Government’s Role

New UN Human Rights Commissioner Needs to Get Down to Business

Commentary, 22 July 2014

By Scott Jerbi, Senior Advisor, Policy & Outreach, IHRB, Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

This piece was originally published on OpenDemocracy.net

Amidst many priorities, the High Commissioner must focus on the problem of ensuring companies respect human rights, at a moment when a hard fought consensus on how to do so is at risk of unravelling.

The world faces a dizzying array of human rights crises impacting the lives of millions of people on every continent. The new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan, has global responsibilities and human rights advocates will expect effective advocacy and practical actions on numerous country and thematic challenges, from Syria and Iraq to empowering those living in extreme poverty.  

It may seem, therefore, that our particular area of focus - the business and human rights agenda - can wait, because there are so many other urgent fires to fight. But as Zeid knows from his long stint working with the UN, the relationship between economic and business actors and human rights is deeply enmeshed. Many of today’s human rights crises have economic roots or economic solutions, and many deep-seated human rights problems can be made better or worse by businesses.

The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one such example, where the hunger for resources and wealth has fuelled conflict, leading to massive human rights abuses. The inability of many governments to progressively realise economic, social and cultural rights prompts people across the globe to search for better lives far from home, only to find themselves further victimised in unsafe working conditions with little hope for a decent wage. Business investments in areas that are environmentally fragile and politically sensitive too often contribute to destabilisation and lead to further rights abuses.

There is no single silver bullet that can fix such problems. But the fact is that pushing for responsible business practices and demanding that governments do more to hold corporate actors accountable for their own involvement in rights violations, are both vital parts of any global strategy to strengthen respect for human rights in today’s world.

As the new High Commissioner considers how best to contribute to the evolving business and human rights agenda, he can build on the work of his predecessors in engaging the business community directly. Importantly, – he must help steer the business and human rights debate at a time in which worrying divides among governments and other actors appear to be opening up.

Just three years ago, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed theUN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as the authoritative international framework for advancing work in this area. The Guiding Principles reaffirm state obligations to protect against rights violations involving non-state actors. They also establish for the first time the responsibility of all businesses, wherever they operate, to assess the risk of negative human rights impacts of their activities, and mainstream policies and procedures to ensure these impacts are avoided or mitigated. Equally important, the Guiding Principles stress the need for effective judicial or non-judicial grievance mechanisms to deal with alleged violations.

Since their endorsement by the Human Rights Council in 2011, several governments have initiated national action plans to formalise their commitment to the Guiding Principles and a growing number of companies have sought to embed the Principles in their own policies and practices. Over time, the Guiding Principles may lead to wider agreement on the expected conduct of companies around the world.

But this hard won consensus is now being tested. At the Council’s recent session in Geneva, two resolutions on business and human rights were adopted – one unanimously, the other by a deeply divided vote. The unanimous resolution affirmed the importance of the Guiding Principles and extended for another three years the mandate of the expert working group tasked with fostering implementation of the Guiding Principles globally. The resolution also flags a number of areas where the High Commissioner and his Office have an important role to play in the time ahead. It requests the High Commissioner to facilitate a consultative process to explore “the full range of legal options and practical measures to improve access to remedy for victims of business-related human rights abuses.” It also calls on the High Commissioner to develop concrete options and proposals for the establishment of a new global fund to enhance the capacity of stakeholders to implement the Guiding Principles.

The need for additional resources to support civil society, national human rights institutions, small and medium sized enterprises and others to take the Guiding Principles forward is critical. A recent report by the UN Secretary-General also raises the concern that the UN “appears to be lagging behind some other international and regional organizations in integrating the business and human rights agenda” and that “further coordinated efforts are needed at the executive levels of the Organization to ensure that the United Nations approaches this task in a systematic and strategic manner.”

These issues signal the vital importance of leadership by the High Commissioner. This is especially so because at the same Council session, another resolution was passed establishing a new inter-governmental working group to examine the need for a treaty to regulate business and human rights globally. The resolution passed on a divided vote, with the majority of states either abstaining or voting against it.

Ambitious in its scope and ambiguous in its details, this second resolution is partly born out of the reality that victims of grave abuses often lack adequate remedies. John Ruggie, former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Business and Human Rights who developed the Guiding Principles,has said a new legal instrument, focused on business involvement in gross human rights abuses, including those that may rise to the level of international crimes, such as genocide, extrajudicial killings, and slavery as well as forced labour, should be considered at this stage. The High Commissioner’s Office is leading a study to identify the key barriers and potential actions to address exactly these issues. That work deserves broad support.

Zeid will need to square this circle of promoting engagement with companies while strengthening accountability measures. He must find a way to use his new role not only to bring more companies into the conversation on human rights, but also to secure the resources and political will needed to ensure faster and more comprehensive uptake of the Guiding Principles. He must do all this while at the same time encouraging constructive debate on the controversial issue of a new legal instrument to address the most urgent and widespread protection gaps. 

Achieving these important objectives, on top of so many other responsibilities, won’t be an easy task. But the High Commissioner’s leadership on advancing the business and human rights agenda will be critical.

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