Home >opinion >online-views >IHRB and the right human rights tune

It’s time for the global heads-up for 2016 from the Institute of Human Rights and Business (IHRB). For the past several years I’ve shared with you IHRB’s annual advisory for businesses, governments, their stakeholders and human rights defenders alike. Last week, the London-based organization released its top 10 list of issues for 2016.

These are to-dos that take ahead the agenda of getting businesses and governments to do right by stakeholders. It means stakeholders beyond promoters, investors, power brokers and the plain corrupt and cruel: communities where projects take shape; where the environment and livelihoods are impacted; businesses where workers are treated and paid poorly because they are powerless and even because they happen to be of a gender other than male.

IHRB’s slate (available at ihrb.org) may appear to be global and therefore conveniently distant, but it’s also an aggregation of the urgently local, with resonance right here in India. Moreover, transnational Indian companies and Indian exporters, even conglomerates, are vulnerable and liable on account of their on-ground and value chain human rights malpractices. Opportunity lost, opportunity cost: don’t mind me, it’s your call.

IHRB has this year chosen a bit of sensationalism to counter yawn-let’s-move-on (YLMO in Internet slang?). Take the agenda for keeping the momentum to diminish forced labour, human trafficking, domestic worker abuse and such atrocities in which India remains a major global hive. Here, the International Labour Organization’s figures are used as a bolster—of an estimated 21 million in the trap of forced labour that generates about $150 billion in “illegal" profits.

Human rights due diligence perennially makes the cut for businesses but even more so for governments—a reminder that their laws and action plans form the legal and administrative bedrock to prevent businesses on their turf going astray. This dovetails with the crucial agenda of “human rights transparency and measuring corporate performance". This is a cynical space where experts are sometimes of the opinion (See Human rights: Massive gaps, 11 December, at bit.ly/1lygX43) that, in general, governments and businesses are today quick to make commitments but rarely follow through. Therefore, there’s the need for more mechanisms, more watchfulness, more scrutiny. I would club IHRB’s agenda of continually pushing for more remedy into this protect-respect-remedy trio so beloved of human rights advocates—and so vitally necessary to produce the right human rights tune.

Defending defenders certainly has my vote. “More than sixty governments have passed laws in the past three years to place restraints on the ability of human rights defenders to hold their governments to account for actions that undermine respect for international standards," states IHRB. Those targeted, it continues, are both individuals and organizations “who champion alternate economic paradigms or challenge government policies or business conduct. Some have faced intimidation, surveillance, lawsuits, arrests and torture…"

In India, the disturbing trend is kept alive by the current government in New Delhi and several provincial governments. Expectedly, the government’s Make in India brochure doesn’t mention the words human or rights, singly or together. (So there.)

The urgent, evolving and arguably fashionable issues of data privacy and climate justice—a derivative of climate change—form the remaining agenda points. There is also the point of pushing ahead with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or SDG in development-speak, the legitimate offspring of Millennium Development Goals. Data privacy and climate change-related matters are right-here-right-now hot buttons which should consume our attention a lot more than they do and, as with SDGs, they fall into the area of government wisdom to be boot-strapped by public participation.

Finally there is discrimination, all manner of discrimination. IHRB quotes a World Bank report from 2014, titled The Economic Cost of Homophobia and the Exclusion of LGBT People: A Case Study of India (LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender). Going by this, India takes an economic hit of up to 1.7% of its gross domestic product a year. Even a large margin of error would account for an eye-stopper, especially as this study assumes several million LGBT in our workforce, and because it goes beyond the numbers that take into account the more vanilla discriminations, as it were, such as underpaying women workers and lingering discrimination that treats those of tribes and lower castes with disdain.

It all adds up to a busy and complex future. As IHRB perceptively, if somewhat obviously, remarks: “...(T)he relationship between business and development—between private gain and public good—is not a straightforward one".

It never is. More work for all of us.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His previous books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays. Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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