Corporate respect for human rights: where are we now?

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed and exacerbated systemic weaknesses, inequalities and unacceptable practices throughout global value chains. With only ten years to go to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is clear, more than ever, that urgent change is needed if we are to realise the ambitions of the 2030 agenda.

Against this backdrop, the 2020 Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB) assesses the human rights disclosures of 229 global companies across five sectors identified as presenting a high risk of negative human rights impacts. These sectors are agricultural products, apparel, extractives, ICT manufacturing and, for the first time, automotive manufacturing. See CHRB 2020 results here

Promising progress

The results show that there has been progress on previous years. A number of companies are meeting the fundamental expectations of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), with strong commitments and rigorous procedures in place. ICT manufacturing companies, which were assessed for the second time, show signs of catching up with their peers in other sectors. However, two significant challenges have emerged.

Most companies not taking human rights seriously

The first is that only a minority of companies demonstrate the willingness and commitment to take human rights seriously. Looking at the automotive companies assessed for the first time in 2020, the results are unequivocal: with an average total score of 12%, the lowest a sector has achieved since the benchmark was first published in 2017, the industry as a whole needs to improve quickly and dramatically. Human rights due diligence, despite being so crucial for the effective management of human rights risks, remains an area of poor performance across all sectors, with nearly half of the companies assessed (46.2%) failing to score any points for this part of the assessment.

From talk to impact

The second challenge is arguably more pernicious and relates to the disconnect between commitments and processes on the one hand and actual performance and results on the other. Even for those companies with robust commitments and management systems, these do not automatically translate at a practical level, with allegations of severe human rights violations regularly raised, even against some of the highest scoring companies.

If we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we need to ensure that strong commitments and management systems deliver their intended effects. All companies need to play their role in placing people and planet above the pursuit of profit at all cost.

We need systemic change and coherent action

This involves looking at the systemic questions that underpin the challenges we face and that will be at the heart of any viable solutions. This means taking a holistic view and recognising the interdependence of social issues instead of addressing them in isolation. For example, human rights and climate change are often treated separately, when in fact climate change presents a fundamental threat to the enjoyment of human rights. Similarly, the achievement of a zero-carbon economy will only be just if it leaves no one behind. However, when we compare the results of the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark and the Climate and Energy Benchmark, which assessed the same automotive companies, we see that many of these companies perform differently on the two benchmarks and consider climate and human rights issues in siloes.

Will you join the movement?

This also means that different stakeholders need to come together to find collective solutions, otherwise we will be attempting to fix individual factories, farms and offices instead of addressing root causes. In order to foster this kind of collaboration, in 2021 the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) will launch collective impact coalitions (CICs). These CICs (pronounced ‘kicks’) will bring together the private sector, financial institutions, policy makers, civil society, academics, experts and others to work up these solutions jointly, focusing on the seven systems transformations identified by WBA. In this decade of action, we all have a role to play. Will you join the movement?

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