A Landmark Standard for LGBTI Rights

Commentary, 26 September 2017

By Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

Over the past year, we at the Institute for Human Rights and Business have worked closely with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to develop a new initiative to support companies in respecting and promoting the human rights of LGBTI people and civil society that wish to engage with them.

Today we have launched the Standards of Conduct for Business on Tackling Discrimination Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex People, which builds on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the UN Global Compact.

They are the result of detailed consultations with several hundred experts from companies, civil society groups, and academics over the past year, in Mumbai, New York, Brussels, Kampala, and elsewhere, drawing on state-of-the-art academic research, international standards, and corporate practices. I have learned a lot working on this project with two exceptional OHCHR colleagues in New York - Charles Radcliffe and Fabrice Houdart - and I thank them for their friendship. 

Most companies know that discrimination is bad for business.

When a company discriminates against people of a particular group as potential employees, customers, or as users of services, it narrows the pool of talent from which it can seek employees, it restricts its market, and it undermines human rights. Such companies limit their own ability to grow, and if they do survive in the long run, they rarely reach their potential. Smart companies realise this and adopt policies that promote diversity and actively seek out a workforce that looks like and represents the world in which they operate.

The reality is that discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people (LGBTI) remains prevalent in many parts of the world. Seventy-three UN Member States continue to criminalise same-sex relationships and many criminalise trans people. But societies often suffer from deep-seated prejudices, which ultimately weaken their core.

Governments that do not recognise this are failing in their duty to protect human rights. Most governments lack laws to ensure effective protection from discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Fewer still protect the rights of trans people, and very few have taken measures to protect intersex people. In a handful of countries, governments are actively pursuing measures that would further restrict the rights of LGBTI people — including curbing activism and banning cultural events. Such stark differences in legal frameworks and practices pose particular problems for companies committed to respecting and supporting human rights — whether those companies operate in one jurisdiction, with international partners, or across multiple jurisdictions. 

But this is not a new phenomenon for companies.

For decades, companies have operated in multiple jurisdictions where standards clash, and those companies which have thought creatively outside the box about developing effective ways of respecting rights have usually found practical solutions. While such solutions are not necessarily perfect, they do support human rights and incrementally improve the environment, paving the way for reforms in the medium term.

Now there is help at hand for business. The UN Guiding Principles set clear standards for business to respect human rights. The Global Compact provides a platform for companies to discuss and implement standards. The LGBTI Standards of Business Conduct released today build on these to enable companies to act in ways that respect human rights. The Standards expect companies to treat people fairly at the workplace and monitor conduct with partners and through the supply chain to ensure that discrimination is tackled at each turn. As the examples cited below describe it, the Standards also show how companies can get it right.  

The five steps call on companies to:

  1. ensure that their business operations respect the rights of LGBTI employees, customers and others in the community;
  2. eliminate discrimination in the workplace;
  3. develop an inclusive workplace;
  4. work with business partners to address discriminatory practices up and down the supply chain; and
  5. stand up for the rights of LGBTI people in the countries where they operate – including through advocacy and support for local organizations.

This fifth step – titled “acting in the public sphere” in the Standards – encourages companies as part of broader coalitions to communicate to governments and lawmakers the impact of the governments’ policies on the human rights of LGBTI people and how discrimination can adversely affect economic development and investment.

Many companies are doing the right thing.

They have adopted policies to eliminate discrimination in their own operations and used their leverage to influence their partners to act according to the highest international standards.

Simmons and Simmons, a law firm, uses its influence with its suppliers to embed non-discrimination principles.

Baker McKenzie, another law firm, has appointed senior executives to enforce non-discrimination policies.

Honey Maid, Colgate Mexico, and Burger King in the United States have embraced diversity and seen increased market share.

Orange has withdrawn advertising from a Ugandan publication which published hate-filled propaganda against LGBTI communities.

IBM has established partnerships with civil society groups to support LGBTI communities.

Deutsche Bank and Pay Pal decided not to expand their operations in North Carolina in the United States when the state passed a notorious law that denied equal rights to LGBTI communities. 

And these actions are not limited to multinational companies.

In Texas, local businesses have opposed efforts at the state legislature to pass laws that discriminate against LGBTI communities.

In India, local companies publicly advocated their respect for diversity, as Titan, Hidesign, and Fastrack did, after India’s Supreme Court reinstated a colonial-era law that criminalised same-sex relationships.

In Singapore, after multinational companies were prevented from supporting the Pink Dot march, local companies have stepped in to support the local LGBTI community.

Companies have everything to gain. 

The Standards are designed to support all companies in reviewing existing policies and practices — or establishing new ones — to respect and promote human rights of LGBTI people. While the Standards themselves focus on the responsibilities and opportunities of the private sector when it comes to respecting and promoting the human rights of LGBTI people, it is increasingly obvious that companies have everything to gain by eliminating all forms of discrimination. In most part of the world, workers, consumers, and investors are increasingly rewarding companies that actively tackle discrimination. Purpose-driven brands that manage to associate themselves with the cause of equality can reap real business benefits, particularly with young affluent market segments.

The influence of business can accelerate the pace of change. As Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at the launch of the Standards: 

“Companies all over the world – big and small, local and multinational – have the chance to use their leverage and their relationships with a variety of local stakeholders to help move the dial in the direction of greater equality for LGBTI people. We know from experience that every time discrimination is diminished, everyone benefits.”

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