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Taking Stock of Business and Human Rights: Policies and Practices


By Christine Bader, David M. Schilling, Joanne Bauer, Frank Mantero | Workshops for Ethics in Business, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility | March 22, 2007

Christine Bader described her experience working on human rights issues and policy development at BP. The Tangguh LNG Project (Indonesia) posed social and environmental challenges for the company. At the time of the project, BP had no instruction manual to help its employees cope with those challenges, although its board had previously given public and formal support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Bader and her team therefore commissioned a standalone human rights impact assessment and a community-based security program—aiming to implement the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights of the extractive industries.

At the beginning of 2005, Bader was asked to focus on human rights at the company level, as a number of projects in potentially challenging environments were ramping up simultaneously. During workshops conducted with staff from all over the world, it emerged that BP employees needed robust and common guidelines for considering human rights issues and situations, such as public accusations from human rights NGOs.

As a solution, Bader created a Human Rights Guidance Note. The note categorizes BP’s primary human rights issues into three categories (employees, security, and communities) and identifies the functions that manage those categories (e.g. human resources, compliance and ethics, security, and communications and external affairs). Each function has its own operating procedures and policies.

Regarding her work as advisor to Prof. John Ruggie, UN Special Representative on business and human rights, Bader mentioned two studies that were most relevant to the issue of corporate human rights policies. The first was a survey addressed to the Fortune Global 500 firms. The second was a research study on 300 company policies. In the policies, labor rights are unanimously recognized. Two-thirds of the companies recognize rights such as freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and prohibition against forced child labor. The problem resides in implementation of these rights and measurement of results. The policies are only a means to an end, Bader concluded.

David Schilling explained that human rights issues have been at the core of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a faith-based investor organization, since its start in 1971. The Center has tried to convince companies to adopt comprehensive human rights policies, and the discussions that are created around the policies have become very engaging.

What motivates the Center in its mission is the feedback it receives from the communities affected by corporate and governmental policies. Schilling believes that business goals have only recently converged with moral values, through business risk strategies. As long as a company is receptive and acts in relation to the local community or to the supply chains, the chances of it having to react to future problems are diminished.

Schilling enumerated what one should ask of companies: Policies aligned with international human rights and standards; accountability from the board down to every member of the staff; policies embedded in the business (not just in one department); rigorous implementation through employee training on human rights requirements; internal as well as independent monitoring; strong emphasis on mediation; stakeholder engagement and consent of the community; and robust public reporting, with specific indicators and information about management systems. Alcoa is a successful example of the Center's long-term efforts in human rights policy formulation.

Several challenges need to be addressed: Only a small number of companies have human rights policies and practices; human rights are not always integrated into the business itself; human rights policies too often focus on a limited range of rights, depending on the company's profile; there is space for improvement in the way companies interact with communities; voluntary initiatives are great models, but they are not enough; a global playing field with basic rules is needed.

Schilling concluded that the UN process would help clarify the human rights obligations of business, governments, and other entities.

Joanne Bauer presented the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre's work on human rights policies. The Centre was founded in 2002 and since then its website has come to represent a comprehensive network of more than 3500 companies from 180 countries. The website encourages opinion leaders to share information and concerns regarding human rights innovations or abuses, and it also allows companies to defend themselves against those concerns. The website is updated hourly and receives 1.5 million hits.

Through its corporate policies section, the Centre has three main aims: to support NGOs and community groups by drawing more attention to their concerns; to encourage positive steps that companies make by increasing public recognition; and to increase the public accountability of companies that commit abuses. At the founding of the website, companies that already had formal policy statements referring to human rights were presented as examples for others to follow.

Bauer showed that, out of all companies registered on the website, currently 112 have formal policy statements that contain the phrase human rights. The Centre's approach is inclusive—it doesn't evaluate the quality of the reference to human rights. By using the phrase human rights, the company shows that it is aware of its human rights responsibility and is comfortable framing its own social impact in those terms. A further indicator is if a policy references the UDHR as its source of international human rights standards.

The list does not include companies that refer only to the rights of employees, because human rights are "indivisible, interdependent, interrelated, and interconnected" and they have to apply to all stakeholders, Bauer said.

Bauer concluded by noting that the goal of the Centre's website is to demonstrate an increasing recognition of human rights among businesses, to help companies acknowledge their own human rights obligations, and to encourage companies to adopt a human rights policy if they have not done so already.

Read More: Business, Human Rights

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