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

Memorandum submitted by the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights

  The Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights, a six-year initiative founded in Brussels in 2003, has drawn together leading companies from across a range of business sectors. Its express intention has been to demonstrate how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be integrated into business management across a range of geographies, political contexts and business functions.

  We have taken an evidence-based approach and have developed processes, tools, essential steps and methodologies to enable us and other businesses to move forward on this critical issue.

  Our member companies are some of the biggest in the world: ABB, Areva, Barclays, Ericsson, Gap Inc., General Electric, Hewlett Packard, National Grid, Novartis, Newmont, Novo Nordisk, StatoilHydro, The Coca-Cola Company and Zain. The initiative was been chaired by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

  Everything that we say here is said with a sense of humility. Our member companies are open about the complexity of the challenges they continue to face but have developed a confidence and proactive approach to human rights. The past six years have reinforced to us that the business and human rights movement is still in its infancy but is arriving at another critical point in its development—one that requires a greater lead from states and inter-governmental organisations. Some of the comments I will make here are as true of business as they are of states. This is not a critique, much more an invitation for closer partnership.

  We have been at the fore-front of business support for the work of Professor John Ruggie, and we joined the member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council in supporting the Protect, Respect and Remedy framework. Others also have commended this common framework:

    "...a well-constructed and clearly articulated framework for addressing business and human rights... which has significantly advanced the debate."

  This quote comes not from Amnesty International, although it might—given their warm endorsement of the framework, but instead from three of the world's umbrella business associations: the International Organisation of Employers, International Chamber of Commerce and the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD.

  In the brief time allowing we would like to make just three major points in this statement.

    — First, that Business needs States to champion this common framework

    — Second, that the voluntary/mandatory nature of the debate has been over-polarised within the European Union; and

    — Third, there is a real opportunity for UK and European leadership.


  The State Duty to Protect Human Rights requires Governments to deliver a leveller playing field to business in terms of enforced regulation but also political expectation. We see as essential much better alignment between trade, investment, corporate law, securities regulations and human rights policy and it considerably increases the risk of business when regulation is unmatched and sometimes contradictory.

  There needs to be much closer alignment between the human rights expectations of companies and those expounded through bilateral trade and investment, host government agreements, export credit guarantees, overseas development assistance and also the activities of EU embassies throughout the world.

  Some European states have become powerful leaders in business and human rights dialogues with other global regions but we would like to see a stronger position from the European Union itself.

  Companies also look to States to hold the laggards and free-riders to account. There is a clear need for much better remedies and accountability mechanisms to penalise companies who currently give little concern to the abuse of human rights, or their complicity or direct involvement in them. The European Union could do much to strengthen the position of OECD National Contact Points and/or develop an Ombudsperson for the Union.

  Crucial, is that European States also bring into the framework other global regions so that business from Africa, Asia and the Americas are also held to account by their home and host governments. At present, a few high-profile European companies attract a high percentage of public and political angst about corporate human rights abuse: sometimes this is deserved, but sometimes it hides the deeper reality that Chinese, Russian, Brazilian and Indian companies need also to be as accountable for their actions at home and overseas. We are pleased to report that business leaders from these and other regions are also now stepping up into the dialogue.

  Nevertheless, Europe should lead by example and there is much we can do to ensure European business is world-class in human rights. States also have a particular additional role to play when these companies are:

    — fully or partly state-owned or operated ( it is a sector rising in significance due to the current economic climate);

    — major suppliers to state authorities;

    — small and medium sized enterprises across the Union where there is a real issue of capacity and need for shared resources;

    — or for the companies (many of whom are not publicly listed) in the corners of Europe who may have been less accessible to member nation tax policies but need to be just as accountable to human rights.


  The real human rights challenges for European business operating throughout the world are often complex dilemmas. There are very many places where States are unwilling or unable to protect their populations due to internal conflict, corruption or poverty. There is a very uneven regulatory environment for human rights and even then business has often to navigate the competing demands of local populations and sometimes conflicts between human rights themselves.

  It remains clear that the duty to protect human rights rests with states—and in particular host governments. But businesses often find themselves having to assess the requirements of national laws, international human rights norms and the social, investor and political expectations on a company in order to guide business action.

  An approach to "Corporate Social Responsibility" that might have some meaning within the 27 member states of the European Union where there is relatively strong state capacity and something of a regulatory level playing field is one thing. But this may mean little, in human rights terms, when European business operates beyond the Union.


  Some of the best partnerships between Government and Business on human rights have been outside the European Union—and when they have involved European States it has often been despite and not because of the European Union position on CSR. Some of the most innovative work is currently underway in parts of Africa, the Middle East, South and East Asia. Some of this is supported by the Overseas Development Agencies of EU member states.

  Companies are willing to step up into leadership positions: first it was labour rights in supply chains, then civil and political rights relating to security in oil and mining companies. Now it is multi-faceted. For example:

    — Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have launched their own code on freedom of expression and privacy;

    — Novartis, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi-Aventis are the first pharmaceutical companies to recognise their responsibility for the right to health;

    — Suez, Veolia, Thames Water, Coca-Cola and Pepsi have all recognised human rights in relation to water and so on.

  We need a state position that matches this business leadership. There is no better framework than advanced by the United Nations and initiated by Professor John Ruggie. The Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights commends this framework to the UK Government and hopes it might inspire your and our actions over the months and years ahead.

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