Churn in human rights space a welcome sign
It’s good to see a key player in the business and human rights advocacy arena, Institute for Human Rights and Business, flag “greater accountability and access to remedy through a new international instrument” in its Top 10 issues for 2018. I recently wrote about this effort to make transnational businesses more accountable for human rights violations using a globally binding treaty.
The charge led by Ecuador and South Africa for such an outcome using offices of the United Nations will take several years, perhaps even a decade, to get anywhere, but that does not mean the pressure is going to let up. Indeed, a continuous churn in the human rights space is leading some countries, even those that are opposed to a binding treaty, to make an effort to integrate human rights into corporate practice—an effort which in India is ingloriously absent.
United Kingdom was among the first off the bat. In September 2013, the UK government presented to that country’s Parliament a document titled Good Business: Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Among other things, it promised to “implement UK government obligations to protect human rights within UK jurisdiction where business enterprises are involved” and “support access to effective remedy for victims of human rights abuse involving business enterprises within UK jurisdiction”. Effective 1 October of that year, the government also issued a clarification of the UK’s Companies Act 2006 to ensure “that company directors will include human rights issues in their annual reports”.
Earlier this year, the Netherlands and France chipped in relatively small but significant ways. Littler Global, a US-based law firm specializing in labour practices, encouragingly wrote about how a proposed Dutch law would “require covered companies to investigate the existence of child labour within their supply chains”. The proposal extends scrutiny to all non-Dutch businesses, including online retailers, selling to customers in the Netherlands.
The French have this year already made into law a matter of corporate due diligence that now requires large France-headquartered businesses, what Littler terms a “vigilance plan”, to identify and prevent potential human rights violations. This extends to subsidiaries and businesses in the parent or subsidiary’s supply chains. There is a cut-off for the size of business: those employing 5,000 or more, including local subsidiaries; and those employing 10,000 or more in France-based or overseas subsidiaries.
One could of course argue that human rights violations apply equally to supply chains in big as well as medium and small businesses, but it’s a significant start as these things go, especially in countries that have for long championed personal human rights in their own countries but routinely overlook the depredations of their businesses elsewhere in the world.
Just how deep this problem is, and just how far it extends beyond aspects of “supply chain”—a phrase typically applied to the manufacturing sector—is flagged by UK-based IHRB in another of its 2018 agenda points, which it describes as “addressing injustices in interactions with communities”. It is not lofty, it’s the brutal truth. “Oil, mining, and gas companies operating in conflict zones and countries with chronic weak governance,” maintains IHRB, “continue to be in the spotlight for involvement in rights abuses despite decades of controversy, court cases, and efforts to improve performance.”
Indeed, as the institute underscores, it’s not always that countries with weak governance are in the so-called Third World. As a November article by the agency Bloomberg reminded us: “The Trump administration said it will exit a global anti-corruption effort that compels oil, gas and mining companies to disclose the payments they give governments worldwide.”
This “effort” is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a Norway-based organization which has on its board serving ministers, bureaucrats, industry professionals and technocrats from several countries around the world (India is not represented). EITI is attempting, by its own declaration, to “advance transparency and accountability”. This includes the matter of corruption and kickbacks. “It’s pretty disgraceful for the United States,” Bloomberg quoted Jana Morgan, director of the Publish What You Pay watchdog coalition as saying. Especially as “Chinese state-owned oil companies and Russian state-owned oil companies” were now willing to disclose payments. The article maintained that the US government decision came after sustained lobbying, among others by American Petroleum Institute, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp.
Accountability and remedy are long haul projects, but we need reminding just how crucial these are.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.
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