Until recently, human rights have generally been viewed as the responsibility of governments, not companies. Now things have been changing and companies are proactively demonstrating their respect for human rights
Until recently, human rights have generally been viewed as the responsibility of governments, not companies. After all, governments have adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). By doing so, states committed to protecting human rights and promoting “social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”.
Still, the question about companies’ role in relation to human rights have been nagging, especially as companies have become more powerful players in society. In 2012, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) provided the first comprehensive direction for companies on human rights issues. Since, it has become the standard across industries. The UNGPs changed the dynamics of human rights not only by formalizing the role of businesses, but also by creating a reporting structure for companies to proactively demonstrate their respect for human rights. Emerging from this is an emphasis on companies both “knowing and showing” that they respect human rights, or, in other words, demonstrating through policies, systems, programs and practices that they do not “infringe” on the rights of other. These disclosure and verification systems should bolster public confidence in companies’ respect for human rights and social responsibility.
Legislation in a number of states, particularly in Europe and increasingly also in countries such as Canada, compliments the UNGP by requiring companies to conduct human rights due diligence and disclosure. Furthermore, the emphasis in financial markets on company environmental, social and governance performance (ESG), including human rights, has accelerated the adoption of the UNGPs by companies.
Company practices have evolved with the change in expectations around human rights and social responsibility. They recognize that they need not only regulatory permits to operate but also the acceptance of local communities. To achieve this, companies have increased their capacity to listen to community concerns and aspirations, and to jointly develop acceptable prevention, mitigation and monitoring measures.
The more communities and civil society understand about corporate human rights requirements and disclosure, the better they are at discerning which companies are leading and which are lagging in this area
Companies have also grown to understand that how they work with communities is at least as important as what they offer to communities. Many companies now recognize that despite government approvals to operate, companies are still guests to host communities and need to behave as such. In the past, companies’ approach to corporate social responsibility was often defined by how much money they donated to local initiatives. Just spending money spent though has proven insufficient in forging lasting working relationships with local communities. By moving from a transactional to a more relational approach, companies become more transparent, accountable, and inclusive.
The Government of Canada supports responsible business conduct through resources and tools that cover not only community relations, but also governance, workforces and supply chains. Furthermore, the Government of Canada established the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise to respond to complaints about possible community by Canadian companies working outside of Canada in the garment, mining, and oil and gas sectors.
Through transparent disclosures, policies, training, and evolving practices, companies are creating systems that protect and respect human rights. When there are breaches, company complaints mechanisms, and programs like the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise present avenues for resolution and remedy. Civil society can play an important role in education, monitoring and advocacy. The more communities and civil society understand about corporate human rights requirements and disclosure, the better they are at discerning which companies are leading and which are lagging in this area. Working with those companies that are demonstrating respect for human rights and community relations can help bolster responsible economic development.