Businesses, human rights
By Robert Scott:
No matter where you live, the simple act of buying a product can affect the human rights of someone you have never met.
Business activity – from producing to selling, to investing and buying – impacts the lives of billions of people worldwide.
Every day, we engage in some sort of business activity: We pay for gasoline to get to work. We send text messages on a new phone. We buy a shirt. We purchase a delicious baked good to celebrate a birthday.
Imagine that baked good is made using an ingredient produced by a company that uses child labour or forced labour. Perhaps this ingredient was planted in an area that was illegally deforested, replacing a rainforest once rich in biodiversity, including endangered animals, which previously sustained local people and helped moderate the climate.
It could be workers were forced into dangerous conditions, including being exposed to toxic chemicals that pollute local drinking water.
The workers might have laboured for long hours for little or sometimes no pay. They may have been child labourers who did not go to school or were victims of human trafficking or sexual abuse.
When communities protest the labour conditions and pollution, they are often threatened and sometimes attacked.
Scenarios like this happen every day around the world, across industries and with almost every imaginable product. They show the effect businesses can have on human rights and the environment.
Whether it is a multinational conglomerate with complex supply chains and business relationships spanning the globe or a small family-owned shop, every business has a responsibility to prevent and address human rights abuses.
The good news is that businesses have an immense capacity to positively impact society and the environment by raising local wages, improving local working conditions, building trust with local communities and operating sustainably.
But who is responsible for making sure that human rights are not overlooked by the drive for profits?
The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council 10 years ago, say the responsibility is shared.
The UNGPs created a common understanding of the positive role businesses can play in promoting respect for human rights and remedying abuses in the context of business activities.
The guidelines outline three pillars: 1) governments have a duty to protect human rights; 2) businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights; and 3) victims affected by business-related human rights issues should have access to remedy.
In response to the UNGPs, over the past decade many governments have created National Action Plans on business and human rights and adopted legislation to counter corporate abuses and enhance accountability, including the United States (US).
The Government of Malawi launched its second five-year National Action Plan on Child Labour last year.
Many businesses are strengthening corporate policies and practices on human rights and conducting due diligence to avoid directly or inadvertently supporting human rights abuses through their operations, investments, contracts or supply chains. Businesses that respect human rights have a competitive advantage by mitigating operational, legal and reputational risks. These businesses know that respecting human rights is not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do.
Companies thrive and economies prosper when businesses and governments work together to ensure strong rule of law; respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; respect for national and international labour, environmental and technical standards; good governance; and effective and accountable institutions.
The US government supports and works to advance global standards to ensure that companies – and communities – benefit from conducting business responsibly and in a rights-respecting manner.
US companies are among the global leaders in responsible business conduct based on their commitment to promoting respect for human rights, respecting the rule of law and strengthening local communities through long-term investments and human capital development.
We endeavour for American businesses to live up to expectations that associate the American brand with respect for human rights and strong governance.
We are eager to do more to improve on this record. We look forward to working with partners in Malawi as we begin to build back better from a global pandemic through equitable and sustainable development.
Companies, including US firms, should further strengthen their engagement on human rights issues and partner with governments, workers and civil society on shared solutions. The UNGPs point us in the right direction but are not sufficient alone.
The International Labour Organisation estimates 2 million Malawian children aged 5-17 years are affected by child labour.
Malawian men, women and children are trafficked to work on farms, in shops, restaurants, in homes as domestic servants and in commercial sexual exploitation.
Malawi is, however, standing up and working to combat these issues. The government launched its five-year National Action Plan against Trafficking in Persons in 2017 and its second five-year National Action Plan on Child Labour last year.
There is still more to do, and we call on the government to continue its efforts in these areas, to address the role of tenancy and exploitative labour practices in tobacco and other agricultural sectors, and to work with civil society, international partners and the Malawi Human Rights Commission to launch a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights.
We can and should note the progress made over the last 10 years under the framework set out in the UNGPs and in comparable provisions in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which were updated 10 years ago as well.
However, there is still much work to be done to foster a world in which businesses see that economic success includes respect for people and the planet.
This outcome is only possible when governments are strong partners in ensuring businesses respect human rights and comply with host government legal requirements.
The US government and US businesses are up to the task. But promoting respect for human rights is best accomplished by working with allies and partners across the globe.
The success of future efforts to advance respect for human rights by businesses in line with the UNGPs will depend on the collaboration of government, business and civil society. The US government is ready to continue to support this effort.
To demonstrate our commitment, on June 16, Secretary of State Blinken announced that the US government will soon begin the process of updating and revitalising the United States’ National Action Plan (NAP) on Responsible Business Conduct.
Let us work together to advance respect for human rights by businesses in Malawi into the next decade and beyond – because buying a birthday treat should not contribute to the abuse of someone’s human rights.
*Robert Scott is United States Ambassador to Malawi