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Human rights at GRI 2016 - A call for governments and business to step up action
01 June 2016
​Human rights was an important theme underpinning the 5th GRI Global Conference discussions. Dante Pesce, Chair of the UN Working Group on Business & Human Rights spoke of the importance of viewing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through a human rights lens in the second plenary of the Conference, “Forty-seven percent of the SDGs are directly related to human rights and over 80% are indirectly related. Businesses need to start approaching the SDGs with a ‘do no harm’ attitude, to minimize and/or avoid negative impacts first, before they start ticking off their achievements.”

​New collaboration to promote human rights reporting
Conference sessions covered various human rights topics such as linking policy and practice on corporate human rights reporting, the role of private sector collaboration in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, reporting on disability, and respect for land rights. A new partnership was also announced during the Conference, between GRI and the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) to enable business and government action to improve human rights around the world.

Both GRI and DIHR share the understanding that the sustainability reporting process is a critical tool for creating greater transparency around human rights issues such as gender inequality, child labor and the rights of indigenous people to the land on which they live. Going forward GRI and DIHR will develop tools and instruments to support governments in the development of National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights, while promoting human rights and sustainability reporting in the context of the SDGs. One of the desired outcomes of the partnership will also be to stimulate further transparency around government procurement practices.

“Each year, 12% of GDP in OECD member countries is spent on purchasing goods and services. This usually occurs without these public agencies holding themselves accountable for the conditions under which those products are produced. Businesses are no longer allowed to operate this way, and rightfully so. It’s time for governments to lead by example,” said GRI Deputy Chief Executive Teresa Fogelberg.
 
“We have collaborated with GRI for the past 15 years to promote human rights in the corporate sphere,” says DIHR Deputy Director, Eva Grambye. “Now we are turning to governments. They too have to realize that human rights are not a cost but an investment with high returns. Protecting and promoting human rights is both the right thing and the smart thing to do.”
 
States must play a leading role in increasing reporting on human rights
During the session ‘Corporate human rights reporting: linking policy and practice’, Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business and Human Rights Resource Center, discussed the important role states play in increasing reporting on human rights. “The most progressive governments are becoming increasingly frustrated due to the lack of transparency of the largest companies. Frustrations even occur amongst business themselves, when looking at peers in their sector. Demands for reporting on due diligence are therefore expected to significantly increase. States must come together to define standards of requirements on reporting.”

Eva Grambye, Deputy Executive Director of the Danish Institute for Human Rights gave recommendations to governments for promoting transparency:

• Clearly state expectations on reporting. Stress that reports on challenges and impacts are needed. It’s a two-way street. It’s not just about requesting data, but also using data themselves!
• Be creative about incentives. Change discourse. The "no news is good news" approach is obsolete. Instead "name and fame" companies that lead the way. Governments should also lead by example, through public procurement practices.
• Be wise on regulations. Regulation is the stick needed to get everyone on board.
 
A call for businesses to “be brave” and disclose human rights issues
Dante Pesce spoke about businesses being shy of sharing the reality. “The UNGP Working Group on Business and Human Rights encourages business to be brave and courageous to say humbly: ‘we are not perfect’ and ‘we have problems and we are working on them’. The best companies are not the ones who inherently do everything good, but the ones who are able to identify the non-good in a way that resonates with people. Based on that, you can improve your business.”
 
Ingrid Koch, COO, Vincular Center for Social Responsibility and Sustainable Development, PUCV, presented the preliminary results of GRI and Vincular’s latest research on human rights reporting. The research looked at companies in the Mining & Metals, Energy, and the Financial Services sectors, and found that 25 out of the 30 companies which were analyzed in depth, identify human rights as a material issue in some form. However, despite identifying human rights as a material issue, the research found that there are gaps in companies’ reporting on this topic related to human rights due diligence, supply chains, human rights G4 indicators (G4-HR) and grievance mechanisms, among others.
 
Human rights in focus: land tenure and local communities
Land tenure, one of the issues explored at the Conference is a growing issue for businesses, and communities. “Land is a finite resource, coveted by many and is of increasing investor interest following the 2008 financial markets crash,” explained Iris Krebber, Head of the Agriculture Policy Team and Senior Land Policy Lead, DFID, during the land tenure Conference session. “This places land at the heart of the global, regional, national, local and often inter-community and family-based resource struggle.”
 
Chloe Christman, Advisor Land Rights and Markets, Oxfam America spoke of the vulnerability of indigenous peoples. “In a study analyzing 64 countries which cover 82% of the earth’s land, local and indigenous peoples live on and rely upon approximately 65% of this land, yet they formally own just 10% of it, a number that is significantly lower in certain countries.”
 
“Companies that want to better manage their financial and reputational risk, have a longer-term investment and engagement strategy, and aim to make a profit through sustainable approaches that do no harm, are well advised to consider land tenure related risks and opportunities along their entire investment cycle.” Chloe Christman went on to urge the uptake in reporting: “We really need to get beyond pioneer companies, and get all the others to start reporting.”
 
During the session, GRI released a new publication, ‘Land Tenure Rights: The need for greater transparency among companies worldwide’. The publication is intended to help companies understand the need for enhanced transparency around land rights-related impacts and the importance of respecting the land tenure rights of local communities. It offers insights into what land rights-related sustainability information stakeholders are interested in.