The UK on human rights in business: Devil in the lack of detail?
Today sees the release of the British government’s action plan on the implementation of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP). The Principles were developed by Professor John Ruggie, between 2006-2011, on behalf of the UN Secretary General.
In theory the Principles are supposed to be a set of universally applied guidance on how business and governments should operate so as not to undermine human rights around the world, or in the jargon a framework to ‘protect, respect and remedy’.
They are set out in three interconnecting sections covering , 1) the state duty to protect citizens, 2) the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and 3) access to remedy for victims of corporate human rights abuses. We are told that the British action plan will set out the existing situation under each heading including actions taken since the release of the UNGP in 2011 and then set out what further action that is planned.
The government has consistently supported Professor Ruggie’s work so we hope that as one of the first countries to produce a concrete plan on how they should be implemented the UK will lead the way and produce something others can build on.
The devil however as always will be in the detail, or in some crucial areas, probably the lack of detail contained in the plan. I suspect it won’t fill readers of this blog with confidence to know that the Prime Minister first committed the UK to supporting the Guiding Principles whilst on a trip to Colombia in November 2011. He said, ‘as we deepen commercial links between the UK and Colombia we acknowledge the importance of working with the private sector on human rights issues. We are committed to implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’.
Two trade unionists were assassinated the same month and the total for 2011 in Colombia was over 30 union leaders and activists killed. The fact that this didn’t appear to diminish the British government’s enthusiasm for the EU-Colombia trade deal which went through, without adequate enforceable human rights safeguards, might just indicate that commercial interests still generally trump human rights interests.
However we still hope the plan will make a step forward and something that we can use to hold the government and business to their responsibilities. So what would we want to see it contain?
- At minimum there should be a commitment to working with unions and wider civil society to secure adherence to the UNGPs. If left to business alone the better ones will make improvements anyway whist many others will calculate that the path to the largest profit lies in inaction or even increased exploitation.
- There needs to be coherence and consistency across government. For instance it’s no good if FCO officials in a country are working with trade unionists and small farmers to expose land rights violations by multi-national X if it then turns out that multinational X has in fact been in receipt of large scale government support via schemes like the Export Credit Guarantee Scheme.
- There needs to be recognition that businesses have to take responsibility for possible violations throughout their entire supply chains and that they are responsible for establishing and following ‘due diligence’ policies.
- Maximum operational transparency is required to enable scrutiny of business impact and companies should be required to report on their impacts on social and environmental conditions.
- Structures are needed that enable workers and others, such as indigenous communities, effected by business operations to not just raise grievances but also to secure effective remedy. For workplace based violations the basic right to form and join a union must of course at the heart of this
- And crucially Government policies are needed that foster what Ruggie has termed the correct ‘smart mix’ of voluntary measures, incentives and crucially where needed hard law and regulation.
The ‘protect, respect and remedy’ framework is not about some enhanced form of corporate social responsibility or putting in place systems for which a ‘business case’ is required to justify any expenditure or change in corporate behaviour.
The bottom line for us has to be about putting in place systems that mean entirely preventable catastrophes such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse never happen again. We await with interest the release of the plan and will judge it on this criteria.