Any of our business? Human Rights and the UK private sector - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents


276. In his latest Report, Professor Ruggie called on National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) to consider how they could play a role in promoting the 'protect, respect and remedy' framework:

    While the mandates of some NHRIs may currently preclude them from work on business and human rights, for many it has been a question of choice, tradition or capacity. The Special Representative hopes that more NHRIs will reflect on ways they can address alleged human rights abuses involving business.[357]

277. It appears from the evidence that the existing NHRIs in the United Kingdom differ in their approach to the private sector.[358] The Institute for Business and Human Rights told us:

    The UK Equalities and Human rights Commission does not yet play the active role in the field of business and human rights as National Human Rights Institutions in Denmark, South Africa or Kenya. It remains less engaged in business and human rights than many of the organisations accredited to the Paris Principles. This is mystifying and does not reflect the interests of either UK business or civil society. It is worth noting that the newly-formed Scottish Human Rights Commission intends to be active in the area of business and human rights.[359]

278. Neither the EHRC nor SHRC said that they needed a broader mandate to deal with human rights issues in the private sector. The EHRC was cautious about assuming any additional roles and explained that the organisation was still finding its feet.[360] The SHRC explained that although its mandate was focused on Scotland and its powers particularly related to public authorities: "our general duty…provides us with a basis to work with Scottish companies operating at home and abroad in host states, as well as with the Scottish Government, to support them to comply with their duty to protect rights."[361]

279. The SHRC outlined a number of plans for work in this area, including dissemination of good practice and work to spread a human rights based approach through the public and private sectors. The SHRC appears to be taking a positive approach to business and human rights work and we particularly welcome its involvement in the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions Working Group on National Human Rights Institutions, business and human rights.

280. The bulk of the evidence which we received from the EHRC focused on equality. We had expected that the EHRC would have skills from each of its legacy commissions' work with the private sector which would be transferable to its broader work on human rights issues. Unfortunately, this notion of building on prior experience does not emerge from the evidence we took from the EHRC. The private sector work of the EHRC has so far been largely limited to the equality stream. We are concerned that this is indicative of a broader failure of the EHRC effectively to integrate its work on equality and its work on human rights. We explored these concerns further in oral evidence with the Chair of the EHRC, Trevor Philips, on 10 November 2009.[362] We intend to report the broader findings of our inquiry on the work of the EHRC shortly.

281. After the close of our inquiry, the EHRC published its first human rights strategy. It included a generalised commitment to "build business and public awareness of the key human rights issues in the private sector". One of the ways it intended to approach this commitment was by holding a "high-level" summit on the implementation of the work of the UN Special Representative.[363] We note the recent commitment in the EHRC Human Rights Strategy and Programme of Action 2009-2012 to build business and public awareness of the key human rights issues in the private sector. We look forward to receiving further information on how it intends to develop this strand of their work.

282. The Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR, the Danish NHRI) is often held up as an exemplar for NHRI activity on business and human rights issues. The DIHR has an education and research mandate, which extends to cover education relating to the private sector. It runs a wide ranging business and human rights programme, producing tools and providing consultancy services for businesses on human rights impact assessments and other strategic advice. The DIHR wrote:

    The Human Rights and Business Project…is a non-profit entity dedicated to promoting business' compliance with human rights. To this end, the Human Rights and Business Project undertakes consultancy projects with corporate partners, develops tools and methodologies to help companies implement human rights, engages in capacity building partnership projects with a wide range of public and civil society actors internationally, and conducts strategic research on concepts of relevance to the field.[364]

283. It provides consultancy for a fee to "over a dozen of the Fortune 500" companies and including UK firms, such as Shell.[365] The DIHR works together with the SHRC on the ICC Working Group on Business and Human Rights. We understand that they have recently been in contact with the EHRC to share their experiences of their work in this area. Both the EHRC and the SHRC admired the DHRI approach, but neither considered that it would be appropriate for their mandates.[366]

284. In the light of the enforcement elements of its mandate, we consider that it would be inappropriate for the EHRC to charge a fee for formal consultancy services like the Danish Institute for Human Rights. We note that the SHRC has a mandate to charge a fee for advice, guidance, research or training. While it may have the power to take the same approach as the Danish Institute for Human Rights, we accept its view, that charging businesses for consultancy in the UK may not be the right approach. However, we consider that there is far greater scope in the mandate and powers of both of these institutions (and the mandate of the NIHRC) to become involved in the debate around human rights impacts in the private sector.

285. The education and promotion mandates of the UK's NHRIs should be sufficiently broad to cover a joined-up approach to the Government's relationship with the private sector on the human rights obligations of the UK. In our view, the main priority should be the promotion of guidance for the private sector on what human rights means for their domestic activities. This should include guidance on when and how the HRA 1998 will apply and how human rights may affect their undertakings. Government should produce such guidance for businesses without delay. We recommend that this is a key area where the expertise of the NHRIs should be used. The content and direction of this guidance should be informed by the outcome of the Ministry of Justice's Private Sector and Human Rights project currently underway and should only be published after consultation with business, business groups, NGOs and other interested parties.

286. We also recommend that the NHRIs play a role in ensuring that the Government produces guidance on the wider human rights issues facing UK businesses in their operations overseas. In our view, the mandate of the EHRC is broad enough to engage with the Government on these issues. We note, for example, that the EHRC takes responsibility for contributions to the UN international monitoring bodies on the work of the UK. This could include monitoring Government responses to allegations that UK companies have undermined the UN Conventions overseas.[367] The EHRC should contribute to cross-Government work on how guidance from Government should be made available. Through its work on equality issues, the EHRC has - or should have - a broad network of contacts in the private sector. It would be ideally placed to distribute relevant guidance and to disseminate best practice.

287. We recommend that the EHRC and the SHRC work together with the NIHRC to assist the UK Government to adopt a clear, positive and proactive strategy on business and human rights.

357   Ruggie Report 2009, para 103. Back

358   We had evidence from both the EHRC and the SHRC. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was invited to submit evidence, but did not do so. Back

359   Ev 270, para 5 Back

360   Q289 (Alan Christie) Back

361   Q289 (Kavita Chetty) Back

362   HC 1042-ii, Uncorrected transcript, oral evidence, Trevor Phillips OBE, Ms Kay Carberry CBE, Ms Jeannie Drake CBE, Mr John Wadham, 10 November 2009.  Back

363   EHRC, Our human rights strategy and programme of action, 2009-2012, 10 November 2009, page 23. Back

364   Ev 333 Back

365   Ibid Back

366   QQ 290 - 292 Back

367   Recommendations have been made by UN monitoring bodies against other states.See for example, the concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Canada (CERD/C/CAN/CO/18, para 17) and the United States (CERD/C/USA/CO/6, para 30). Back

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