Human Rights Day 2011: New Advocates?

A new important framework and tool has been added to the human rights tool kit as we celebrate Human Rights Day in 2011.
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A new important framework and tool has been added to the human rights tool kit as we celebrate Human Rights Day in 2011. In June this year the U.N. Human Rights Council, in Geneva, formally endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This represented the conclusion of the mandate given in 2005 by U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to the Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, Professor John Ruggie -- a mandate characterized by some as an important step forward in the design of a regulatory framework for globalization. The development and endorsement of these principles is also consistent with the recognition of the ever expanding reach and deepening influence that corporations have on the lives of communities and individuals across the world.

The principles were developed to offer guidance for the implementation of the "Protect, Respect and Remedy" framework, which was first introduced by the Special Representative in 2008, and to provide very practical and concrete recommendations on how to operationalize the framework. The framework was built around the following three central pillars:

  1. States have a responsibility to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including corporations;
  2. Companies have a responsibility to respect human rights;
  3. Victims of human rights abuses must be free to access effective remedies.

The framework and principles break new ground both substantively and through the open and transparent process that was followed by those who guided the project. The commitment to the production of guiding principles that are responsive to the interests and perspectives of numerous stakeholders is always difficult to fulfill. When this effort is undertaken within a global horizon that aspires to include a range of industry sectors, corporate enterprises and numerous interested stakeholders, it is both ambitious and daunting.

The guiding principles break new ground when they explicitly clarify the responsibility that corporations have concerning human rights and where they enumerate a number of specific requirements that flow from that responsibility. One of those requirements is that companies "seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts."

In the vernacular, this benchmark is often referred to as "supply chain management." It applies to all corporations and includes both a list of issues and challenges that investors and other stakeholders have helped to identify and monitor in recent decades. This began when stories and concerns about the wages and working conditions in the manufacturing facilities of major multinationals, especially in developing countries, were exposed and they were being pressed to respond by assessing the liabilities that existed in their global footprint. It has evolved to include working conditions in agriculture and commodity operations, especially mining and energy explorations, as well as the impacts that any such operations have on local communities and regions.

Many companies identified and accepted their responsibilities in the environmental arena and were pressed to set out both clear benchmarks and aggressive strategies to address those challenges. These have ranged from measuring carbon footprints to routine recycling and energy saving measures, to adoption of green building standards and certifications.

However, in the human rights arena designing strategies and responses to both identify and address the various issues and challenges that exist in their supply chain was never going to be as easy.

Among the general areas of supply chain management that faith-based and socially responsible investors have identified and encouraged companies to consider are the following: mapping of supply chain exposures, identifying and prioritizing risks in their supply chain and the development of a process to monitor and certify supply chain compliance and security. This includes a clear mapping of all the suppliers, vendors and partners that are part of the manufacturing process or the service delivery that a company offers. Only this level of management will be successful in providing the kinds of assurances that investors, customers and other stakeholders are asking for.

Specific issues, in the human rights arena, that are priorities under the areas identified above include those contained in the United Nations, International Bill of Human Rights and codified in the International Covenants. Practically, these include commitments on living wages and benefits, safe working conditions, child and slave labor criteria, respect for freedom of association and the eradication of human trafficking.

The vision, framework and guiding principles that have been developed over the last six years and offered to governments, corporations and stakeholders will be an invaluable tool for increased collaboration by all who are committed to protecting and promoting human rights and providing new remedies for those whose rights are threatened or abused.

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