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Corporate Leaders Group Putting Human Rights in Focus

Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights, Ethical Corporation | February 3, 2007

CREDIT: Matthew Bradley (CC)

A group of big businesses is going further than just keeping its nose clean by trying to advance human rights, particularly in emerging economies. Now they have been joined by a U.S. giant, GE.

In November, the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights (BLIHR), a business-led effort to develop a corporate approach to human rights, announced the additions of GE and Ericsson to its roster. Advisers to the group say its growing breadth and depth greatly add to its chances of success.

Its goal is to make the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) relevant in the business context and to inspire other businesses to do likewise.

With 13 members and a six-point plan, BLIHR is well on the road to meeting its target of making itself redundant by 2009, says John Morrison, the group's program director. Pushing to grow while aiming to disband seems counterintuitive, but Morrison says the group hopes to bring in some additional sectors and regions, achieve its goals and leave the greater international business community with the tools it needs.

"By 2009, we're hoping to build a sort of handbook, if you like, for integrating human rights into all aspects of business that is as relevant to businesses in OECD countries as it is in emerging economies," Morrison says.

Six-pronged approach

To that end, BLIHR members are working in four areas aimed primarily at "making human rights real in the business context" and two work streams focused on inspiring other businesses to carry the work on.

First, Morrison says, it is working to increase links to others focused on tool development, including the Danish Institute of Human Rights, the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank, and the International Business Leaders Forum, in order to collaborate and coordinate on the task.

In addition, BLIHR is examining good governance in sensitive countries in which governments are either unwilling or unable to uphold human rights. Morrison says the group is working to develop benchmarks to guide expectations of what companies do in such problem countries.

"Good business transacted on a level playing field with integrity and ethical behavior wins not only in the long term, but in the mid and short term, too."
BLIHR is also working to outline accountability structures, he says. This includes internal structures companies employ for corporate governance or ethics that are relevant to upholding human rights, as well as how businesses respond to external structures, like the OECD guidelines.

Lastly on the tool front, the group is updating its minimum standards matrix by going back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to augment it with missing or under-represented aspects relevant to all sectors that offer building blocks for reporting and common indicators.

Statoil, a BLIHR member, has already developed a set of minimum standards for its global operations that Morrison says the group hopes other companies will begin to "road test."

The remaining two work streams relate to inspiring other companies to adopt and carry on the work of BLIHR after it disbands.

First, BLIHR members are working with existing networks, such as Global Compact, the World Business Council, and the International Chamber of Commerce, to help mainstream human rights within existing businesses. "We're hoping by 2009 many of these networks will have taken this on as a core part of their agenda so they will obviate the need for BLIHR," Morrison says.

The second work stream, which aims to involve companies in emerging economies, is also important for BLIHR's redundancy, Morrison says. Because the group's members are exclusively from OECD countries, Morrison says BLIHR is redoubling its efforts to engage companies in emerging nations and hopes to have one or two in the core group before it concludes its work.

Trickle down

Morrison says BLIHR companies contribute a human rights perspective to their existing corporate social responsibility networks or instigate new ones that focus purely on human rights issues. This has resulted in a "trickle down" from the core group to a wider group of companies, he says, that have engaged with BLIHR—albeit a step removed. He says the group will continue to build on this type of "third party engagement."

The involvement of companies with the size and scope of GE helps to build on this momentum and drag others in, Morrison says. "We've seen before that the involvement of a U.S.–headquartered company in BLIHR has been very important," he says.

Human rights issues for GE are not, as they are for the likes of Hewlett-Packard and Gap, primarily supply-chain-led. Morrison hopes GE creates the kind of "excitement and space" for human rights that it has for the environment with its "ecomagination" initiative.

Bob Corcoran, vice-president for corporate citizenship at GE, says his company believes that a level playing field for business works and plays to its advantage. He points to GE's "spirit and letter" policy, which he says has been an industry standard for more than 20 years.

GE's standards on bribery and corruption, he says, have helped the company develop its business in countries such as China. "The government knows that when it deals with GE it's a straight up process," he says.

Good business transacted on a level playing field with integrity and ethical behavior wins not only in the long term, Corcoran says, but in the mid and short term, too.

A business voice

When it comes to human rights, Corcoran says GE is working to establish a clear set of principles that are enforceable and provide guidance and clarity around the world. He believes BLIHR is a good vehicle for doing that because the group focuses on human rights in the business context and aims to provide a "business voice" to its set of standards.

He says he hopes GE can both learn from and contribute to the group. GE is ready to roll up its sleeves with the other BLIHR companies, Corcoran says, to find practical ways of applying the Universal Declaration in a business context. GE also recognizes its obligation and responsibility as a company that is widely looked to and followed, to lead and inspire other companies, he says.

"Efforts like BLIHR help to show that human rights do not have to be just an abstract concept for companies."
Lisa Misol, senior researcher on business and human rights for Human Rights Watch, says it is important to note that BLIHR companies focus their efforts on the UDHR and make a point of addressing human rights as a global issue. Many corporate social responsibility initiatives, she points out, are limited by a geographic or sector focus, which results in piecemeal and incomplete approaches that ignore much of the problem.

Starting from international principles is the only way companies can make sure their conduct meets human rights standards, Misol says.

Responsibility and opportunity

As emerging markets gain dominance as the world's growth markets, Corcoran says more businesses will begin to engage in practical ways to provide, assure and advance human rights.

Misol says companies like GE are drawn to the BLIHR project because it focuses on practical approaches to human rights that help build their brand and protect their reputation. BLIHR's projects and publications have helped raise awareness about human rights issues in the business community, using language companies can understand, she says.

Efforts like BLIHR, Misol says, help to show that human rights do not have to be just an abstract concept for companies. International standards are deeply relevant to business operations and can help them avoid serious abuses that are costly in more ways than one, she points out.

Morrison says BLIHR has always seen human rights as an opportunity as much as a responsibility, but admits it is sometimes difficult to recognize what those opportunities are. Things like license to operate, good stakeholder relations, and risk mitigation are sometimes difficult to see, he says.

"But are there actually product-related opportunities the way there are on the environment side?" Morrison asks.

He believes GE is a good example of that potential because it works in so many sectors. Water and water infrastructure, Morrison points out, are a product-related human rights area GE brings to the table that is new to BLIHR.

Companies are not governments, but they do employ, train, develop and pay workers in emerging economies and provide goods and services that affect the fair and equitable treatment of people, Corcoran says. Some of the biggest businesses GE operates in—from water and power to transportation and health—provide developing nations' needs for infrastructure, he says.

Leading practices

Corcoran says BLIHR hopes to establish "the basic requirements of business and human rights". The goal is to define a floor below which no-one should go—the minimum requirements, as well as a set of expectations and, at the top tier, leading practices, he says. Corcoran believes that sharing and advocating that guidance is where GE can really make a difference.

BLIHR's thorough approach, boundary conditions and sunset provision offer just the kind of focused activity GE was looking for to make an impact, he says. A "perfect opus" delivered too late does not help anybody, Corcoran says. The 2009 deadline for disbanding the group ensures the work will get done, he says.

GE's weight behind the initiative will certainly help to meet that deadline, bring other companies to the human rights table and achieve BLIHR's goals.

This article is republished with kind permission from Ethical Corporation magazine's February 2007 issue. For more articles like this and to sign up for a free print or online trial of Ethical Corporation, please visit and

Read More: Business, Governance, Human Rights

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