In 2011, after extensive consultation with the private sector and civil society, members of the United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed the landmark UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Prepared under the stewardship of Prof. John Ruggie of Harvard’s Kennedy School, who served as a UN special representative on the issue, the Guiding Principles established a framework under which states are obligated to protect human rights in their territories, while businesses, both foreign and domestic, are responsible for respecting these rights throughout their operations. The principles also propose a framework for greater access to human rights victims to effective remedy.
Three years on, how are global companies implementing the responsibility to respect human rights in their activities? This was the focus of USCIB’s latest annual forum on business and human rights, held September 18 at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. Organized with the International Organization of Employers (IOE) and the US. Chamber of Commerce, with support from The Coca-Cola Company, the day-long forum drew well over 100 company executives, including Coca-Cola bottlers from around the world, along with select public-sector and NGO representatives.
“This event underscored the strong commitment and ingenuity that leading American and global businesses bring to addressing the human rights impacts of their operations,” said Ariel Meyerstein, USCIB’s vice president for labor affairs and corporate responsibility. “We heard example after example of companies putting their values into practice, on the ground and throughout their operations, to uphold human rights. We also learned about the many challenges they are facing in implementing the UN Guiding Principles throughout their sometimes complex global supply chains.”
The forum included a frank and open discussion on the importance of addressing challenges related to integrating respect for human rights in business. It provided a unique opportunity for participants to engage with business leaders and other experts in this emerging field. “We are confident that participants left with a better understanding of how to integrate human rights as part of their overall corporate responsibility to respect human rights,” said Ed Potter, Coca-Cola’s director of global workplace rights.
“Companies are increasingly aware of the growing stake they have in creating better societies,” said Brent Wilton, the IOE’s secretary general. “The strong participation in this forum has also demonstrated their firm commitment to do so.”
Speakers at the event included former U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, who currently sits on the board of the Coca-Cola Company, IOE Secretary General Brent Wilton and Ed Potter, director of global workplace rights at Coca-Cola and chair of USCIB’s Labor and Employment Policy Committee. Company presentations came from representatives of ABB, ExxonMobil, GE, Hewlett-Packard, Hess Corp., Disney, Nestle and Shell.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights established a framework under which governments are obligated to protect human rights, and corporations have responsibilities to respect them. As part of implementing the Guiding Principles, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has strongly encouraged all states to develop a National Action Plan (NAP) on responsible business conduct. Such action plans would make it easier for global businesses to comply with the Guiding Principles throughout their operations.
Last week President Obama announced that the U.S. would develop a NAP, joining the other five countries that have already developed NAPs: the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark and Spain. The White House recently released a Fact Sheet outlining the Obama administration’s global anticorruption agenda, which includes the creation of a National Action Plan:
“The U.S. Government works closely with U.S. businesses to ensure that private actors maintain their international brand as transparent and accountable partners. The United States will develop a National Action Plan to promote and incentivize responsible business conduct, including with respect to transparency and anticorruption, consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises.”
USCIB is an essential stakeholder as the United States begins designing its National Action Plan in a process that will be open and consultative.
“Obama’s announcement not only reinforces the United States’ position as a global leader on human rights, but also demonstrates its firm commitment to the UN Guiding Principles as the best way to achieve progress on this issue,” said Ariel Meyerstein, USCIB’s vice president for labor affairs and corporate responsibility.
Meyerstein noted further that the U.S. government is far ahead of most in terms of its encouragement of responsible business conduct among U.S. businesses, so the National Action Plan will likely be an exercise in greater harmonization of existing policies across government agencies. “Hopefully other countries will follow the U.S.’s example, which will only make it easier for U.S. companies to act responsibly, particularly in foreign markets,” he said.
Staff contact: Ariel Meyerstein