Guest blog: How to get the attention of the board on human rights

13 February 2018

The Kingsley Napley International Conference 2018 held a panel debate on “Considering corporate liability for human rights abuses and international crimes, now and in the future.”  Read the first in our series of follow up blogs from panellist Richard Karmel.

Board members are incredibly busy people.  Approaching them to ask whether human rights can be put on the agenda for the next board meeting is likely to receive the response that “the agenda is already full with other more pressing issues such as missed sales targets, supply issues, state of play of acquisition talks, resourcing issues, financials and profitability etc.. etc…; let’s see if we can include it for the next meeting”!

The irony being, of course, that respect for human rights can positively address all of the above agenda items.

I would suggest that the problem here, is the term ‘human rights.’

It is a general and unspecific term that conjures up different meanings depending with whom you are talking.  Business doesn’t like unspecific!

A successful business requires focus so that the right skills and resources can be deployed to address the issue in hand.

Using the term human rights in a practical business context is not going to mean much to most people except those specifically working in this area.

So this is where the UN Guiding Principles, and operationally the UNGP Reporting Framework co-authored by Mazars and Shift can help.

Ensuring that a business has policies and processes in place to do no harm to people is a journey.  The UNGP Reporting Framework guides business on that journey by requiring it to address its salient issues, i.e. those human rights issues most at risk of a severe negative impact. 

In our consultations during the drafting of the UNGP Reporting Framework, it became clear that most businesses will probably have three or four salient issues, but there may be more or less.  These are the areas that those businesses have the most potential to harm people.

Since the introduction of the UNGP Reporting Framework we have seen numerous global companies begin to report on their salient issues: Ericson have three (right to privacy, right of freedom of expression, labour rights); ABN AMRO have four (privacy, discrimination, labour rights, land-related human rights);  Akzo Nobel have four (health and safety, working conditions, discrimination and harassment, under-age labour). 

What all of these companies have done is define what human rights means to them. They now have a focus.  They don’t have to mention the term human rights.  The questions they now address are, for example, how effective are our processes to ensure rights to privacy, how are we promoting a non-discriminatory culture, how are we ensuring that our supply chain have appropriate working conditions?

So when you want the attention of the Board on human rights, you don’t have to mention human rights! Define exactly what you mean.  If you now go to the board and say, for example, we have a systemic discrimination issue in one of our subsidiaries, it will be a brave board member who says that can wait until the next Board meeting!

Richard Karmel is a partner and global head of human rights at Mazars, the international auditing, tax and consulting firm.

For further information on human rights due diligence and the possible advent of a criminal offence for failing to prevent human rights abuses please see our Business and Human Rights page.

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