A new corporate benchmark for human rights

There needs to be specific grids that periodically track government and sector-specific companies on business and human rights parameters


I would like to propose an item for the business and human rights agenda for 2017.

There is an urgent need in India for major human rights groups, including local offices of global human rights watchdogs, to pool finance and human resources to develop omnibus India-specific trackers and parameters. While their ongoing efforts are laudable, these need to go beyond work on a particular project or an industry, such as the issues highlighted in a scathing report in 2016 by Amnesty International’s India arm on human rights violations on this country’s largely government-run coal mining business.

This will also help the network of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, and their issue-based alliances. NGOs have over the years developed great networking capability. This was brought to bear to birth law, such as the Forest Rights Act, or to raise issues related to overbearing land acquisition laws that directly affected policy. But while these are significant and have countrywide implications, they do practically nothing for regular, long-term monitoring of the convergence of business and human rights.

India is too vast a country with too much ongoing activity with government policy in New Delhi and the states, too many overlapping streams of localized policies, too many significant industries, and too many businesses in the fray, for any one watchdog to track it.

While causes célèbre like Vedanta Resource Plc’s or Posco’s projects in Odisha, or a hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh profile a particular company or state, they leave out far too many states and businesses which play fast and loose with policy, who live blatantly on the borderlines, even beyond the envelope of human rights violations. Out of the monitoring net, below the radar—take your pick of descriptors.

There is also another matter that Margaret Jungk, former chair of the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, put across so eloquently a couple of years ago. Corporate and country human rights commitments are increasingly being tracked on the strength of promises made. There are several such global and localized indices—even for India. “What we’re missing, though” she maintained, “is information about whether these promises are being kept. Of the companies that have committed to respecting human rights, how many of them are actually doing so in practice?” Jungk spoke in a global sense, and also included countries and their human rights commitments in her ambit. But her logic is eminently local too.

There needs to be specific grids that periodically track government and sector-specific companies on business and human rights parameters. These would be two distinct lists, one for the states; the other for sector-specific businesses.

There would also need to be a third list, to monitor arms of transnational companies based in India, and Indian transnational companies that operate in other countries, in a swathe of industries that range from manufacturing to extractives to large scale farming.

Every major business and human rights-related field, initiative, and report, of the sort that drives opinion at the United Nations and other major forums, is driven by a loose global conglomerate of human rights watchdogs, researchers, and even businesses—those that see themselves as emancipated or with a clear mandate of trying to look good as much as be good in the eyes of investors and the world at large. There is no dearth of models and approaches.

Take the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB), which I have written about in this column, and which will publish its first list this March. This global project brings together two big names in the human rights space—the Institute for Human Rights and Business and the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. These UK-based organizations are joined by Calvert Investments Inc., Aviva Investors, VBDO (The Dutch Association of Investors for Sustainable Development) and EIRIS. The last two focus on advising responsible investment. Representatives from these organizations form CHRB’s steering committee.

CHRB seeks to initially rank several hundred global businesses in agriculture—including food and beverages—the extractives industry and apparel; sectors will increase over time.

The businesses are to be judged for “their human rights policy, process and performance, harnessing the competitive nature of the markets to drive better human rights performance”.

This is a sophisticated model developed over several years, after consultations with several hundred practitioners, developing a pilot project, and so on—time-consuming and requiring funds. A template, like many that already exist, can be developed for India with much less time and funds.

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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