Scaling up corporate efforts to ensure respect for human rights

By Julien Parkhomenko, Senior Coordinator Policy & Strategic Relations, GRI

Since its inception more than 20 years ago, GRI has been a strong and proactive supporter of human rights reporting, providing global standards that help companies be transparent about their impacts, including how they meet their responsibility to respect human rights.

Human rights permeate throughout the GRI Standards. They are addressed in the Universal Standards, which apply to all organizations that disclose their impacts through GRI. Our topic-specific Standards cover a number of human rights issues, such as child labor, forced labor, non-discrimination, and the rights of indigenous peoples.

The duty of governments to protect human rights cannot be fully realized through voluntary guidelines alone — and nor can we expect it to be achieved through self-regulation by companies. That is why we welcome that human rights due diligence is increasingly becoming a legally binding obligation in countries and regions around the world. Significantly, a new initiative from the European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, promises mandatory human rights due diligence by all companies in the EU by 2021.

Against this backdrop, and with the 10th anniversary approaching for the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, there are three key elements that must be achieved to ensure an effective scaling up of business action for human rights during the decade to come.

1. Align corporate reporting with global instruments

The accountability that results from reporting is a strong driver for companies to ensure respect for human rights and facilitate access to remedy for victims of business-related impacts. Transparency is an enabler for behavioral change and, for reporting to be effective, an alignment on comparable and internationally adopted human rights instruments is required.

GRI is currently working to update the Universal Standards and human rights-related Standards, with a three-month public comment period underway. Our review seeks to consolidate global best practice and align with key authoritative intergovernmental instruments — namely the UN Guiding Principles, OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct. What this means is that organizations that use the GRI Standards to disclose their impacts can meet their human rights-related reporting expectations under these globally applicable instruments.

2. Integrate human rights into business processes

Human rights due diligence should become integral to companies’ management system and the way they conduct business, rather than a process considered in isolation. This perspective also needs to be reflected in corporate reporting, by incorporating human rights as part of an organization’s approach to reporting. The revised GRI Universal Standards take a holistic view to due diligence, covering not only human rights but also impacts on the economy and environment. In addition, human rights considerations are included throughout the GRI Standards.

What we now need is for companies to show greater ambition and leadership to meet their responsibilities to respect human rights. That means companies must not only fulfil the expectations laid out in the global UN and OECD instruments, but also those set out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), most of which relate directly and indirectly to human rights. In fact, 92% of the 169 targets under the SDGs are linked to human rights — most notably under SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities).

3. Strengthen policy action and coherence

The UN Guiding Principles are the touchstone for any regulation designed to improve respect for human rights by businesses. Yet without accountability and effective reporting, we will fail to secure the urgent progress required. In an analysis of 23 National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights, GRI found wide divergence in how countries set out expectations and provide support for companies to manage and disclose human rights impacts.

To enhance policy coherence, states need to develop and strengthen due diligence and non-financial reporting requirements. Existing regulations incorporate a range of requirements and standards, which tend to be framed differently in scope and obligation, creating a challenging global regulatory landscape of potentially overlapping or misaligned expectations. To bring clarity and consistency, policy makers should require the use of internationally recognized, independent and multi-stakeholder developed standards, such as GRI’s.

If we are to build on the progress already achieved and increase momentum in the decade to come, we need action in support of all three of these priorities. Aligning on effective global standards that fulfill the requirements on internationally adopted instruments. Deeper integration of human rights due diligence into business operations and processes. And a smart mix of regulatory measures by governments that offer coherence and increase the uptake of reporting. Combined, these actions will strengthen corporate accountability towards respect for human rights, driving wider societal benefits for all.

GRI is the independent international organization that helps businesses and other organizations communicate and understand their sustainability impacts.

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