The Friedrich Naumann Foundation’s Forum on the World Economic Order welcomed a delegation of experts from around the world for a seven day study tour focusing on the state of business and human rights. Over the course of the program, which took place in Washington, DC and New York, NY, the delegation met with over 25 business and human rights practitioners in the U.S., representing the private sector, NGOs, non-profits, think tanks, academia, and government.
Discussion in Washington, DC centered on legal frameworks for business and human rights, as well as how best to evaluate corporate human rights abuses and bring the necessary actors to the table. Several discussion partners emphasized that a major challenge for business and human rights is not a lack of support for the issue, but rather a continued communication gap between human rights defenders and business that often keeps it from being truly integrated into corporate consciousness. In this regard, corporate lawyers can be a valuable conduit, as they are already in the boardrooms with access to business and thus can facilitate cooperation between the legal realm and corporate actors.
A consistent theme in Washington, DC was how to best monitor and track corporate accountability with regard to human rights. Although business should be at the forefront of such metrics, the role of other actors such as government must also examined, demonstrating when they have either actively failed to protect workers from corporate abuse, or when their tactics to elicit change from business have been ineffective. The goal of developing such metrics is not just to identify and evaluate human rights violations by business, but also to serve as a road map for companies and other key actors to compare best practices for the digital sphere and advance their overall human rights protections in the workplace.
The discussion in New York was conducted from a largely supranational perspective, given the influence of the UN Guiding Principles on many of the organizations. Several of the meetings focused on the importance of advocating not only for individual corporate human rights compliance, but rather a general paradigm shift in how companies view their human rights responsibilities. Small and medium enterprises are key in this regard, as they remain as a sector the largest employers in many countries, but are often unable to attain corporate human rights benchmarks due to a lack of personnel and technical expertise. Here NGOs can play a crucial role, as they often have the resources and thematic expertise that can bring smaller businesses to a level of compliance, as well as the ability to coordinate best practices among partners.
At the end of the program, the delegation engaged in a policy discussion informed by the meetings in Washington, DC and New York, NY, which resulted in several key findings. One major point emphasizes the importance of developing a diverse coalition of partners, involving government, civil society, NGOs, and business. In order for such a partner network to function, there needs to be an understanding on all sides of the mutual benefits and opportunities that business and human rights compliance fosters, despite potential differences on how to best achieve those objectives or differing motivations behind compliance. Another major development was on the national level, namely the role of government in implementing a National Action Plan on business and human rights that is best suited to the individual needs of each country. Although there is no blanket roadmap for business and human rights around the world, setting concrete benchmarks specific to each sector is essential for successful implementation. Best practice sharing for countries facing similar challenges, such as South-South exchanges, in addition to knowledge transfers from countries more deeply engaged in the business and human rights process, can also prove helpful in identifying realistic goals for each country and forecasting how the process may develop. Above all, there is a need for open dialogue among all actors, and an understanding that the concretization of business and human rights into a country’s corporate culture is a gradual process best informed by the contributions of government, business, as well as civil society organizations.
Courtney Flynn, Program Associate, Forum on the World Economic Order, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.