemical and Thomson Reuters.

In the sustainability movement, we have always talked about the three ‘p’s of profit, people and planet.

This week, all businesses have been asked to address a fourth ‘p’ — peace. 

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