Human Rights Impact Assessments – a critical tool for gauging human rights risk

HRIA 28 AUGSince the endorsement of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UN GPs) in 2011, corporations have increasingly embraced the UN GPs to include the responsibility to “identify and assess any actual or potential adverse human rights impacts with which they may be involved either through their own activities or as a result of their business relationships” (Guiding Principle 18).

Principle 18 of the UN Guiding Principles further states that in order to gauge human rights risks, this human rights due diligence process should:

“(a) Draw on internal and/or independent external human rights expertise;

(b) Involve meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups and other relevant stakeholders, as appropriate to the size of the business enterprise                and the nature and context of the operation.”

This is especially critical for businesses operating in environments with weak or low levels of governance, diminished rule of law, and historically inadequate access to remedies for rights-holders experiencing adverse human rights impacts. A human rights risk assessment process in alignment with the UN GPs is of particular relevance to the extractives and private security sectors where engagement with the local population is the norm rather than the exception.

But how do companies, particularly within these industries and in these types of operating environments, “identify and assess” the potential and actual human rights impacts of their projects as called for in the UN GPs? To meet these responsibilities companies typically conduct Human Rights Impact Assessments (HRIAs) as part of their human rights due diligence process, and as a means to demonstrably “know and show” how their policies and procedures respect human rights. HRIAs should be an integral and on-going component of their business operations.

A HRIA, if properly conducted, allows a company to know definitively if, and how, their project impacts human rights, both positively and adversely. The HRIA methodology involves several distinct, but linked, iterative data-gathering and analytical phases, to include substantial and meaningful engagement with local rights-holders. Project supply chain and subcontractor relationships also must be considered, as well as project and community touch points, to include with NGOs and local government and security forces. All factors are assessed from the contextual aspects of the local environment and the project activity itself. The HRIA differs from Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (though can leverage data from these sources) and has a specific scope to identify and assess human rights risks posed by the project from the perspective of internationally recognized human rights norms.

Confirmed human rights impacts that are identified from the HRIA process are used to adjust or modify a project’s operating procedures to eliminate any adverse impacts to rights-holders. Additionally, a successful community engagement process also facilitates the building of trust and communication between the local community and the business project and lays the groundwork for future feedback – a key element for the establishment of grievance mechanisms for the community to utilize in any future instances of real or perceived adverse human rights impact.

Identifying and addressing human rights impacts is not only the right thing to do; it is the business smart thing to do. Failure to manage risk, including human rights risks, can be costly to a company, potentially resulting in disruption of commercial operations, reputational damage, and legal liability – and ultimately the loss of a company’s social license to operate.

Human Analytics provides the needed external human rights expertise and offers customized and cost effective solutions to our clients seeking to manage the risks of operating in complex environments. Working in close partnership with our clients, we bring our team’s expertise and experience to bear to ensure that we develop solutions that fit our clients’ needs, are appropriate to the size of their enterprise, are fitting to the nature and context of their operations, and evolve with changes in the operating environment.