Politics of Poverty

Protecting human rights: clear guidance is a piece of the puzzle

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Companies often don't share information with local people about the risks their operations pose to lives and livelihoods. Andrew Bogrand/Oxfam

Oxfam is helping companies understand what human rights due diligence really means.

"We have never had a dialogue with the company about the oil project. We did not have any training, and they never informed us of the risks of contamination.” — a fish merchant affected by oil spills in Peru

Across the globe, communities devastated by industrial accidents and corporate bad practices are asking why. Why weren’t they consulted about dangerous projects, and informed of the risks before it was too late? Why do companies avoid discussions with communities and then plead ignorance about the human and environmental costs of their projects?

There is another big question to be asking: why aren’t companies abiding by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP)?

Same as it ever was

In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the UNGP, which spell out governments’ obligation to protect their citizens, companies’ responsibility to respect human rights, and communities’ rights to remedies to violations.

With the adoption of this framework, many actors, including civil society organizations, thought companies would step up their games in terms of human rights and environmental responsibility. But more than ten years later, only a tiny percentage of businesses are revealing to communities the risks their projects may incur, and even fewer are taking action to remediate the damage they’re responsible for. The large majority are still relying on “social audits” and other weak processes that have proven ineffective in preventing human rights violations.

Which means that despite the UN framework, which was adopted unanimously, multinational corporations are continuing to launch large-scale mining and drilling projects without consulting local communities. They are purchasing cacao grown using child labor, and selling seafood that has been caught using forced labor.

Providing guidance on the guidance

Some companies are resistant to engaging on these issues, but others are searching for a better way forward. They are interested in conducting what’s known as “human rights due diligence” (HRDD) but can’t tell from the UNGP what it entails. Many are seeking advice, which is why Oxfam has developed a series of short guidance documents to support companies as they embark on their HRDD journey.

The first of the series is “Human Rights Due Diligence: An Overview,” an Issue Brief that clarifies how companies are expected to identify, prevent, mitigate, track, and communicate about human rights risks and impacts. It defines key concepts like “meaningful engagement,” and explains the importance of a human rights impact assessment.

Other Brief topics will include detailed guidance on how to conduct a human rights impact assessment—including the key ingredients that must be present to ensure it is a robust exercise—and a deep dive into what constitutes meaningful rights-holder engagement.

It’s a win-win

Many companies fear that conducting and communicating publicly about HRDD will increase their legal liability. Oxfam believes the contrary.

HRDD can insulate companies from legal liability,” says Oxfam legal adviser Diana Kearney. “In fact, we are not aware of any lawsuits ignited by HRDD disclosures.”

Engaging in robust HRDD has the potential to change the game—to both prevent human rights abuses and reduce the risks of conflict. We hope that with clear guidance in hand, companies will better align their practices with good principles to the benefit of the communities where they operate. We are convinced that in the process they will benefit themselves.

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