Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Trust but verify: Companies assessing their own impacts on human rights?

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Oxfam’s experience supporting communities to conduct human rights impact assessments

Gabrielle Watson is the Manager of Policy Advocacy Evaluation at Oxfam America.

First came Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) in the project assessment world to determine the affects of business investments, infrastructure projects, governmental policies, or trade agreements on our environment.

Wait, then people realized—it’s not just the environment that’s affected, so are people. So then we had Social Impact Assessments (SIA).

The new wave of impact assessments focuses on human rights. But here’s the catch. These are starting to be conducted by the private sector. After a seven-year consultative process, led by Harvard Professor John Ruggie, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011. Now companies are starting to step up to the plate, embracing the new concept of “human rights due diligence.”

This is a real step forward. But it’s still early days, and it’s best to be cautious.

Ruggie’s framework of “Protect, Respect and Remedy” is pretty straightforward. It’s a basic “do no harm” principle. Governments have a duty to protect their citizens’ human rights. Companies have a responsibility to respect human rights too. You know, no torture, no forced evictions, no slave or child labor, and so on.

The third pillar, remedy, is a bit trickier. There are still few mechanisms to make sure companies do the right thing. For environmental impacts, we have conditionalities on financing, permitting processes with periodic reviews, etc. But not so for human rights, or at least, oversight is thin. Mostly what we have are ‘watchdog’ groups that raise an alarm when things go really wrong. Sometimes there are formal efforts to address egregious issues, like the work of human rights commissions, the International Finance Corporation complaint mechanism, and so on.

Wouldn’t it be better if human rights were taken seriously from the start? And private investments were designed to avoid harm and maybe even enhance human rights? Most companies would probably agree that’s what they’d like too.

Getting It Right

But until then, investments in community-driven mechanisms to monitor and assess human rights are a needed counter-balance. Oxfam has used a community-based Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) tool, Getting it Right, to help communities and their support organizations bring hard evidence to bear when companies have ignored human rights concerns.

The tool was first tested in the Philippines, Tibet, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Argentina and Peru, and then improved. In 2010 and 2011, Oxfam supported local partner organizations to conduct community-based HRIAs with tobacco farmworkers in North Carolina and with mining-affected communities in Bolivia. In our experience, community-based HRIAs have: (1) built human rights awareness among community members, (2) helped initiate constructive engagement when companies have previously ignored community concerns, and (3) led to concrete actions by companies to address concerns.

Oxfam welcomes companies’ initiative to conduct HRIAs. But we believe communities still need to do HRIAs along side them, independently. Not only will this provide an evidence-base for assessing the quality of company-led HRIAs, but it can enhance the dialogue between companies and affected communities. Getting it Right is one such tool. In fact it is the only HRIA tool specifically designed to be done by, with, and about communities themselves.

“Trust but verify” should be the watch-word on company-led HRIAs until we see whether companies actually take human rights seriously.

For further reading:

Oxfam’s experience supporting community-based HRIAs is featured in the new special edition of the Journal of Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, focused on Human Rights Impact Assessment. Guest editors Deanna Kemp and Frank Vanclay gather an impressive array of articles to explore different dimensions of this emergent field, put HRIAs in historical context, and set out some of the challenges ahead.