UN Working Group Survey of Companies Reveals Some Counterintuitive Results

The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, which was tasked by the UN Human Rights Council with promoting dissemination and implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, recently released a draft report with results from a survey of 153 companies. The survey is meant to help the UN Working Group: 1. understand progress in the dissemination of the UNGPs; 2. highlight implementation motivations and challenges; and 3. understand the support companies need to meet their responsibility to respect rights. While the survey used a snowball sampling method based on the existing networks of the business associations involved in the survey (rather than a representative sample of companies), a wide range of small and large companies from 39 countries and an array of sectors were represented.

Interestingly, some of the findings run counter to conventional wisdom about companies’ commitment to respect human rights. One often hears that many companies are unaware of the GPs, with the exception of large, brand name companies in high profile sectors, such as extractives, ICT, apparel, and food and beverage. However, the survey found that three quarters of the respondents had heard of the Guiding Principles and that three out of five have a public policy statement on human rights. This result may be linked in part to the sampling methodology – and disappointingly only a little more than half of the companies had engaged in any effort to actively respect human rights. While three quarters of respondents have dedicated corporate responsibility/sustainability departments responsible for implementation of their human rights policies, nearly one in two companies indicated that moving from policy to practice remains a challenge.

Counter to popular belief that companies require a business case to respect human rights, when asked what motivates them to address human rights, “it is the right thing to do” – an ethical justification – ranked in the top three answers. Equally as interesting, and contrary to the idea that companies only act in response to public scandals, few respondents selected a negative issue in the company’s past as a driver of behavior. Finally, contrary to the popular belief that companies shun mandatory regulation in favor of voluntary regulation, over 45% of respondents indicated that government enforcement of local laws would support their efforts to respect rights, and one out of five indicated that legally mandated human rights due diligence requirements would be of value. Four respondents even indicated they would find value in a binding international treaty.

The bottom-line is that despite methodological shortcomings this survey assists in the development of a more nuanced understanding of what motivates companies to respect human rights and what challenges they face when attempting to do so. Relying on conventional wisdom will not get us far in fostering the dissemination and implementation of the Guiding Principles.

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