Do businesses have a duty to protect Human Rights?

GoodCorporation’s debate on Human Rights and Business began with a reminder that history is littered with examples of the very negative impact that some businesses and industries have had on the rights and wellbeing of individuals.  The agenda is far from new and the publication last summer of Ruggie’s Guiding Principles was broadly welcomed as a practical guideline that businesses could reasonably follow.

Protect, Respect and Remedy are the cornerstones of the Principles. Ruggie states that it is the duty of the State to Protect against human rights abuses, the duty of Businesses to Respect human rights and the duty of both State and Business to bring about a Remedy when violations occur. According to our speaker, Ruggie’s aim is for businesses to go beyond the acceptable norms or laws of individual countries to actively promote international standards of behaviour. He wants businesses to demonstrate that they know what is going on and are ready with a remedy – to know and show.  Human Rights should be an integral part of any ethics programme.

Our speaker went still further suggesting that businesses should strive not just to respect, but to enable human rights.

So what impact have Ruggie’s Principles had and what steps have businesses taken? Interestingly, six months on from publication, a show of hands at the debate revealed that few organisations had a nominated individual with specific responsibility for Human Rights.

Analyse and Enable

Our speaker suggested that businesses should carry out due diligence against the areas outlined in the Guiding Principles, identifying where there are risks of violation and what rights they can enable people to enjoy. This will involve:

1. Fact finding

2. Identifying flash points and resolving problems

3. On-going monitoring of the impact on human rights to ensure consistent approach

4. Identifying the opportunities to realise human rights

5. Consulting experts with local knowledge of Human Rights issues in each location

6. Above all – Know what is going on and Show what you are doing to help

The Business Case

A good Human Rights record will:

  • Reduce the risk of litigation or damage
  • Reassure investors and the public
  • Reduce the risk of violations and facilitate the fair and safe development of products
  • Enhance reputation both as a company and an employer

The debate highlighted some of the key problems that businesses face in this area. While due diligence is clearly essential, including that of third parties and joint venture partners, it can be never ending – the more you look the more risks you find – how do businesses know when they have done enough? However, as our speaker re-iterated, it is imperative that accurate fact-finding is done.

Examples were also given of countries that are very good at hiding the truth – giving assurances of compliance that are subsequently found wanting during random inspections. One company referred to the problem of working in a country where consultancies give advice on how to pass an ethical audit, making it difficult to be really sure of any evidence presented. Some companies fear that they will lose business in certain parts of the world if they admit to a Human Rights policy, preferring to adopt the right processes but under a different name.

This led to a reflection on the attitude of some sections of the media to Human Rights. The scorn attributed to some decisions made in the name of Human Rights could damage any attempts to move the agenda forwards, not unlike the Health and Safety debate.

Ensuring that policies are implemented globally can also be an issue as in many parts of the world local norms contravene Head Office policy. Appointing business ethics champions in each country can help to address this problem.

Speak-up Systems were discussed and while these can be highly beneficial, they can be difficult to apply because they can expose those that speak up to risk.  They need to be developed carefully to ensure that there is confidence that the system will work to protect those that use it.

Interestingly, while all would acknowledge the importance of upholding Human Rights, few companies published their policies on Human Rights or conducted separate Human Rights due diligence. One global organisation however, did speak of their practical guide to Human Rights that has been rolled out to 130 countries, detailing potential risks and how to avoid them.

However, a number of companies were undertaking a Human Rights Review in order to develop or strengthen policies in the light of Ruggie. It was felt that a ‘one size fits all’ approach was not the answer as different companies and industries face very different issues.

It was agreed that Ruggie had raised the profile of Human Rights management within businesses, providing corporates with practical guidance.  This, it was felt, would help to steer businesses away from a negative compensation culture, towards a more positive and proactive contribution to enabling and promoting Human Rights.

The GoodCorporation View

Ruggie’s Guiding Principles provide businesses with a viable blueprint that can form the basis of an effective Human Rights Policy.

GoodCorporation recommends that businesses need to take the following steps in order to follow Ruggie and develop a robust human rights framework within their organisations.

  1. Nominate an individual with responsibility for Human Rights within the organisation
  2. Ensure that an effective Human Rights programme forms part of the Code of Conduct or the overall Ethics Policy
  3. Conduct a thorough Human Rights Impact Analysis
  4. Conduct regular fact finding and monitoring to ensure that policies are working

Click here to see the GoodCorporation Human Rights Framework

GoodCorporations Business Ethics Debate January 2012