Mauricio Lazala, Deputy Director of the world’s largest NGO working exclusively on business and human rights issues, has seen an amazing take-up of human rights issues amongst multi-national corporations over the last 10 years, but the NGO still reports abuses on a daily basis. He spoke to HRAS about how seriously business is taking the issues and how the work of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is helping
HRAS: Mauricio, at a recent United Nations Human Rights forum in Geneva, you met with hundreds of representatives from business who were also attending. How have times changed?
In the last 10 years we have seen a very rapid increase in the uptake of human rights issues by companies around the world. Ten-fifteen years ago, no major corporations were talking the human rights talk or having human rights units within their organisation looking seriously at the issues.
Nowadays, there are many companies, most of them multi-nationals, but increasingly also medium and small companies, that have explicit human rights departments and policies.
We have around 350 companies listed on our website who have published human rights policies. That would have just been a dream 10 years ago.
HRAS: Yet, you say, we can look at the glass as being half full or half empty. How is the glass half empty?
If you were to ask someone from civil society who is looking closely, they will point to the fact that corporate abuses still occur on a daily basis around the world. There are still many companies that refuse to adopt a human rights policy, and there are still many companies that don’t know or don’t want to know about the United Nations Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights which were unanimously adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011. So, it’s a mixed picture.
HRAS: What companies do the Guiding Principles apply to?
These principles apply to all companies in all sectors and in every country. They are a set of voluntary guidelines, so they are not binding by themselves, but they are rooted in international law which is binding.
They also have a very strong moral and international consensus weight, so many companies have decided voluntarily to abide by them.
HRAS: What human rights abuses are occurring as a result of companies not following the Guiding Principles?
Abuses are happening every minute of every hour in different places around the world. We post around 20 examples on our website each day.
They vary from very explicit abuses directly committed by companies to more indirect abuses that companies are only allegedly complicit with while others commit them, for example, through the security forces of a government.
The abuses range from employing child labour in sugar plantations or mining sites to workplace discrimination of women, disabled people or sexual minorities. They can involve acts such as the displacement of communities to make way for oil and gas or mining operations to the killing, torture and arbitrary arrest of people that protest against business operations.
There are also more subtle abuses that involve restrictions to the freedom of expression and freedom of association of workers trying to unionise or trying to expose the negative impacts of corporate operations. Overall we cover over 150 human rights issues on our website.
HRAS: How do the issues vary around the world?
While they do often occur in the so-called global south, this is not exclusively the case. We also report on abuses that are happening in Europe, North America and other developed countries. These often involve workplace discrimination, but there are others abuses.
It is, unfortunately, a global phenomenon involving all sorts of companies.
HRAS: Which companies have become human rights champions?
We have many examples of best practices on our website. Three good examples are Adidas, Microsoft and Rio Tinto, three large multi-nationals from three very different sectors, adopting and integrating the United Nations Guiding Principles throughout their operations.
HRAS: How does the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre get involved?
We are an independent NGO with offices in London and New York as well as a network of regional researchers in 13 countries.
Our mission calls for transparency, accountability and empowerment. Transparency means we post news on our website about human rights abuse allegations as well as the positive steps taken by companies. We cover over 6,000 companies operating in over 180 countries.
Accountability refers to the fact that when we receive allegations of abuse by companies, we invite the companies to respond publically to them.
Our empowering mission means that we operate behind the scenes to empower the take-up of human rights inside companies as well as in civil society and at the United Nations level.
HRAS: The NGO has decided not to get involved in taking legal action on specific cases. Why?
We are one step removed from legal action in our mission of transparency and accountability. We do not take positions on the cases we report, and we aim to report in a fair and objective way. We like to give both sides a platform to encourage informed public debate, and that is something that helps us get company responses at such a high rate – in about 75 percent of cases.
Companies trust that we will give equal space to their point of view, something that journalists and other NGOs don’t always do.
We find that sometimes people working at the company’s headquarters didn’t know about the abuses down their supply chains, and they commit to take corrective measures. Other times, they deny the allegations or point to flaws in what is reported.
Another thing that may happen is that a dialogue starts between the company and the affected community that didn’t exist before. We are very glad when this happens, but again we don’t sit at the table to mediate. There are other consultants that do that kind of work, and unfortunately we don’t have the resources to take on that role.
HRAS: The Guiding Principles call for companies to undertake Human Rights Impact Assessments. How are they working out?
We think impact assessments are an important step forward, and we very much welcome them, but so far there are few examples of successful corporate human rights impact assessments. Companies are used to environmental impact assessments, the have been doing them for 20 or 30 years, but human rights impact assessments are something new.
We have some examples on our website, and in a few cases, they were conducted years after the company started operations on the ground. That defeats the purpose somewhat. The idea is to evaluate what your human rights impacts are going to be and try to mitigate against them before you start.
However, there are some good examples out there, and more and more companies are conducting them nowadays.
HRAS: Are the Human Rights Impact Assessments being taken seriously?
We need to look at that issue on a case by case basis. There are companies that are genuinely taking the issues seriously, but unfortunately there are some that look on them purely as a “greenwashing” PR exercise. They jump on the bandwagon and publish a nice looking webpage regardless of what is happening throughout their operations and supply chains.
We’ve seen both attitudes. It depends to a large extent on how seriously the CEO and the board of the company take the issues. The companies that are really doing good work are the ones where the commitment comes from the very top.
A very well-known case is the large, consumer goods company Unilever. The company is recognised as one of the best in terms of their human rights work and the way they are dealing with their impact. Their CEO Paul Polman really understands human rights – not just talks it, but understands the issues and is committed to stamping out any kind of human rights abuses from the company’s operations.
HRAS: Investors are starting to take human rights issues seriously. What do they expect?
Increasingly, investors are expecting the companies that they invest in to respect human rights and be serious about it. This is not just the case for socially responsible investors, but increasingly for mainstream investors as well.
Companies that want to access new sources of finance and those that don’t want to lose the ones they have, have to take these issues seriously. Even those that don’t take it seriously now are recognising more and more that it is increasingly a social expectation, and the consequences of ignoring human rights could be serious – for instance, there are companies facing multi-billion lawsuits over allegations of human rights abuses.
One example is the Norwegian Pension Fund – the largest pension fund in the world. It has a very strong council of ethics and the fund is rigorously disinvesting from companies that haven’t performed well on human rights issues. This is not an action coming from Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch or Greenpeace. It’s coming from a very large investor that many companies depend on.
HRAS: For now, the Guiding Principles are voluntary. How likely is it that a binding treaty will be drafted to force companies to act on human rights issues?
There is a movement, pushed mainly by civil society, calling for a binding treaty to apply to multi-national companies. They feel that the Guiding Principles, as a voluntary scheme, are not enough. They feel there are too many companies and governments getting away too lightly.
The problem with the idea of a binding treaty is that, like other treaties, it would take years, if not decades, to negotiate. Only 20 governments voted in support of the idea when it came up at the Human Rights Council last year.
So, it’s an ideal to aim for in the future, but until then we need to use the tools and resources that are available now.
HRAS: Why was the idea of a binding treaty unpopular?
Northern hemisphere countries, largely the developed world, strongly oppose the idea of a binding treaty, and without their support, it’s extremely unlikely to eventuate. These countries are home to most of the Fortune 500 companies and the largest multi-nationals in the world, and they just don’t want their companies to be subject to a binding treaty.
If you look at the countries that supported the idea of a binding treaty, they included Ecuador, Bolivia, South Africa, Zimbabwe… These are all countries from the global south. They are not home to large multi-nationals. Rather, they see northern multi-nationals come to their countries, and in some cases leave an array of abuses and environmental contamination behind. They want to hold these companies accountable at an international level.
HRAS: What avenues are available for those seeking remedies to human rights violations?
We are monitoring over 100 lawsuits from around the world – they are one way that communities can seek redress. However, lawsuits can sometimes be very expensive and very lengthy, and therefore we also monitor non-judicial mechanism that victims and communities can access.
For example, the OECD guidelines for multi-national companies have a mechanism established through a national contact point where people from any country can approach and file a complaint against a company. The contact point then looks at the merits of the case and issues a resolution.
National human rights institutions are also increasingly getting more involved in business and human rights issues as are the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation and the International Monetary Fund. They each have an internal complaints mechanism, and if a project they are helping to finance is alleged to be engaged in human rights abuses, action could be taken.
HRAS: We’re starting to hear about human rights and climate change. What is the connection and how important are the issues?
The issue of how companies contribute to climate change and what their responsibilities are beyond those of governments is going to be very relevant over the next few years.
Climate change has a very real impact on human rights. For example, some seaside communities are already losing their homes and their livelihoods, and some farmers around the world no longer have viable farms because their land has become too wet or too dry.
It remains to be seen how companies will respond to expectations in this area, but we are trying to bring pressure to bear on them. We want to bring the human rights movement and the environmental movement together – they haven’t always been aligned and talking to each other. It’s a topic to watch.
Thank-you, Mauricio. We wish you success in your endeavours at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.