The responsibility of business to respect human rights has never been more relevant. Yet many companies still lack an approach that is sufficiently transparent and rigorous to meet this obligation.
In our strategy and communications work for companies, we find that human rights is an issue fraught with dilemmas and that managing it well is complex. Yet companies need to have their eyes wide open when addressing their human rights obligations—not only in their own operations, but also in their supply chains. Myanmar (Burma) is a case in point. With the government’s recent reformist moves many companies are rushing to renew business with Myanmar, but caution is still recommended in these early days. The country still ranks no. 6 on the newly released Human Rights Risk Atlas 2013. When business decisions and activities that impact human rights are executed poorly, the price can be high, like appearing on this undesirable list. Fortunately, there are tools on hand to provide guidance. Chief among them is the new Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights endorsed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Guiding Principles set a framework for business and human rights that delineates the government duty to protect human rights and the business responsibility to respect human rights. Many companies are now integrating the Guiding Principles into their human rights strategy.
In working with our clients on the complex issue of human rights, we make some key recommendations, including:
Do your homework: Conducting proper due diligence of operations worldwide is essential—including the supply chain and new acquisitions, with a laser focus on high-risk countries.
Inform and educate: Employees are on the front line of meeting a company’s human rights obligations. Too often, they lack the guidance they need to make the right decisions. Training and educating employees on human rights is paramount.
Grasp the opportunities: The human rights terrain is dotted not just with risk but also opportunity for companies to use their core business to further human rights.
Be open and honest: A defensive approach will always backfire. Transparency about how a company handles human rights and openness about difficult issues that arise go a long way towards inspiring trust.
Engage in dialogue: The business obligation to respect human rights is best served when companies engage in dialogue to find solutions to complex challenges—within or across industries, with human rights experts, governmental bodies and NGOs.
The business-human rights dilemma won’t get any easier or less complex. Companies that invest in a thorough, consistent and transparent strategy while acknowledging they don’t have all the answers offers the most credibility.