By Amol Mehra, Esq. and Erica Embree
Benjamin Franklin famously said, "Never confuse motion with action." In the business and human rights domain, this saying is particularly applicable.
Decades of negotiation at the international level about the respective obligations and responsibilities of governments and companies in regards to human rights led to the development of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which were unanimously endorsed in 2011 by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Until recently, however, real implementation of the UNGPs and other business and human rights standards by governments and companies was absent. Now, a little less than three months into 2015, action may not be so elusive.
Civil society groups, investors and even some companies and governments, have recognized that change was, at best, too slow, and they have engaged in myriad efforts to motivate action regarding business' respect for human rights. From rankings, benchmarks, reporting and more, the drumbeat of integrating human rights into government and company action is getting too loud to ignore.
The following snapshots highlight some promising advancements in this regard.
Oxfam has built a tremendously successful effort in ranking companies based on specific indicators in supply chains in the agricultural sector. Using only publicly available information, Oxfam's Behind the Brands ranks as one of the the top ten largest food and beverage companies in the world, based on their policies relating to agricultural sourcing from developing countries. The ranking factors in a wide range of issues, including women's rights, climate, land and transparency. Recent increases in companies' scores reflect that success is achievable when individuals leverage informational tools to pressure companies to improve their policies.
In a similar push to motivate action, Ranking Digital Rights is breaking into the tech world with its new ranking. The first phase of this project will rank some of the world's biggest players in the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector based on how their policies and practices, with regard to privacy and freedom of expression, measure up against international human rights standards. This first phase is expected to be published in late 2015. The second phase, to be completed in 2016, will include a full ranking of software, device and networking equipment companies as well.
A group of investors and human rights organizations announced a human rights benchmarking initiative this year that is pitched as an effort to spur a race-to-the-top by appealing to the competitive nature of business. The Corporate Human Rights Benchmark will rank the policy, procedure and performance of at least 500 global companies on their respect for human rights, with an initial focus on four crucial sectors -- agriculture, apparel, extractives and ICT.
The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre launched an initiative this week that maps government and company actions with respect to business and human rights. It reflects the responses -- and non-responses -- of 101 governments and 180 companies to questionnaires targeting these two stakeholders' efforts relating to the human rights impacts on business. The government and company "action platforms" feature the ability to build comparisons of responses or to search responses by government, company, issue or type of action. A wealth of information is thus opened up to users, whether they are governments seeking guidance on developing National Action Plans (NAPs) on business and human rights, businesses aiming to bolster their performance with regard to human rights or consumers and investors looking to purchase and invest responsibly.
Shift and Mazars released the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework this week, which provides comprehensive and practical questions for companies to address when reporting on their fulfillment of the responsibility to respect human rights set out in the UNGPs. The Framework has already been taken up by five companies in five industry sectors: Unilever (consumer goods), Ericsson (communications technology and services), H&M (retail-clothing), Nestlé (food and beverage) and Newmont Mining Corporation (gold mining). A lengthy list of investors -- which have $3.91 trillion assets under management -- have also formally expressed their support for the Framework.
The International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) and the Danish Institute for Human Rights have released a report titled National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights, which presents a toolkit for governments to use in developing, implementing, and reviewing National Action Plans or NAPs, on business and human rights. ICAR and the European Coalition for Corporate Justice also recently released a report that draws upon the toolkit to analyze the four business and human rights NAPs already developed by the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland.
From rankings, benchmarks, reporting and more, real energy is being put into moving governments and companies to act on their human rights obligations and commitments. More than motion, the business and human rights agenda is now lurching into action.