Why and how companies should stand up for human rights when they do business
This article was originally published in the BSR Insight.
Companies around the world have embraced the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (PDF) (the Guiding Principles), which have catalyzed new efforts to ensure respect for human rights across business operations and beyond. However, in recent decades, there has been a global reversal of these human rights achievements, including governments pulling back from longstanding commitments and the closing of space for civil society (PDF) to operate safely. This presents a new climate for business with new challenges in many parts of the world.
In this environment, it is increasingly important for business not only to maintain its commitments to respect human rights, but also to find new ways to support the work of governments for such efforts.
Throughout 2018 and a portion of early 2019, BSR engaged with several companies to explore such opportunities as part of our Business Action Platform for Human Rights. At the conclusion of this effort, we shared our report, "Human Rights Policy Engagement: The Role of Companies." In it, we highlight why now, more than ever, it is important for businesses to use their influence to stand up for human rights policies, institutions and frameworks around the world — their loss or reversal would have negative consequences not just for businesses, but for the communities and societies in which they operate.
The reversals of human rights policies, institutions and frameworks, particularly over the last two years, can be felt around the world. From the rise of right-wing nationalist movements to threats against U.N. human rights bodies, these reversals have undone many achievements built through bipartisan support over the last several decades, achievements that have benefited the private sector in many ways.
Businesses rely on such policies, institutions and frameworks in a variety of ways, including access to more stable markets through improved rule of law and more consistent application of international standards. Support for such measures is not only aligned with business priorities, it also helps companies align their values and actions with those of their employees, who are increasingly demanding that their employers reflect their values not just in their business operations, but in the ways in which they engage on policy issues, both domestically and internationally.
As some governments retreat from their duty to protect human rights, and in some cases actively degrade human rights protections, companies can and should fill this void where possible. Not only is doing so in the interest of a business’s bottom line, it is in line with the human rights and sustainability commitments many companies have made.
For companies looking to engage on these important policy questions, this report lays out in detail the following five steps companies can take in order to gain buy-in internally and externally and also to improve the chances of a successful engagement.
- Identify the business relevance of the impacted policy
- Identify the intangible benefits, such as alignment with corporate or employee values
- Assess a company’s ability to have an impact on the policy issue at hand and focus on identifying where a company has leverage
- Understand the political context — is this a situation in which the government with which you are engaging is actively opposed to the policy in question?
- Navigate tradeoffs to understand what internal and external barriers exist and what the impact of failing to engage could be
While there may be some barriers to engagement, they can and should be overcome: Engaging on these topics is essential in order to protect the human rights institutions, policies and frameworks that have supported businesses.
Companies should recognize that these institutions, policies and frameworks have helped them establish a foothold in developing nations by creating a more level playing field, strengthening the rule of law and establishing more business-friendly environments. As companies engage on these topics, they not only will gain important reputational benefits with key stakeholders for defending human rights within their spheres of influence, but they also will help ensure that the institutions, policies and frameworks that help them do business around the world are defended and maintained, as envisioned by the Guiding Principles.
In a world in which governments are withdrawing from their duty to protect human rights, it is more important than ever for business to step up. Business cannot and should not replace government’s role; neither can it play its role effectively if governments are in retreat. In this context, we hope companies will use "Human Rights Policy Engagement: The Role of Companies" as a resource and a prompt on how to stand up for fundamental human rights policies wherever they may do business.