Geneva, 16 November 2020 – Across the world, the COVID-19 crisis has dramatically revealed our systemic vulnerabilities, exposing the fragility of human life, our economies, supply chains, social welfare systems and institutions.
The pandemic is affecting everyone, everywhere but not equally or with the same severity. Prior to the pandemic, the world was already off track to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). COVID-19 is adding challenges of unprecedented magnitude and scale. Pre-existing inequalities have been exacerbated and injustice has been propelled, affecting the most vulnerable disproportionately – in particular with regard to poverty, nutrition, access to healthcare, education and sustaining livelihoods.
Here at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) we advocate for the SDGs to remain the world’s guiding star for a sustainable and inclusive recovery from COVID-19. Furthermore, we highlight corporate respect for human rights, as laid out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), as a key vehicle through which business can help achieve the broader vision of peaceful, healthy and inclusive societies embraced by SDGs. In fact, the Goals will not be achieved without the foundation of robust human rights due diligence and principled prioritization, that is, ensuring that a company considers the opportunities it has to contribute towards the SDGs through the lens of mitigating negative impacts as well as generating positive ones.
As we head into the tenth anniversary of the UNGPs in 2021, governments around the world are working on National Action Plans to implement the UNGPs and are increasingly adopting the principles into national law. Indexes, databases and benchmarks are being developed to track the performance of companies and industries, with the latest released today by the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark. This information is being used by investors to inform decisions on capital allocation and cost. It is also making its way into mainstream media, sparking higher levels of public interest in business performance. At the same time, support for companies is more available than ever. The UNGPs are being translated into detailed tools and guidance for business, joint action platforms are emerging to tackle issues in specific industries and geographies, and large companies are sharing their expectations and expertise with partners and co-contractors along their supply chains.
Undoubtedly, this wave of information, activity and expectations is pushing corporate action on human rights beyond minimum standards, risk management and compliance, and into companies’ strategies, purpose and goals. And this action plays out against the backdrop of reflections on how best to reinvent capitalism to a system that rewards true value creation – not value extraction as today’s model does.
So what is WBCSD’s contribution to operationalizing the UNGPs and increasing the number of companies knowing and showing that they respect human rights? In a nutshell, across 2020 we brought together leading businesses and partner organizations to raise the bar through three specific activities backed by outputs:
1) Engage top executives to collectively move from aspiration and commitments to action on human rights. In late October, we published the second edition of our CEO Guide to Human Rights, which highlights the necessity to raise the bar on human rights performance, embed human rights in corporate culture, set clear expectations of suppliers and business partners and drive meaningful engagement and collaborations with peers, governments as well as civil society. This output includes a Call to Action being backed by the signatures of 56 top executives across our membership – representing companies headquartered across 23 countries, with over 4.3 million direct employees, and extensive value chains across the world.
2) Upgrade WBCSD membership conditions through a set of new criteria that include the UNGPs and the area of inclusion, equality, diversity and the elimination of any form of discrimination. The adoption of the new membership criteria at our Annual General Meeting followed several rounds of consultations over the past year with all members and the unanimous recommendation of our Executive Committee. Two out of the five new criteria have a strong linkage to the human rights agenda: member company support for the UNGPs by having in place a policy to respect human rights and a human rights due diligence process. And support for inclusion, equality, diversity and the elimination of any form of discrimination.
3) Deepen insights on human rights policy and practice across sectors and geographies. WBCSD joined forces with the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights (GBI) to support B2B peer learning on human rights risk management across operations and value chains in Brazil (in collaboration with BCSD Brazil), India and Southeast Asia. Learning and engagement opportunities were also provided through a regular series of webinars and online panel discussions across the year. Lastly, the Global Agribusiness Alliance, a sector project of WBCSD, published a toolkit focused on the agribusiness sector.
At the same time, we advocate that an essential element to successfully implement the UNGPs is decisive action by States, with National Action Plans and a smart mix of measures to accelerate change and ensure the protection and respect for human rights.
November is usually the time of the year in which Geneva hosts a few thousand representatives of government, business, human rights experts, activists and civil society organizations around the annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. Due to the ongoing challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, which guides and chairs the Forum, has decided that the 2020 edition of the Forum will be held virtually from 16 to 18 November 2020.
The theme of this year’s Forum is "Preventing business-related human rights abuses: The key to a sustainable future for people and planet". The Forum agenda seeks to reinforce the message that strengthening prevention– by learning from both good practices and from when things have gone wrong, as well as by addressing systemic gaps – can help to build a sustainable future for people and the planet.
A number of WBCSD members (Acciona, Aditya Birla, Enel, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever) will be sharing their perspectives during the 9th Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights. The WBCSD team will also engage in a number of sessions and debrief members and partners on key takeaways from the Forum later this month. In the meantime, feel free to follow the sessions online – and stay tuned for new WBCSD insights on corporate benchmarking and policy developments in the final weeks of 2020!
Filippo Veglio is Managing Director and member of the Senior Management Team at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)