Legislation, defenders and the climate: three vital considerations for companies this Human Rights Day

Anna Triponel
Dec 10, 2019 · 6 min read

Today is Human Rights Day. This is the day on which we celebrate the perennial values of equality, justice and human dignity, and reflect on how far we’ve come since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948, just three years after the end of the World War II and the atrocities done in that war.

This year, however, there is little cause for celebration. We have seen rising nationalism, inequality and authoritarianism around the world. We have seen those who speak out for human rights attacked, threatened, victimised and even killed. We have seen farmers, refugees and community members suffer from the climate crisis.

Not since World War II has the prognosis been so dire is so many places.

While States are tasked by international law to respect, protect and fulfil human rights, those operating in the private sector are intimately connected to the practical achievement of human rights. Through their business activities, they can entrench inequality, further marginalisation and pollute the environment. But they can also empower workers to thrive, protect those who speak up for human rights, and play a critical role in enabling a just transition to a low-carbon economy.

As a company it can be daunting to play a role in human rights, given the scale of the challenge ahead. But the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights make the pathway clear: companies, while not taking on the role of States, do have a responsibility to respect the rights of those they impact through their business operations and supply chains.

This year has seen companies break new ground — irrespective of size, sector and country of operation — in three areas in particular: environmental and human rights due diligence laws, human rights defenders and the climate crisis. Their efforts pave the way for other companies to follow, as these priorities will only intensify as we move into 2020.

Endorsed at the highest levels of the UN, the Guiding Principles have resulted in certain countries passing laws to compel rights-respecting behaviours on the part of companies. Some laws compel companies to disclose what they are doing to respect human rights, while others create a duty of care and request that companies conduct environmental and human rights due diligence. Examples exist in the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Australia, the U.S., and discussions are ongoing in Canada, Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Sweden, Luxembourg and Finland. Notably, the European Union is set to enter unprecedented discussions on legislating business and human rights, with Finland at its helm.

Over the past year, companies have been working closely with civil society to support and shape these legislative discussions. For these companies, the creation of a level playing field makes sense — it helps business, people and the planet, and provides needed legal certainty. In the past month, we have seen cocoa companies (including Barry Callebaut AG, Mars Wrigley and Mondelēz International) call on the EU, and forty-two companies (including Tchibo, Nestlé and Ritter Sport) call on Germany, to pass regulation requiring environmental and human rights due diligence. A constructive dialogue on human rights and environmental due diligence legislation has started, and companies are increasingly engaging with it.

Another priority companies are looking to tackle is the increase in attacks (whether murder, violence, criminalisation, retaliation or lawsuits) on individuals — community members, indigenous groups, workers and civil society members — seeking to shine a spotlight on the negative impacts of business. Last year, 164 human rights defenders were murdered, and trade unionists were murdered in ten countries. These attacks happen in tandem to a shrinking civic space, with restrictions on civil and political rights and an increase in laws and policies used to criminalise speaking out. The world this year has become less free. This in turn has had ripple effects on the ability of workers and community members to speak up and engage with companies on their respect for human rights.

More and more companies recognise the value in taking position with governments to protect the civic space of the countries within which they operate, while building the capacity of their security guards and business partners to empower communities, protect defenders and enable worker voice. Ensuring that individuals can speak up freely helps their business as well as their ability to respect human rights and reduce their carbon footprint. Recent examples include the first statement of its kind by companies (Unilever, adidas, Primark, ABN AMRO, Anglo American, Leber Jeweler, Domini and the Investors Alliance on Human Rights) taking position on civic freedoms, human rights defenders and the rule of law, as well as growing illustrations of how companies are seeking to build and exercise leverage in this area. The business case for protecting civic rights has now been made and companies are identifying the most efficient role they can play, in light of what they do, where they operate and who their business partners are.

Finally, although it has been clear for some years that human rights and climate change are inextricably linked, 2019 has emerged as a year of climate crisis, and companies are now asked to demonstrate that they have a holistic strategy for people and planet. Just last month, the European Parliament followed national parliaments and local councils to declare a climate emergency, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) stated that the year 2019 concludes “a decade of exceptional global heat”, and leading scientists indicated that the world may already have crossed a series of climate tipping points and be headed toward “an existential threat to civilisation.”

A number of companies are taking steps to respond to the 2015 Paris Agreement seeking to limit the temperature rise this century to under 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. They are making the connection between the Paris Agreement and competitive and thriving companies. They are combining their leverage, with a group of CEOs employing over 2 million people in the United States calling on the United States not to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Leading companies are also seeking to take rights-based climate action. Such companies are adopting a human rights lens to the climate crisis, seeking to consider those who are most vulnerable to impact as well as those who may be adversely impacted by the carbon-reducing solutions themselves. In parallel, these companies are considering how to ensure that their human rights due diligence reflects the climate crisis. This entails incorporating longer-term climate-related human rights issues that may not previously have been viewed as salient. People and planet go hand in hand, and leading companies are increasingly seeking to break down internal silos to achieve this holistic vision.

These three priorities are inter-connected. By empowering workers and communities to speak up without fear, companies strengthen their human rights due diligence efforts, which in turn supports their ambition to meet new due diligence laws, respect people and transition in a just manner to a low carbon future. Levelling the playing field through regulation will ensure that those companies leading the pack are rewarded for their efforts, while shining the spotlight on laggards who have to now remained in the dark.

You may not work for a leading company — just yet. But you can help your company take steps to get there. This can be your single pledge to yourself on this Human Rights Day. Just as you benefit from the protections of human rights, you can play a role in helping protect the human rights of others. Eleanor Roosevelt, and countless others, would thank you.

On this day we must remember: we are all connected.

Business & human rights advisor. Empowering companies, lawyers & investors to respect people & the planet in everything they do. http://bit.ly/2PvnZbj

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