Human Rights and Business: From Policies to Action


I had the pleasure to participate in a major human rights conference in Amsterdam last week, on 11 May, 2016. The Conference on Business and Human Rights, organised by the Dutch MVO Platform, the ECCJ, ENNHRI and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, discussed how the European Union could realize its potential to be an international game-changer when it comes to business and human rights. With its diverse agenda, the conference offered an excellent opportunity to get an update on business and human rights issues on the European political agenda.

Companies’ role was discussed in many panels and sessions, like the one about UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework. According to Sofie Nyström, Sustainability business expert at H&M, the framework has proved to be very useful for H&M, and would probably be the same for many other companies. H&M has utilized it, among others, as a benchmark tool for a gap analysis, and for identifying the most salient human rights issues for H&M. For this garment multinational, they are: forced labour, child labour, living wage, and health and safety.

The Dutch Agreement on Sustainable Garment and Textile, a recent covenant between a coalition of industry organisations, trade unions, civil-society organisations and the Dutch government, was another topical example of concrete achievements in advancing human rights in business. According to Gerard Oonk, Director of the India Committee of the Netherlands and one of the members of the working group drafting the agreement, called it an example of “what can be expected from companies and what is the governments’ role” in the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles. This agreement is not a blueprint, and not at all final, Mr Oonk said, but could serve as a model for a multistakeholder process to prioritize the actions to implement responsible business conduct in textile and garment industry – and other industries, as well.

The agreement comes into force only if at least 35 companies in the sector, who together represent at least 30 percent of sales in the Netherlands, will sign it before June 2016. Only then, the parties to the agreement will also sign it. Further, funding of the agreement should be secured latest in June.

When companies start moving from words to action in their human rights policies, and make progress, they will have the pleasure to communicate the positive impacts to their stakeholders. Sofar, human rights reporting has been the weakest part of companies’ sustainability reporting, claimed Caroline Rees, the president of Shift, in her presentation in the human rights reporting session. Companies have very much concentrated on philanthropy, not issues which are directly linked with their business actions, Ms Rees said.

Caroline Rees reminded that companies should not be praised that much for what they do with the money they have earned but for how they have earned that money. For me, this reminder was one of the highlights in the conference, and something I will take to my clients. That is: corporate philanthropy might turn to fine actions but it must not be associated with responsible business conduct. It might mean good corporate citizenship which, in turn, can be an important addition to the company’s corporate responsibility programme but may not be used to replace it.