As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) turns 70, GBI Director Jo Reyes reflects on what has already been achieved in the business and human rights space and on what is needed from all actors in the next decade to further progress human rights
The significance of business and human rights is now better understood and established than at any other point in history. The past decade has seen unparalleled consultation and dialogue between government, business, NGOs, civil society and academia, and the subsequent unanimous endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) - firmly grounded in the principles of the UDHR and providing unprecedented clarity on the obligations held by states and the responsibilities of corporations to respect human rights. The rationale for corporations operating globally to establish their human rights standards in universal human rights principles has never been clearer.
Companies have made some significant, meaningful strides on respecting human rights in practice. In light of this, the 70th anniversary of the UDHR provides a reflection point for the business and human rights agenda – on where we have come from, what we have achieved and what more is to be done. A chance to take stock and to establish our vision for the future.
HOW FAR HAVE WE COME?
We now have a far better understanding of the complexity of deeply, effectively, sustainably embedding and operationalising human rights in business practice. The challenges posed are being addressed at an astonishing rate with an increasing plethora of tools, guidance, benchmarks, industry and issue-specific standards and principles, and growing expertise inside and outside of companies. And concrete progress has been made.
- There has been a shift in perceptions. As recently as 10 years ago, many companies felt they had no human rights responsibilities. Now, a majority of executives (83%) believe that human rights are a matter for businesses, not just for governments. And over 300 major companies have made public human rights commitments. Not enough for sure, but movement in a positive direction.
- Business organisations and industry initiatives have been convening working groups specifically focussed on human rights. The UN Global Compact, IPIECA, ICMM, RBA, WBCSD to name but a few – all have focussed workstreams aimed at solutions, building capacity and tackling specific human rights challenges faced by their business members. The investment community – key business actors – are also showing signs of greater awareness and activism.
- Governments, NGOs and civil society are increasingly understanding what implementation on the ground really means, and there has been a growing willingness to adopt more collaborative and multi-stakeholder approaches to tackling complex human rights issues together.
- We have seen increasing regulation around mandatory human rights due diligence, the emergence of state national action plans and ongoing moves towards a binding treaty on business and human rights.
Add to all this a layer of increasing sophistication and depth with which business is approaching human rights issues - exploring emerging areas, synergies and innovations; working across sectors to leverage change; and adopting inter-disciplinary approaches – and we can start to see some of the explosive momentum the UNGPs have catalysed on the corporate responsibility to respect human rights.
ACTION IN PRACTICE
Companies are increasingly committing to human rights. But we know that commitment which lacks both the understanding and demonstrable positive impacts of effective application is somewhat meaningless. Many companies are not even on the field – let alone at the starting blocks - when it comes to implementation. There is still a long, long way to go. But where companies are making effective progress and have learnings to share, we know this has the potential to build capacity and helps others work towards more effective implementation. Such sharing can help achieve more effective outcomes - and achieve them faster.
In June this year, GBI launched a Business Practice Portal – a “by business, for business” online resource demonstrating what working towards respect in practice takes. Through the portal, our members share ideas and insights based on their own practice, sharing their experience of working to embed human rights in day-to-day operations and in responding to challenges. It shows how business and human rights is playing out in practice, on the ground, and it provides examples and resources for others getting started on business and human rights in their companies.
LOOKING FORWARD - THE NEXT 10 YEARS
Respecting human rights in practice takes capacity and resources. It takes commitment from the top to the bottom - and an understanding of potential positive and negative impacts - far beyond the walls of company HQ. It takes willingness to collaborate – to open meaningful dialogue. And, vitally, it takes committed individuals within companies to act as human rights champions – as intrapreneurs working cross-functionally to achieve better outcomes for both the rights holder and the company.
As we work to build on advances, we also need to reflect – to acknowledge and learn from experiences, from successes in practice, and also from challenges and failures. But we cannot afford to rest and reflect for long. The commitment to upholding dignity and respect is just as real and compelling as it was in 1948, particularly in light of new and increasing threats to individuals’ human rights.
We know more is needed and that it will take genuine commitment, openness to effective collaboration and serious dialogue to continue to build on these achievements over the next 10 years. From all parties this involves demonstrating not only incorporating respect for human rights into state national action plans and in companies’ codes of conduct and policy statements – it means demonstrating effective respect for human rights. Respect in practice.
In Paris 1948 when the UDHR was drafted in the aftermath of the Second World War and in the shadow of the Berlin Blockade, the hit song of the day – La Vie en Rose - captured the feelings of hope the Declaration symbolised. And there are still many reasons to retain that hope. We have made progress. And in the business and human rights arena we should be proud of our achievements as the UDHR turns 70. We need to renew our commitment, personal and professional. It will only be through determined and urgent action – individually and in collaboration with others - that we will achieve the desired outcome of corporate respect for human rights in all industries and all regions of the world.