Three trends in human rights and business you should know about

The United Nations Guiding Principles (UNGP) for business and human rights celebrated their first 10 years of existence last week. During the UN Business and Human Rights forum – which partly was a wake for the memory of the late UNGP author Professor John Ruggie – a roadmap was presented for the next 10 years to raise the pace and scale of the principles’ implementation.

The main conclusion of the forum: Human rights do not only matter to production-heavy companies that have supply chains to manage. They are an issue to be considered for all companies, no matter how and where they operate. To illustrate, environmental rights and digital rights are now also very clearly seen as human rights.

“Swift implementation of the UNGP is especially important in the post-COVID situation and in rapid digital markets pushed forward by the pandemic.”

Nazhat Shameem Khan, Chair of the UN Human Rights Council

So how can CSR and public affairs professionals expect to interact with human rights policy on the road to 2030? From the Forum and the presented roadmap, we can distinguish three trends that will increasingly determine thinking and action revolving human rights and business:

1)     Respect for human rights by business is more and more seen as a strategic – rather than a merely operational or supply chain – issue: Frontrunners in corporate social responsibility integrate human rights due diligence into corporate governance, signifying real change in corporate culture and business models. In doing so, the UN Sustainable Development Goals take a more prominent role: The cross-cutting nature of threats like the pandemic and climate change require businesses to take a better look at how to prevent and address adverse impacts across their business activities and value chains. The growth of sustainable finance in the next ten years is a major opportunity: Investors increasingly manage human rights risks in their investment activities and show how they take action in managing those risks.

2)     This affects the conduct of public affairs as well. Responsible political engagement is ever more being viewed as a human rights issue. Business associations and internal public affairs and government affairs functions are progressively expected to apply due diligence and to create coherence between company sustainability and human rights efforts. This trend – which was started already years ago when Apple and other major companies left the US Chamber of Commerce in protest when the Chamber was still lobbying against climate policy – can be observed in CSR and public affairs teams often being merged into units with more of a ‘global impact’ focus. And its not just about mitigating negative correlations, it is also about using public affairs for good. As Nora Mardirossian of the Columbia Center told the Forum:

“Lobbying has been a taboo, with rights-holders harder to identify. But companies should be speaking out in favor of states’ right to regulate in the public interest and argue positively for the Sustainable Development Goals and the defense of human rights.”

Nora Mardirossian, Lead Food Sector and Sustainable Development Goals at Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment

3)     There is momentum towards mandatory human rights due diligence. The UNGP roadmap towards 2030 propose ‘a mix of smart policy measurements’, and we see that human rights is already taking an increasingly prominent role in trade and investment agreements. Regional governments like the EU are taking legislative initiatives for mandatory human rights due diligence, and some member states – like the Netherlands, Germany and Norway, recently even drive national legislation to raise ambitions higher. Courts are riding on this trend as well: The ‘soft law’ of the UNGP is increasingly referred to by courts in ‘hard law’ judgments. 2021 was a landmark year for corporate human rights litigation. Judges on all continents addressed companies’ duty of care in court actions on human rights abuse, or deemed environmental damage to be a human rights violation. For example in May, the The Hague District Court ruled in its ruling against Royal Dutch Shell that ‘all companies, no matter size, sector, operational context, property relations or structure’ have an obligation to respect human rights, implying all must do their share against climate change.

The last few years have seen companies are taking up their place in the drivers’ seat when it comes to environmental change. Now human rights are becoming a part of that mission as well. CSR and public affairs professionals will need to closely work together to not only avoid negative legislative backlash, but especially to drive your company to make a positive impact on the systems in which it operates. Are you and your teams ready?