A Blueprint for Human Rights & Business

This is an article written by Meg Roggensack at Human Rights First

8243560373_f9fbb6de30At the beginning of December, the United Nations held its first annual Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, with nearly 1000 representatives from governments, businesses, and civil society in attendance. We were there to talk about the progress and challenges that emerged this year—the first full year—since the UN adopted the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the “GPs” or “Ruggie Principles” after their drafter, Special Reporter John Ruggie). The GPs put forth the “Protect, Respect, Remedy” Framework, under which States have an obligation to protect against human rights abuses through their own actions and through the actions of those parties under their purview, businesses have the responsibility to respect human rights in their direct business acts and throughout their supply chains, and access to judicial and non-judicial remedy for human rights abuses has to be made available and meaningful.

In the opening keynotes to the event, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Mike Posner, characterized the Forum’s aim this way:

What we’re doing here today is to really put meat on the bones and for companies, for governments, for civil society to think about the next steps. How do we make this real? How do we affect real people’s lives? These are issues of the day. They’re issues that are going to be enormously important in the 21st Century.

Throughout discussions at the Forum, representatives from businesses repeatedly talked about wanting more guidance from their governments—they want more help putting meat on those bones, whether it’s at the product-, company-, or sector-level. To that end, the U.S. government has already done significant work that can and should be built upon in the near future. The US takes part in several multistakeholder initiatives that aim to bring parties together to address difficult issues, including the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights (“VPs”), the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (“ICoC”), and the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative (“EITI”). This year, the Department of Labor released an online toolkit for companies to reduce the use of child labor and forced labor, and issued Guidelines for Eliminating the Worst Forms of Child Labor and Forced labor in Agricultural Supply Chains. Also, the Department of State hosted three workshops directly aimed at GP implementation: the first with the general business community; the second with members of civil society, academia, and think tanks; and the third with investors.

These are all helpful undertakings, but we believe that the USG can do more, and more efficiently. Human Rights First recently published a blueprint for the next administration entitled “How to Encourage US Companies to Respect Human Rights,” in which we give specific recommendations for US action that will help fulfill each of the three pillars in the “Protect, Respect, Remedy” Framework.

To highlight a few here, first, we broadly recommend that the President establish an inter-agency working group that can better coordinate the strengths of the Departments of State, Labor, Justice, the Treasury, Homeland Security, Commerce, Defense, and the United States Trade Representative. All of those agencies carry out work that can and does impact the state of business and human rights, and it is important that the work of each compliments and enhances the others, rather than undermining them. Also, the work of such an interagency group could learn from and mirror the benefits seen in several European Union member states that have developed comprehensive national implementation strategies for the GPs.

Second, a key focus for the US government going forward should be continuing and expanding its engagement with stakeholders. In addition to the workshops held this year for each of several types of stakeholders, a space needs to be created for all stakeholders—government, companies, investors, civil society, etc.—to regularly come together to discuss challenges and solutions, and, most importantly, how each can support the others in their human rights protection goals. Those discussions should continue to focus on the most problematic areas, namely supply chain tracing in the extractives, agricultural, and manufacturing industries, increasing accountability for private security providers, and properly regulating the sale of dual-use technologies to ensure they reach good hands and not bad ones. But discussions can also be broadened to non-sector-specific topics, such as general strategies for developing comprehensive human rights policies and procedures, and for carrying out human rights impact assessments. The ongoing goal of engagement should be to increase understanding and exchange of ideas, but also, where possible, to develop specific, useful guidance for companies.

Finally, the US government should maintain focus on enforcing existing laws and regulations, and should consider which can serve as good models for similar efforts. Examples of existing tools include the Dodd-Frank Act’s Section 1502 (requiring companies to make SEC disclosures on their products’ uses of “conflict minerals” sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Section 1504 (requiring companies to make SEC disclosures on certain payments to governments for commercial development of oil, natural gas, and minerals resources); the new Reporting Requirements on Responsible Investment in Burma; the Executive Order for Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking In Persons In Federal Contracts; the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA); and a number of federal grant programs for projects aimed at protecting and advancing human rights.

Those are all great tools, several of which in fact predate the US commitment to the GPs. Moving forward, State obligations under the GPs should be a continuous reference point for defending these regulations against attacks—which come regularly from groups like the US Chamber of Commerce—and for redoubling enforcement efforts for the good policies that have been hard fought and hard won. Further, the US government should look for areas where it can use those existing tools as a model for other initiatives that link reporting requirements, trade, and procurement to company performance on human rights.

The US government has admirably, publicly committed itself to the Guiding Principles, and it has a solid foundation for pursuing that commitment. Debates and discussions about how the GPs will be used to, in Assistant Secretary Posner’s words, “affect real people’s lives” are really just heating up, and the US government must continue to be a leader for US companies and the world. The recommendations outlined here, and elaborated in our blueprint, are some of the key ways for it to do so.


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