UN Sustainable Development Goals

The Post-2015 Agenda Needs to Set its Private Sector Priorities

Commentary, 25 November 2014

By Haley St. Dennis, Head of Communications, IHRB

Last week the Hungarian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade hosted the 7th Annual Budapest Human Rights Forum. The event brought together a diverse group of participants to discuss a range of pressing issues.  

These included preventing mass atrocities, protecting the rights of national, ethnic and linguistic minorities, and addressing challenges to freedom of opinion and speech online and offline. IHRB was invited to join a panel on another important agenda for the year ahead - human rights and the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

What do we at IHRB think should be prioritized as negotiations on the content and shape of the SDGs, which will set the international development agenda for the next decade or more, move into their final phase? Here are some of the points I raised in my remarks at the Forum in Budapest. 

Reaffirming baseline expectations for responsible business

Compared to the current UN Millennium Development Goals, the private sector has been given more prominence in the recently proposed draft SDGs framework put forward by the Open Working Group following extensive global consultations. That’s certainly welcome. Business contributes significantly to economic growth, job creation and innovations that foster sustainability. But it’s long been acknowledged that business activities can also adversely impact people and the environment. The private sector clearly has a critical role to play in sustainable development, but we shouldn’t assume that the benefits of involving the private sector in the SDGs will be automatic. 

The state duty to protect human rights and corporate responsibility to respect human rights as set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights should be a core part of any references to the private sector in the post 2015 framework to be agreed next year.  Yet they are not mentioned anywhere in the current Open Working Group Proposal, even where you would expect them to be – such as within Goal 17 on revitalising partnerships for sustainable development, aimed at harnessing private sector resources and skills. The SDGs should reaffirm state duties in setting frameworks for responsible business and the expectation that businesses’ contribution to promoting economically, socially and environmentally sustainable development must be done in ways that respect human rights.

Accountability in partnerships

Work to date on the post-2015 agenda builds on growing interest in partnerships between the public and private sectors to address governance challenges across a wide range of issues. These partnerships – designed to bring diverse state and non-state actors together to tackle common problems and governance gaps – are seen as key to making faster development progress over the next decade. But as IHRB’s Chair and the former UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights John Ruggie has noted, debates continue over whether and how such arrangements can best be made to work in practice. Hundreds of these partnerships exist, in a range of forms, but despite their numbers we don’t yet have solid evidence or even shared views on what good practice looks like and we are still in the early stages of developing effective tools for evaluating the impacts and results of such partnerships across the board. 

IHRB is currently undertaking a review of a selection of partnerships to assess the extent to which these arrangements are consistent with international human rights standards and the approach set out in the UN Guiding Principles. By looking at partnerships oriented around issues such as water and sanitation delivery, education, food, energy and infrastructure we hope to shed light on whether and how existing partnerships explicitly or implicitly reflect the state duty to protect human rights and the corporate responsibility to respect human rights across a number of areas. We will be looking at the way they set policy objectives, develop governance structures, the operating and performance standards they adopt, and whether they include accountability mechanisms applicable to all actors involved. We are gathering evidence of the current “state of play” in this area, and will offer recommendations on lessons to be learned as a contribution to the next wave of partnerships that will take shape as part of strategies to achieve the new post-2015 goals.

More than reporting

Initiatives to promote mandatory corporate reporting on financial and non-financial risks have also been part of global discussions on the SDGs. Greater transparency can be an effective and efficient avenue to unlocking new analysis and new collaborations for accountability. But transparency alone won’t ensure credible systems of accountability and should not be the only requirement of private sector actors in the Post-2015 agenda. Commitments to responsibility and accountability must go beyond what companies choose to self-report. The SDGs should contain a clear call for a range of accountability mechanisms, judicial and non-judicial, to address company actions, reflecting the emphasis in the UN Guiding Principles on the importance of effective remedies for human rights harms relating to business conduct.

Linking core systemic issues involving the private sector

A final point to highlight concerns the goal of achieving policy coherence across major international frameworks. There is an opportunity here to explicitly link the human rights, climate change and development agendas in the post-2015 architecture. Weighing impacts of specific interventions and considering their overall cumulative impact, while also addressing how to balance competing priorities, will require difficult choices. The emphasis in current SDG proposals on tackling corruption, illicit financial flows, money laundering, tax evasion and hidden ownership of assets is also welcome, and their link to promoting and protecting human rights should be emphasised.

The far less obvious, more difficult, but equally important links between international financial regulation and sustainable development should also be highlighted. The SDGs can set the vision and goals for international capital markets that deliver value for societies for the long term. This includes using regulatory and other incentives and disincentives to drive the inclusion of social and environmental impacts in the costs of products and services – reflecting the true cost of doing business.

Looking Ahead

As we noted in our submission to the Open Working Group, clarifying the baseline expectations of states and businesses to protect and respect human rights in the final Sustainable Development Goals will make clear that companies cannot offset harms to human rights by doing good elsewhere. Private sector efforts to support delivery of SDG targets, as valuable as they may be, will not compensate for adverse impacts a company has on communities or workers. As the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights rightly reminds, businesses’ contribution to socially sustainable and equitable development starts with respecting the rights of people affected by their activities. 

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