Politics of Poverty

Dear UN: Ten years later… it’s time to engage

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Rice fields belonging to local hill tribes in Sapa, Vietnam. It's essential for companies to engage rights-holders at all stages of the global supply chain, and to safeguard their human rights. Photo: UN Photo/Kibae Park

As the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights begins in Geneva this week, we’re asking: Will businesses and governments come up with a solid roadmap to ensure meaningful engagement of rights-holders in all HRDD processes?


This is the second in a series of blogs about the forum that exposes the role of corporations in global economics and society, and demands better.


As we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the unanimous adoption of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), we must recognize that the picture is not as bright as we had once hoped. (For more, see Oxfam’s submission to the UN Working Group (UNWG).)

In one area progress has been made: the recognition by a range of prominent businesses that human rights in their supply chains are really their responsibility. But when we zoom in, what can we say?

On the bright side, an increasing number of companies are making commitments to the UNGPs and adopting human rights policies; several companies are now carrying out human rights impact assessments (HRIAs). The need for a stronger framework regulating human rights due diligence (HRDD) has come on the radar for governments in many parts of the world, including the European Union and the United States.

But, if we’re honest, none of this means much if the people who are actually impacted are not properly involved. Decent and meaningful engagement of people impacted by business actions (known as “rights-holders” as opposed to “stakeholders” as generally used by companies) is essential if we hope to actually shift business behavior.

Fortunately, the UNWG has recognized this, and is making this a central topic for the 10th Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights.

We could not agree more.

Engaging rights-holders is the starting point

The UNGPs make it clear that for companies to meet their responsibility to respect human rights, they should have in place HRDD processes to identify, prevent, and mitigate abuses of human rights, and account for how they address their impacts on human rights. The principles also clearly affirm the need to engage meaningfully with the people most affected.

For decades, communities all around the world have been mobilizing and demanding more respect for their rights in the face of major investment projects. The UNGPs gave us hope that companies would step up and address this power imbalance.

But, a decade later, it’s tragic to see women and men still left out of discussions around projects that will likely change their lives for good. Indigenous peoples are still seeing their rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) violated in the context of large-scale investment projects; there has been a rise in human rights violations in some key industries (such as renewable energy); and, in many countries, human rights defenders have been threatened and harmed.

So what’s missing?

For the last decade, Oxfam has promoted community-based human rights impact assessment (COBHRAs) as a powerful tool to address the power imbalance between rights-holders, governments and companies. Putting communities at the center of the process, COBHRAs seek to ensure women and men affected by the project have a voice in the discussions that concern their lives.

Oxfam has supported various community-based organizations during the implementation of COBHRAs in different industrial sectors and in many parts of the world, always ensuring that the groups were in the driver’s seat.

And what have we learned?

We learned that there are specific ingredients to ensuring meaningful engagement:

  • Start early and be ongoing: Engagement is not a box to check. It is a process that must be built with the people that will be affected by the project. The engagement must start when the company starts thinking about its HRDD approach. Rights-holders must contribute from the identification of the issues up to the identification of the solutions.
  • Go beyond the usual suspects: It's not enough to meet with workers who are supporting the company, or vice-versa. Engagement must include people holding divergent views and must enable the participation of women and gender-diverse peoples as well as most vulnerable groups.
  • Create a safe space: How interviews and consultations are conducted is key. People must feel safe to discuss sensitive issues, and must be able to engage with people they trust. It’s helpful to work with local partners who know the community well, and can advise on how to organize the consultations.
  • Make it a two-way process: To be able to participate and contribute actively, people must be aware of what is at stake. The engagement is not about extracting data or information. It’s about sharing information about the plans and the project, listening to what people have to say, and clarifying how the information will be used. Therefore, any consultation must be preceded by capacity building and information sharing. And there should be a commitment to monitoring the effectiveness of the proposed measures.

After ten years of trying, it’s time to get real and see strong commitments from companies and governments. We need more investors and companies calling for meaningful engagement as a central aspect of mandatory HRDD.

As the forum begins, we’re asking: Will businesses and governments make this necessary step and come up with a solid roadmap to ensure meaningful engagement of rights-holders in all HRDD processes?

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