‘Companies have a responsibility towards upholding human rights’
June 02 2013 02:21 AM
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On the sidelines of CSR summit in Doha, Rubina Singh speaks

to Christopher Avery, Director of Business & Human Rights

Resource Centre, on how businesses and human rights go

hand in hand in the world we live in today

 

Gone are the days when human rights were considered an abstract notion. In the global environment existing today, human rights present real management issues for companies and societies.

A marriage between business and human rights is not just important but indispensible. Human rights are based on the inherent dignity of every person; they are those basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled.

Corporate institutions are as much a part of society as any other and hence have a share of the responsibility. However, in some parts of the world, there is less pressure on corporations towards accountability. Take the recent tragedy in Bangladesh for example.  Over 1,000 workers died when the Rana Plaza clothing factory building collapsed.  

Responsibility for such a disaster cannot be placed on the shoulders of only one institution, as we live in a world where everything and everyone is inter-related and inter-connected.  Some firms are realising that they have not only a responsibility but also the power to use their leverage to help ensure that such incidents do not happen. Closer home, the fire in the Villaggio Mall, in which 13 children and six adults died an avoidable death, is a case to mention here – in the future such a tragedy can be prevented if the right steps are taken.

With Qatar winning the FIFA bid, human rights is certainly a subject that will be crucial for the country’s international image and prestige, and one that the world is and will be watching closely.

The fourth Conference on Corporate Social Responsibility held in Doha last week explored, among other themes, the importance of upholding human rights in the business world. Some business leaders maintain that their sole responsibility is to be profitable. Is that perspective becoming outdated, and does it put a company at risk of becoming involved in human rights abuses and therefore damaging its reputation?

Rubina Singh speaks to Christopher Avery, Director of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, to explore how a working relationship between business and human rights can be achieved.

Excerpts …

 

How can your organisation support the cause of promoting responsibility towards human rights in the business world?

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre looks at all types of business operations, from large companies to vendors and their subcontractors, from the perspective of preventing harm to people.  This includes many areas, among them: workplace discrimination; companies’ operations in or connections to conflict zones; and HSE (health, safety & environment) in relation to employees, customers and nearby communities.

For instance, one of our recent Weekly Updates mentioned an incident in February when an upscale floating restaurant sank in the Tigris River in Iraq. About 150 people were attending a private party hosted by Caterpillar Inc in the restaurant that had a maximum capacity of 100 people.  

At least five people died in the accident. The restaurant is part of the Lebanese Family Club, which opened two years ago.  Our Weekly Update stated that “Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited Lebanese Family Club to respond but it did not.” We invite companies to respond when concerns are raised about their conduct — and to date over 70% have responded.  

Recent cases in which Middle East firms have responded include: Middle East Airlines, regarding concerns raised about risks to passengers posed by its continued flights over Syria; and Century Miracle Apparel, a Jordanian clothing manufacturer, regarding protests by its Burmese workers who demanded better working conditions, better pay, and an end to alleged discrimination based on racial background — in its response the firm referred to a new salary increment scheme.

Our website, and our weekly newsletter which reaches thousands of people from all over the world, send a strong message about the importance of looking differently at the safety of employees, as well as visitors and users. This can be applied to residential compounds as well as malls, schools, nurseries, roads, factories, restaurants, clubs, cars and any product or service.

 

How can businesses play an important role in upholding human rights and why is their contribution crucial to a progressive country? Is it honestly possible for businesses to shrug off responsibility towards upholding human rights on the basis of their agenda being profitability and not social service?

Companies can have an impact on many human rights, directly and also through their supply chains and investments.  Companies, by virtue of being a major part of a society have a responsibility towards upholding human rights, one that is recognised in international standards.

In a case like the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory, a range of actors share responsibility. They include the local and national government, the managers of the factory building, and also the international apparel brands that were sourcing from the factory.  Companies with international operations and supply chains are coming under increasing scrutiny.  

Many companies already address some human rights issues in a positive way, through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. This may be in areas such as women’s empowerment, workplace safety management, promoting health or education for children, or managing impact on local communities in the case of mining projects or construction. Or it could involve taking steps to prevent pollution — averting accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which affected the health and livelihoods of people living nearby. All of those are human rights issues.  

But why take a human rights approach to these issues?  

First and foremost the responsibility of business to respect human rights is grounded in international standards.  In 2011, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were endorsed by consensus by the governments on the UN Human Rights Council at the time, which from the Middle East included Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  The Principles are based on a framework with three pillars: the “State Duty to Protect” human rights; the “Corporate Responsibility to Respect” human rights; and “Access to Remedy” for those who have suffered from abuses.  

Also, human rights cover a broad spectrum of issues. They enable companies to manage the way in which they affect society throughout their operations, and any risks that might arise.

 

What other kinds of standards exist for businesses in the context of human rights?

There are many. An increasing number of companies, including in the Gulf region, have committed to the 10 principles of the UN Global Compact. Two of those Principles are specifically about human rights.  The recently launched ISO 26000 standard has human rights as one of its “core subjects”.  And the performance standards of the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank Group) also refer to human rights.

There is also guidance in particular areas of human rights management.  Among the many examples are guidance on the responsible sourcing of precious metals by Dubai Multi-Commodities Centre; the “Children’s Rights and Business Principles” jointly developed by UN Global Compact, Unicef and Save the Children; and the “Dhaka Principles for Migration with Dignity,” developed by the Institute for Human Rights and Business.

 

What kinds of steps are companies taking and can take?

The usual first and primary step is for companies to adopt a human rights policy statement. Firms as diverse as adidas, Commercial International Bank, Kumba Iron Ore, Marriott, Shell and Vale have human rights policies which serve as a basic guideline under which to operate.

Next comes due diligence, when a firm looks at all the human rights issues and risks throughout its operations and decides how to manage them.

That is followed by practical implementation, tracking progress, and reporting. Some firms also report specifically on their implementation of the UN Guiding Principles, for example, Microsoft published an article on this last year.

 

What does this mean for Qatari businesses?

The business world is global.  Commitments to human rights help companies to demonstrate that they are operating at global standards. Many Qatari companies are expanding their international presence and/or recruiting an international workforce – firms like Muntajat and Tasweeq are gaining an international reputation. A human rights framework helps global companies to ensure that their workforce is treated well, and that their supply chain is compliant with international standards.

 

How can your organisation – the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre – help?

We are an independent, non-profit information hub founded in 2002.  We have a presence in many regions.  Companies can use our website to find examples of steps other firms are taking, and guidance materials such as those described earlier. We are working towards making as much of the guidance material as possible available in Arabic.  

Companies can also publish their responses to any concerns that might be raised about their conduct on our site.  We welcome readers’ suggestions of news and case studies for highlighting and dissemination.

 

Does the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre have a base here in Qatar?

The Centre does not have an office in Qatar, but we have two Middle East Representatives, based in Beirut and Amman.  They work to cover the region, including the Gulf countries.  More information on the subject is available through: www.business-humanrights.org

Christopher Avery, Director, based in London: [email protected]  

Rania Fazah, Middle East & Gulf Region Researcher & Representative, based in Beirut: [email protected]

SUNDAY CONVERSATION

The Arab Human Rights Fund

The Arab Human Rights Fund was part of a panel discussion during the fourth Qatar Corporate Social Responsibility conference held on the 28th and 29th of May in Doha. The summit provided a rare platform for CSR professionals to discuss the role of corporate social responsibility in building business sustainability and how CSR professionals can implement these roles into their own organisations.  

During the Fund’s panel on Labour Rights and Business, Dr Elie Abouaoun, the Fund’s Executive Director discussed the general scene within the region, the effect on a company’s sustainability of ensuring that the labourers’ rights are respected, and how this will eventually lead to increasing employee productivity, loyalty and increasing their turnover.

He is a senior trainer and consultant with several local, regional and international organisations on topics such as human rights, programme development/management, displacement and relief, capacity development, Euro Mediterranean co-operation; and is a member of the pool of trainers of the Council of Europe since 2000. In 2001, he was appointed a member of the Reference Group established by the Directorate of Education-Council of Europe to supervise the drafting of COMPASS, a manual for human rights education.

He further supervised the adaptation and the translation of COMPASS into Arabic and its subsequent diffusion in the Arab region in 2003. Dr Elie regularly writes articles for the French speaking Lebanese daily newspaper L’Orient le Jour. He is also a visiting lecturer at Notre Dame University Lebanon (teaching civil society networking and advocacy), and at Saint Joseph University Lebanon (teaching human rights and citizenship).

The Arab Human Rights Fund is a not-for-profit philanthropic organisation that provides support for the promotion and realisation of all human rights in the Arab region. The Fund has two main programmes, the Grant-making Programme, and the BCHR Programme (Building Constituency of Human Rights) Dr Elie explained at the conference.

Through its Grant-making programme, the Fund aims at providing long-term, sustainable support to the region’s human rights actors while simultaneously pursuing thoughtful, timely interventions to meet emerging needs on the ground. While the BCHR works at enhancing the sustainable indigenous funding to support human rights initiatives in the region. This newly established programme also focuses on nurturing social justice philanthropy from within the Arab region.

 

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