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Businesses have key role in safeguarding human rights

Peter Paul van de Wijs in Amsterdam, Netherlands | Published: November 27, 2019 20:35:58


-Reuters file photo

Unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are the authoritative global reference point articulating the responsibilities of companies to respect and protect human rights.

The UN Forum on Business and Human Rights meets this week (November 25-27) in Geneva, where the theme is 'governments as catalysts for business respect for human rights'. The Forum is an important opportunity to assess the progress nation states have made towards meeting their duty under the Guiding Principles, through the implementation of National Action Plans (NAPs) on Business and Human Rights.

THE NEED FOR STRENGTHENED TRANSPARENCY:  So, how are governments doing so far through their NAPs? An analysis by GRI - the international organisation that helps governments and organisations understand and communicate their impacts - finds there is plenty of room for improvement.

We have reviewed the 23 NAPs produced by countries so far and have identified that much more needs to be done by governments to help businesses understand, mitigate and improve their human rights impacts.

Strengthening transparency and reporting requirements is required, if governments are to stimulate the changes needed in business behaviour. Our analysis found wide divergence in how countries set out expectations and provide support for businesses to effectively disclose and manage human rights risks.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CHANGE: GRI has singled out ten key recommendations, providing governments with practical advice on how their NAPs can use corporate reporting to improve their effectiveness.

While primarily aimed at governments drafting or updating their NAPs, these recommendations are also relevant to other stakeholders, including businesses, civil society, and research and national human rights institutions.

We identify that the NAPs need to:

  1. Require public reporting on human rights impacts based on internationally recognised standards;
  2. Clarify that companies should both disclose their human rights impacts and how they are managing them;
  3. Include concrete targets and timelines to increase human rights reporting;
  4. Use sustainability reporting data as part of a transparent monitoring process;
  5. Be inclusive of the reporting by all businesses, including SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and state-owned enterprises;
  6. Consider incentives for companies to increase and improve their reporting;
  7. Provide support to companies through awareness raising and capacity building;
  8. Include guidance that clearly explains reporting requirements;
  9. Foster collaborations and partnerships between the state, companies and civil society;
  10. And finally, clearly specify who is responsible for taking action.

These recommendations are about ensuring governments and businesses are accountable for human rights impacts. That can only be possible when there is comprehensive understanding of what the current impacts are - information that can then inform changes that protect individuals against human rights abuses.

IMPROVED ACCOUNTABILITY THROUGH REPORTING: When it comes to human rights, the old phrase 'what you don't know won't hurt you' could not be further from the truth. The reality is that understanding how businesses can contribute towards fulfilling the aims of the UN Guiding Principles is impossible without clarity on how individual companies are performing, from a sustainability standpoint.

And that's why our number one recommendation to governments is to improve reporting through requiring the use of international disclosure frameworks based on a multi-stakeholder and independent standard-setting process.

Experience shows the duty of governments to protect human rights cannot be fully realised through voluntary guidelines or self-regulation by companies alone.

GLOBALLY RELEVANT DISCLOSURE STANDARDS: The GRI Standards, the world's most widely adopted sustainability reporting framework, provide a cornerstone for any company seeking to be transparent about their impacts - and human rights are an important thread throughout.

Human rights impacts are addressed through GRI's universal Standards - which every organisations that reports through GRI must use - as well as topic-specific Standards on child labor, and forced or compulsory labor. Yet we're not standing still.

GRI is currently carrying out a review to see how we can further improve the positioning of human rights, which may include the development of new Standards or disclosures. We do this through an inclusive and multi-stakeholder approach, taking on board views from all parties.

This will include input from policy makers, NGOs (non-governmental organization), UN and human rights organizations - and, of course, businesses themselves.

WE NEED SMART SOLUTIONS: No single initiative by governments and businesses will be able provide the comprehensive monitoring, mitigation and protection of human rights that is required. What we need is a 'smart mix' of policy measures - voluntary and mandatory, national and international.

It's only through concerted effort and collaboration that we will be able to ensure the improved human rights reporting that will ultimately underpin the success of the UN Guiding Principles. GRI, through our mission to drive up corporate transparency and accountability standards around the world, is determined to be a part of the solution.

—Inter Press Service

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