Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Human rights: Heads-up for 2017

IHRB's human rights heads-up for 2017 feels mostly like a rewording of headlines to fit ongoing business and human rights issues

Wealth inequality? No kidding.

The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) used the opportunity of 10 December being World Human Rights Day to release its annual heads-up of top 10 issues for the coming year. The process includes inviting suggestions from practitioners which the London-based organization then analyses.

I have shared previous lists with readers of this column for some years, as it’s important for us in India to know what global trends are in this contentious and increasingly necessary arena. But to lead off with “Inequality: the business role" seems a bit twee for 2017: business has been at the leading edge of this reality since business was created. IHRB shares with us what even we in India have known for some time—and, I suspect, ‘developing’ segments of the US will shortly discover, if early cabinet picks by president-elect Donald Trump are any indication!

“The link between business practices and rising inequality can be seen in corporate tax avoidance and evasion and prioritization of shareholder interests," IHRB states, adding, “that results in skewing income and wealth distribution, away from workers and benefiting shareholders, who include the world’s wealthiest individuals and largest corporations (‘vertical inequality’)."

And the answer? For businesses to work with governments with the aim of “combating inequality" and “promoting respect for fundamental rights". Pigs would fly sooner—wherever it’s kosher for pigs to do so—but before I gave up on the list as becoming pro-forma in its eighth year, it redeemed itself with specifics (available at ihrb.org).

Particularly laudable is the necessity of gender equality in opportunity, pay and skilling as being the drivers in numerous issues staring us in the face, in India and the world. For mitigating the refugee crisis (of both cross-border refugees and internally displaced people on account of conflict and project-led displacement), in inking trade deals by looking at socioeconomic downstream effects, and to cure supply chain ills—three among the top 10—IHRB and its respondents recommend paying attention to the dangers of excluding women from the workforce or taking them for granted by paying them less than men.

Another aspect, free speech—in this era of runaway social media where hate and untruths are routine, and women and minorities are more susceptible to attack—is a flagged top 10 item revolving around media responsibility. Data privacy, and informed consent in the digital space is a sixth; and a seventh flags pitfalls of the “Gig Economy", Internet-enabled work that frees opportunities and flexibility for both employer and worker but runs the risk of work shifting from permanent workers to contractually less protected temporary workers.

A tangentially related item, and the eighth on the list, is job losses on account of automation. I figure the inclusion of this decidedly old news is on account of Trump’s much-touted ‘deal’ with one Carrier Corp. unit to retain several hundred jobs in the United States with a combination of threats of higher taxes and government-underwritten benefits—jobs that Carrier officials told media could be lost anyway because of automation.

Responsibility towards migrant workers is the ninth item; and global accountability mechanisms, such as the work-in-progress United Nations-monitored proposal for a legally binding global treaty on business and human rights rounds up the top 10.

It’s not as if the previous years’ concerns disappear. Data privacy, forced labour, trafficking, gender equality have made the lists for previous years, as have corporate and government acquisition of land that undermines the rights of local communities, the urgent need for greater citizens’ participation in matters of human rights and business, and the urgent need to protect human rights defenders. It is of little wonder that the heads-up for 2017 feels mostly like a rewording of headlines to fit ongoing issues, and trying to be politically correct by packing in practically every business and human rights ill—an encyclopaedia masquerading as a list.

Perhaps it’s better to skip such lists: filling a thematic list can be forced. Perhaps philosophical discussions about wealth are better left to political economists, like philosophical discussions about peace to Scandinavian think-tanks. Instead, it may be better to pick a theme or three and plug away at them as ‘saturation’ action points. Women in the workforce, abusive land acquisition, and corporate accountability and transparency would have been my deep-dive picks for 2017, on behalf of a country where citizens are among the most unequal and abused in the world. Just saying.

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 in India and South Asia, runs on Thursdays.

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