Week of 6 July 2020
As the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights launches the UNGPs10+/NextDecadeBHR project, global leaders reflect on priorities, including national and EU due diligence legislation, protection of environmental and human rights defenders, access to remedy for victims, a just climate transition, the role of investors and alignment with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals
As the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights launches the UNGPs10+/NextDecadeBHR project to chart a course for a decade of action on business and human rights, global leaders reflect on priorities, including national and EU due diligence legislation, protection of environmental and human rights defenders, access to remedy for victims, a just climate transition, the role of investors and alignment with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals
The objective of the UNGPs10+ initiative launched by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights is to “develop an ambitious vision and roadmap for implementing the UNGPs more widely and more broadly in the next ten years – and beyond.” The project is supported by the German Government, the current President of the Council of the European Union, and other governments and partners. A virtual launch event on 7 July 2020 featured perspectives from key stakeholders in the business and human rights space, including government, civil society, UN and other multilateral actors, investors and community representatives. The full recording of the launch event and all speakers’ remarks can be viewed here.
Key takeaways from the launch are as follows:
Takeaway 1: The next decade of the UNGPs is the time for action and for implementation of company and government commitments made since 2011
- The goals of the UNGPs have become mainstreamed to an extent within both companies and governments: many companies have put forth human rights policies and statements, some governments have created National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights, and leaders are now “talking the talk” of the human rights movement.
- However, this has not always translated to real action or positive impact on the ground. Governments have by and large not taken an active role in setting out expectations for companies, and as a result, businesses have been largely left to undertake voluntary commitments and to self-monitor their human rights performance. Sanda Ojiambo, Executive Director of the UN Global Compact, pointed out that many companies have not yet moved past the policy-setting stage to implementation, due diligence or access to remedy—as a result there is a gap between aspirations and actions that needs to be bridged.
- Many of the speakers pointed to the current moment as the turning point for the business and human rights (BHR) movement to move towards real mainstreaming. Silvia Lara Povedano, Vice Minister of the Presidency, Costa Rica highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic puts us at “a point of inflection” to move the BHR agenda forward at a time when economic pressure threatens progress that has been made so far: “Countries are confronting a need for a quick economic recovery. Millions of jobs have to be created or recovered in a very short term. Thousands face the menace of food shortage and famine. Thousands of people around the world are desperate for some kind of income, no matter at what cost.”
- There is a need to move beyond a focus on multinational enterprises to bring in smaller companies across industries and regions, including in developing countries. There is also a role for large multinational corporations to play by working with small actors along their entire value chains to create awareness of BHR obligations and incentivize positive performance on human rights.
- Implementation in the next decade will also require a focus on issues specific to developing countries. For example, Mthunzi Mdwaba, Vice-President, International Organisation of Employers, emphasized that the roadmap for the BHR agenda cannot be EU- or U.S.-centric. The fastest growing economies are in Africa and Asia, where the challenges and opportunities may diverge from those faced by governments in Europe and North America; the perspectives of actors from these regions need to be adequately reflected in the BHR movement.
Takeaway 2: The “smart mix” of voluntary and obligatory initiatives called for by the UNGPs should be rebalanced by developing more legislative and regulatory solutions; the strong EU and German commitments to mandatory human rights due diligence are reiterated
- Niels Annen, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office expressed strong support for mandatory due diligence, both at German and EU levels. He noted that “[i]ndications we have so far suggest that the time has come to shift gears into a balanced, but mandatory, approach. An approach that protects human rights, but also protects those enterprises that suffer from standard-stamping and unfair competition.” Annen underscored that the EU has Germany’s full support for mandatory human due diligence, since “national solutions can only be second-best to a joint European, hopefully even a global, approach.”
- Didier Reynders, European Commissioner for Justice emphasized the need to tackle short-term financial performance and unregulated supply chains, remarking that the EU will tackle these inter-linked issues by (1) seeking to clarify that directors’ duties include balancing the interests of stakeholders (including the environment, workers and other affected people) with those of shareholders (the stakeholder capitalism model) and encouraging companies to adopt science-based targets and (2) mandating human rights and environmental due diligence at the EU-level to “create a level playing field” and to “give companies the incentive to engage in transformative change.” He echoed the EU’s commitment to move forward with “real mandatory regulation.”
- Sharan Burrow, Secretary-General, International Trade Union Confederation, pointed to the risks faced by workers in informal sectors and the growing trend against democratization. The result has been limited rule of law and social protections for labour, which is put into sharp relief by the COVID-19 crisis. She emphasized that, to reckon with these trends, “there is only one pathway for us: mandated due diligence.”
- Governments should also be taking action to strengthen their own contributions to the BHR agenda (Pillar I of the UNGPs). Costa Rican Vice Minister Povedano pointed to the role of National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights in laying out a concrete roadmap that governments commit to adhere to, but cautioned that these action plans must be central to economic recovery plans.
Takeaway 3: Human rights and environmental defenders and communities are more at risk than ever; Strengthening Pillar III (Access to Remedy) is necessary to ensure that their human rights are protected
- Joan Carling, Co-convener of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development, highlighted that indigenous peoples and human rights defenders are critical actors to ensure we protect our environment and create a just climate transition—two core priorities for both governments and companies, as well as individuals and communities. In order to do this, we must ensure that the perspectives of these vulnerable populations are actively sought out and integrated as we move ahead into the next decade of the UNGPs.
- Carling and Nigerian climate activist Nnimmo Bassey also pointed to the need to strengthen access to justice in order to truly fulfill governments’ and companies’ human rights obligations. A number of the speakers stated that accountability needs to come in the form of laws and judicial systems, whether this is a binding international treaty on BHR or domestic laws that hold companies to account for their human rights impacts and provide a venue that ensures victims access to remedy.
- Part of this approach also needs to be empowering workers and communities to safely advocate for their rights, as Mauricio Lazala, Deputy Director & Head of Europe Office, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, emphasized. He noted that there is a growing number of attacks on human rights defenders, averaging more than one per day over the last year. This reflects a large power gap between people and companies that needs to be bridged in order to fulfill Pillar III.
Takeaway 4: The UNGPs align with and reinforce development objectives like the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); to do this, we need better data on human rights and ways to measure impacts; there is a large role for investors to play
- The next decade of the UNGPs also aligns with the UN’s “Decade of Action” to meet the SDGs by 2030. Many of the speakers emphasized the close linkages between sustainable development and human rights, and emphasized that these frameworks are mutually reinforcing rather than competing.
- However, governments are lagging behind on their commitments to both the UNGPs and the SDGs. Jens Frølich Holte, State Secretary of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said “[g]overnments need to lead further on the implementation of the business and human rights agenda, especially on an intergovernmental level. … Many governments have not yet taken action on the UNGPs, and in the lead-up to the 2030 SDGs this is more important than ever to achieve sustainable development.”
- There are also many interlinkages between the UNGPs and the SDGs that should bring both agendas together. Several speakers highlighted the critical connection between environmental concerns and human rights, with European Commissioner for Justice Reynders highlighting the need to tackle environmental concerns and human rights together.
- In order to align the BHR and sustainable development agendas, many speakers spoke of the need to develop better data on human rights performance of companies—an area where investors and the finance sector should take a leading role. Fiona Reynolds, CEO of the Principles for Responsible Investment, reflected that the financial sector is able to “move the entire global economy”: investors have great potential to move the needle forward on sustainable business because they have influence on many business decisions, whether as shareholders, equity owners, or ratings agencies. Reynolds emphasized that the implementation gap must be bridged over the next decade to ensure investors play a leading role in driving companies to respect human rights.
- John Ruggie, former UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, indicated that part of this challenge is due to confusion about what ESG factors really mean: “[w]e generally know what the ‘E’ and the ‘G’ stand for, but there’s a bit of uncertainty about the ‘S’, until you start digging in and looking at what is there. What’s there is workplace standards, community relations, diversity and inclusion. … [And] that’s what business and human rights is all about.”
- Jeanette von Wolfersdorff, Director of Commission for Transparency, Quality and the Impact of Public Expenditure, Chile and former Director of the Santiago Securities Exchange, underscored the importance of investors receiving coherent data on companies’ human rights impacts in order to make informed decisions about human rights risks in their activities.
- Consistent corporate reporting on human rights is a crucial part of this. Von Wolfersdorff called for more and better non-financial reporting from companies. Instead of more reporting requirements, she encourages companies and investors to work together to share public, audited data that is centralized, freely accessible to the public, and comparable across sectors and geographies (especially outside of Europe and North America).
John Ruggie, former UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights; Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Global launch event for Business and Human Rights project (7 July 2020)