U.S. Government Releases First National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct

On Friday, the U.S. government released its first National Action Plan (NAP) on Responsible Business Conduct. The NAP is the culmination of a two year process launched by President Obama in 2014 to create a plan consistent with the U.S. commitment to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Over that time period, four stakeholder consultations were conducted across the country and numerous written submissions received. The U.S. now joins the ranks of eleven other countries that have completed NAPs on business and human rights, with the UK being the first to publish one in 2013.

With the National Security Council at the helm, the NAP was developed through the interagency process. The NAP provides a very positive perspective of U.S. companies’ leadership role around the world in following the rule of law, upholding human rights, and strengthening the communities in which they operate. It builds on the idea that “businesses can perform well while doing good and that governments should facilitate the conditions for RBC [responsible business conduct] to take place.”

The NAP contains a comprehensive (although not exhaustive) list of various ongoing and new initiatives that reflect the U.S. government’s commitment to fostering responsible business conduct, with the preponderance of the list focused to ongoing efforts. The initiatives are broken down into five categories that evidence or establish efforts to lead by example, collaborate in multi-stakeholder initiatives, facilitate responsible conduct, recognize positive performance, and provide access to remedy. A number of new action items stand out, although details are sparse. For example, readers of this blog that operate in complex environments may be interested in learning that there will be enhanced enforcement of U.S. laws related to forced labor, new research and tools on preventing trafficking in supply chains, a number of efforts related to responsible land use and reducing land conflict, greater stakeholder engagement in the extractives industry in East Africa, as well as efforts to promote corporate reporting and to consult with stakeholders on improving access to remedy, among other things.

Readers of the NAP should not expect to find: a critical assessment of the effectiveness of existing U.S. laws and regulations, multi-stakeholder initiatives, and various other efforts to promote responsible business conduct; a stock-taking of the greatest human rights challenges faced by U.S. companies in various sectors operating domestically and abroad; an appraisal of the success with which those challenges are identified and addressed and victims of abuses provided access to redress; or benchmarks against which to measure implementation, progress, and accountability to the ongoing and new initiatives identified. Despite recommendations by the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) and other civil society organizations and academics, the NAP process did not begin with a comprehensive National Baseline Assessment. (See here for a “shadow” National Baseline Assessment.)

That being said, the NAP does set the stage for continued advancement of responsible conduct by U.S. companies as they operate here and around the world. It enables businesses and civil society to hold the U.S. government to its commitments and provides some interesting new avenues for collaboration. Although a detailed road map is not laid out, stakeholders are encouraged to continue to provide feedback and suggestions to the Department of State via a dedicated NAP email. Ongoing engagement will be important as a new administration enters office, which as of now has not made commitments to protecting human rights from infringement by economic actors and has promised to engage in extensive deregulation.

Analyses and reactions from various stakeholders to the NAP will be appearing in the coming days and weeks, and can be found on ICAR’s dedicated U.S. NAP webpage. For those readers located in the Washington, D.C. area who are interested in hearing U.S. government and other stakeholders’ perspectives on the NAP and its development process, an event – The U.S. National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct: Reflections on the Way Here and the Road Ahead – will be held at the American University Washington College of Law on January 12 from 9am-12pm. The event is free and open to the public, although registration is required.

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