Businesses in every sector today are confronted with a variety of human rights issues that are intertwined with their core business objectives. These challenges can be pressing and complex for firms operating in a global economy where the cost of unmanaged human rights risks is high.
Whether it’s tackling labour practices in manufacturing or agriculture, security in extractive sectors, decent work, non-discrimination or equal pay, businesses must build expertise to conduct effective human rights due diligence and institute appropriate response mechanisms to deal with identified challenges.
In many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought human rights into sharp focus. Businesses are expected to take enhanced measures to safeguard the rights of workers, communities, and consumers even as they struggle to stay afloat.
Investors have also increased scrutiny on corporations to avert risks of financial loss and litigation stemming from human rights abuses.
All businesses can look to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) as a soft law and an authoritative global framework that helps them understand their responsibilities to respect human rights. The UNGPs lay out a clear framework for preventing and remedying the harmful effects of corporations on human rights.
The UNGPs “Protect, Respect, Remedy” framework share an inherent notion, that business respect for human rights can only be accomplished by putting people at the centre of a risk-based strategy, shifting the focus from risk to people.
Human rights due diligence are defined by this essential shift in viewpoint, and it is also a critical contribution that businesses can make to the larger sustainable development agenda.
However, ten years after their adoption, the primary expectation of a turning point has yet to materialise.
At such a time, the world is shifting and governments including Germany and Norway have adopted a “smart mix” of compulsory and voluntary measures to demand human rights compliance from businesses.
However, we have learnt that enacting a law does not always imply that it will be followed. For instance, even though corruption is unlawful in most countries, unethical and fraudulent practices persist.
In Africa, only Kenya and Uganda have made attempts to develop their National Action Plans (NAP) to operationalise the UNGPs. With the opening of markets and an increase in cross-border trade, respect for human rights will become a defining feature of our continent’s competitiveness.
Kenya’s NAP lays forth national policy priorities on Business and Human Rights, with a focus on five thematic issues: Land and Natural Resources, Revenue Transparency, Environmental Protection, Labour and Access to Remedy.
The five-year framework will enable private and State-owned businesses to commit, act and report on their actual and potential human rights risks.
What actions can businesses, large and small alike, take to make human rights an inherent part of their corporate strategy?
Firstly, a transformational way of thinking is required within the business sector and respect for human rights should be regarded as a way of doing business.
Taking up this new mindset helps companies to become more aware of the human rights risks as well as opportunities to do good. Businesses can then develop robust policies, processes and activities to guide their response.
Secondly, it is vital to establish a strong culture of ethics and integrity that fosters trust with consumers, investors, employees, suppliers and other stakeholders through communicating and executing the human rights policies in a systemic, comprehensive, and open manner.
Lastly, beyond these minimum requirements, companies can make voluntary, positive contributions to support human rights. For example, they can create diverse and inclusive workplaces, invest in communities and public policy advocacy and engage employees and communities to promote collective action.
It is also important to note that while these types of actions to support human rights are encouraged, they do not substitute basic respect for human rights. Looking ahead, it is apparent that more needs to be done and businesses have a unique opportunity to be a shining beacon for human rights.
Ms Judy Njino is the Executive Director, Global Compact Network, firstname.lastname@example.org