Politics of Poverty

Can communities and businesses limit human rights infringements by working together? Yes, here’s how

Posted by
Maria Nazarete dos Santos (41) on Constantinue island, Sirinhaém, Pernambuco. Maria - known as Nazare - had lived on the islands her entire life until she was evicted by the mill. She keeps returning to the island to continue fishing but says that representatives of the mill have set their tents on fire 3 - 4 times. Maria Nazarete’s community is conducting a Human Rights Impact Assessment using the Getting it Right tool. Tatiana Cardeal / Oxfam

Fusing community- and company-led HRIA methodologies, or conducting parallel processes, could enable companies to minimize human rights infringements experienced by local communities.

Should a human-rights impact assessment (HRIA) of a company identify risks of the company or the community? Most HRIAs are designed with one or the other in mind. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

A new Oxfam America report, Community Voice in Human Rights Impact Assessments, discusses these issues and highlights several case studies that demonstrate the lack of meaningful engagement with communities in HRIAs. More importantly, the report explains how incorporating robust community voice into HRIAs can yield positive human rights outcomes and improve a company’s bottom line.

Businesses with projects that impact vulnerable communities are starting to use HRIAs to manage risks, thanks to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. However, as businesses assess the potential impact of their projects, they often fail to meaningfully engage with the very people whose rights they are at risk of violating. Rather, they rely heavily on desk research or interview only government officials and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs). This oversight undermines the very purpose of HRIAs. While governments and international INGOs offer unique perspectives, they are not substitutes for strong community engagement.

Community-led HRIAs, not surprisingly, have a better sense of the impact business investments are having on them. Getting It Right, a community-led HRIA tool created by Canadian non-profit Rights & Democracy and promoted by Oxfam America, considers a community’s human rights concerns first, rather than starting from the company’s perspective. Using this tool, communities can shape a project, mitigate impacts, and outline remedies. But even then, community-led HRIAs have no binding authority and companies can accept or reject findings as they see fit.

Community Voice in Human Rights Impact Assessments suggests a third way may be possible: HRIAs conducted in a jointly managed process or, alternatively, in parallel processes with companies and communities informing one another of their HRIAs. Though implementation challenges remain, fusing community- and company-led HRIA methodologies or conducting parallel processes could enable companies to minimize human rights infringements experienced by local communities, while internalizing the lessons into their organization for use in future operations.

We are realists, just the same. So, even if companies take up a hybrid approach, there will always be projects where those companies refuse to engage communities, acknowledge their impacts, or properly address them. In such instances, the Getting It Right tool will continue to serve communities in their quest for human rights realization.

Oxfam.org Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+