Friday, 20 July 2018

Has 'Business & Human Rights' lost its way?

Does 'business and human rights' risk becoming about everything, and so nothing?

What comprises the BHR 'field' is not neat and defined. It is evolving, as is the multi-faceted (but still gap-riddled) regulatory 'ecosystem' that governs business-human rights responsibility and remedy.

This lack of neatness, this open-endedness, is on one view both inevitable and desirable. We should not and probably cannot seek to be prescriptive about what 'counts' as a BHR issue.

Yet the question arises whether we should be a bit more strategic about what is likely to gain traction as a BHR issue, and about how widely we frame BHR, and about what we think corporations and other enterprises really have a meaningful responsibility for.

This post is prompted by a claim this week (here), related to litigation to this effect, that Unilever is somehow responsible for remedying the terrible human suffering of former employees resulting from post-election ethno-political violence in Kenya on the basis that some of the victims of this very complex, nation-wide violence were Unilever employees.

If by 'remedy' in BHR we really mean situations such as this, arguably BHR advocacy is over-reaching. If a demonstrably progressive firm like Unilever is accused of merely 'illusory' support for the UN Guiding Principles, how are we to foster meaningful engagement with other firms?

There are serious questions to be asked about how subsidiary corporate structures hamper access to forums for seeking effective remedy. Still, the underlying claim (that Unilever is responsible for compensating employee victims of violence that shook a whole country) has little basis in tort law, let alone human rights law. Championing this sort of speculative litigation (of all the BHR issues one could profile) shows a mindset that thinks the BHR phenomenon is far better established, far-reaching and powerful than it is. Ambition is fine; over-reach can just expose how under-developed things really are.

Just how useful and effective is the 'human rights' paradigm / lexicon in shifting business (and state) behaviour around social impact? However tempting it is to invoke it in support of all manner of worthy societal campaigns, is it really that effective?

BHR is about the many things potentially involved in preventing, minimising and remedying business-related human rights abuses (as well as encouraging and appropriately enrolling business in positive efforts at greater rights fulfilment and enjoyment). A central challenge in all this is to engage the attention of business and finance sector actors, informing and advising as well as accusing and chastising.

BHR is not just about the UN Guiding Principles or a narrow legalistic framing around the jurisprudence of international human rights law. Yet if websites or email updates on BHR become about listing all sorts of things that happen to involve companies, we have lost some powerful opportunity.

If BHR becomes about pretty much everything -- precarious work contract patterns; climate change and its governance; tax evasion and avoidance; corruption; mass political violence in east Africa -- it risks undermining itself. It risks alienating or confusing business audiences -- or being dismissed by them. It risks losing a vital connection with a credible, universal set of normative guarantees (human rights).

A related challenge is to remember that while BHR is somewhat in fashion in the field of human rights, it is still (tiringly and never-endingly) the state which must answer for the vast majority of human rights problems.


See an earlier articulation of some of the possible coherence challenges of the BHR field (2015, pp 6-7), here. See also this sceptical blog-post on linking the BHR phenomenon to climate change activism, here.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Compliance risk in 'modern slavery' reporting

The 'business and human rights' phenomenon is about much more than just 'modern slavery' in corporate supply chains.

The potential for modern slavery practices to 'taint' the supply chains of formal, regular business is one form of 'business and human rights' problem.

This post makes a brief point about a form of 'compliance risk' that may not be fully appreciated as we move, in Australia, into the process of legislative enactment and implementation of reporting requirements for larger firms around the risks of modern slavery within their operations or supply chains.

By 'compliance risk' I do not mean familiar ideas such as the reputational, regulatory, legal or other risks possibly associated with non-reporting, poor or inadequate reporting, misleading or deceptive reporting (e.g. relative to internal processes of due diligence on the reportable risk).

I mean a risk that might emerge even if a firm has very commendable due diligence and reporting practices relating to the potential for modern slavery in its business and business relationships.

The 'compliance risk' I mean is a form of unintended blindness to human rights risks in the business's sphere even though these may not be modern slavery risks.

Thus the potential problem is that once firms are actively reporting on the risks of modern slavery within their operations or supply chains (since that is what legislative requirements relate to), those firms might pay less attention to other forms of human rights risk in their business models, forms that may have nothing to do with supply chains, or with forced labour or human trafficking.

Firms (and policy-makers, and civil society) will need to keep framing these overall issues more broadly than just the current 'hot topic' of modern slavery in supply chains, and principally by reference to the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The 'business and human rights' phenomenon is about much more than just 'modern slavery' in corporate supply chains. In Australia, a focus on a possible Modern Slavery Act has obscured or may come to obscure (including in business's perspectives) the whole range of ways in which business might unwittingly or otherwise cause, contribute to or be linked to human rights problems.

I made this point in a March 2017 post on this blog, here, shortly after the Australian government announced its consultation towards a possible Act. 


See a recent post (May 2018) here on defining 'supply chain' in the Modern Slavery Act reporting context, and general comments in this post from October 2017 and this one from August 2017.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Modern slavery in supply chains: definitions?

What are ideal viable regulatory models for public authorities to address the serious human rights risks that might exist in a business’s operations or supply chains, especially abroad?

This post simply pastes in the summary of a paper I've produced (here).

The paper isolates one regulatory design issue on prevailing models of statutory requirements for certain firms to report on human rights risks in their supply chain: how, if at all, should such legislation seek to define ‘supply chain’? This paper argues that this is not a narrow or merely technical question:

-          First, it affects the scope of commercial activity to which any ‘compliance’ notion will relate, and associated issues of regulatory clarity, certainty and coherence.

-          Second, the approach to defining (or not) ‘supply chain’ can be seen a metaphor for more general design philosophies or approaches. These how questions of design go to more profound questions about what ‘transparency models’ (or, more accurately, reporting models) seek to achieve. The wider public policy objective is eradicating modern slavery by engaging business and civil society in cooperative pursuit of this grand challenge. This goal ought to guide and inform all design decisions.

Some firms argue that any reporting obligations should be limited to ‘first tier’ suppliers only (direct payment relationships); many activists argue that peak firms atop particular supply chains should be obliged to report more comprehensively, i.e., full traceability reporting, on suppliers’ suppliers too. This paper argues that a future Australian Modern Slavery Act should not seek to define ‘supply chain’ at all in legislative form, nor in ancillary regulations:

·       Consistent with Pillar II of the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights, firms have a responsibility to respect human rights by (among other things) identifying and address priority human rights risks in their business operations and relationships: leaving ‘supply chain’ undefined helps avoid artificial categorisations that might obscure this ongoing exercise of self-analysis and prioritisation. The ‘how many tiers’ debate misses the point: from risk management, reputational and other perspectives too, the focus of enquiry should be the severity (scale, seriousness, etc.) of human rights risks across business relationships. Instead of responding to prescribed compliance indicators, as might happen with a defined approach, the internal corporate process of needing to self-define what one’s ‘supply chain’ will include for reporting purposes might hold value: it may help to trigger important corporate self-reflection on the extent of one’s influence or responsibility as a firm.
·       Prevailing reporting models are premised at least in part on external market, consumer and civic stakeholders ‘regulating’ corporate performance on human rights issues. In a model that does not define ‘supply chain’, these actors can always signal that a firm’s framing of its ‘supply chain’ is too narrow or otherwise misconceived. Legal, audit or assurance entities advising larger firms might be key agents in a conceivable ‘race to the top’ (at least within market leaders in some consumer-facing / reputation-exposed sectors) in terms of the quality of reporting, including the scope of a firm’s choice of what its ‘supply chain’ comprises.  
·       Reporting requirements may not actually be appropriate and adapted to the wider objective of preventing and addressing modern slavery. Nor do they necessarily produce transparency. Nevertheless, they are the model under consideration. This being so, the legislation should attempt to encourage fulsome business cooperation from a premise of trusting large Australian businesses to do the right thing in the first instance. An overall tone and message that the legislation is not unduly prescriptive on such issues as what constitutes ‘supply chain’ will probably help to generate proactive business engagement. Such cooperation is vital to the ‘bigger picture’ objective. Even the most capable regulatory state cannot ‘fix’ modern slavery in supply chains without the cooperation of the businesses that use these systems:
-          Supply chains, like business sectors, are hugely diverse, not static, and often very complex, but firms are also typically far better-placed than regulators to see or know issues within their supply chains. In a scheme premised on business uptake and cooperation, these facts suggests that legislation avoid being unduly prescriptive.
-          The point of this legislation is to help identify, prevent and resolve human rights problems in supply chains. It is not, as some activists would appear to frame it, an opportunity to target larger businesses with highly prescriptive statutory duties accompanied by punitive sanctions out of a belief (for example) that such firms, as a species, are insufficiently transparent or accountable in our society generally. The legislation is one element in a broader policy approach around finding ways to incentivise and support Australian firms to systematically identify and so prevent or address the underlying human rights risks. All design questions should turn on ‘what will best help solve the problem of modern slavery in globalised supply chains?’ and ‘how can we best involve business itself in solving these problems?’
-          Yet this cooperative dialogic approach is only justifiable if a clear signal is given that regulation will become more demanding in future if reporting compliance is perfunctory or not improving modern slavery patterns in (Australian) supply chains.

Non-binding formal policy products produced in parallel to this legislation should provide guidance to firms on the considerations involved in how they seek to define the scope of their due diligence (and so reporting) on these issues. This needs to go a lot further than the UK guidance that ‘supply chains’ under the 2015 Act has its ‘ordinary meaning’. Government should engage civil society and consultancy / assurance / audit firms in helping to produce and progressively refine such guidance.

[This is a summary from my May 2018 paper]


See a recent post on this blog on this topic here.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Data, big business and human rights

Data protection and privacy is among the most important and high-profile issues where 'business' and 'human rights' intersect.

Are some media-tech firms so large and influential that their social impact cannot be regulated? Or is the issue more about a sufficient constituency of public consumer-citizen demand for proper regulation?

This week saw news reports that Facebook may have 'improperly shared' the data of 87 million users with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, linked to the Trump presidential campaign.

In this post I simply paste below a paragraph from a forthcoming paper I have written on how these sorts of issues and crises are treated in popular culture. Hollywood may no longer be a credible barometer or bearer of moral messaging, and nor has it yet produced the definitive movie of our age in relation to our lives online. Still, from 1995's The Net to 2015's Ex­_Machina we do see some reflection of (Western) societies' anxieties and trajectories in relation to the commodification of data and privacy issues.

This is what the paragraph says:

"... One critic describes Ex­_Machina as one examination of ‘how corporations have been freed from all forms of social responsibility in the digital age’ (Allen 2016*). That is an overstatement, but Allen does observe that in movies of this sort the issue is not so much corporate access to one’s private life as the role that individual consumers (out of apathy, convenience, ignorance, trust or other factors) play in enabling corporations to ‘take on a life of their own’ and accumulate so much potential influence over private data. The significance of this movie (or more accurately this type of movie -- it was not a blockbuster) might lie in what it tells us about the mix of regulation vs. consumer preferences in this and other areas of corporate ethics and responsibility. After all, if informed consumers are not motivated to press home data-related human rights concerns in any concerted way, what are the prospects for influencing, expanding and sustaining corporate self-regulation or industry or state regulation to protect those same concerns?"

How does this relate to current debate on Facebook's data management?

Consumers do need to know and understand issues before they can be a constituency of demand for better regulatory interventions.

But social media and other technologies may be so convenient and/or seductive that if the balance of regulation on data privacy ends up not favouring the individual, it may not be that we are all the blameless victims of some elaborate corporate strategy to undermine human rights.

It may be that we have done this to ourselves.


* Allen, A., (2016) ‘How the ‘Evil Corporation’ Became a Pop-Culture Trope’ The Atlantic, 25 April 2016.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Regulating the Future: 'private sector, public role'

One ought not get too categorical about distinguishing the public and private sectors when thinking about the wider 'sustainability' and 'social impact' agendas.

This blog's name plays off the differences we apprehend between public and private actors and activity, from principles (e.g. differing legitimacy levels as between corporations and public authorities) to drivers (e.g. differing incentives and audiences) to practicalities (e.g. different tools and techniques even where the ends are common).

But in many socio-enviro responsibility & sustainability contexts, the public-private distinction may be difficult to make. Or it may be not useful to dwell on, where it blinds us to the significant governance contributions of private actors towards what are ultimately public goals.

Past posts have dwelt on this, but this one (the first for 2018) is prompted by three recent things that I see as connected in relation to this enduring public-private debate.

The first is my delight this week in meeting my new PhD student here at ANU, who will study the financial sector as a significant source of influence on the human rights impact of business more generally. (See recently in this regard the Thun Group of Banks view on one aspect of this, here).

Who is a 'regulator' and what counts as 'regulation', and what are appropriate and effective contributions that those policing bottlenecks in the economy -- such as financiers and insurers -- can play in furthering regulatory objectives? How does formal Regulation (with a big R) or other policy interventions (regulation with a small r?) leverage these contributions?

The second is that I recently returned from a sustainable development symposium at the University of Indiana, Bloomington on balancing freedom vs security in the regulation of cybersecurity. Given that (mostly privately owned) tech firms dominate much activity in cyberspace, they will surely play an outsize role in the governance of that space relative to public authorities.

With this influence comes elevated levels of responsibility on the part of private actors (and expectations of increased accountability about how that power and influence is used).

Which brings me to the third prompt for this post: a Twitter thread from @KateAronoff about a meeting (to which the media were not invited) between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Amazon CEO Jeff Bizos, described by a CBC journalist as a 'bilateral' meeting. Now technically it is bilateral if two parties are involved. But Aronoff's point was to get us to pause and consider the implications of a world where the language of diplomacy is seamlessly used in this way. Normally, only heads of state have bilateral meetings... but then Amazon does 'run' a large part of the world in net terms.
Surveys suggest many consumers/citizens trust (private) big brand firms and business leaders more than they trust public institutions and elected political leaders. Trust is a key component of regulatory legitimacy and effectiveness. Yet as we design societal impact regulatory models for the globalised (and virtual) economy, and make use of -- or just acknowledge as real -- private governance contributions, we need to think about the authority and legitimacy and other qualities that only public institutions ultimately have.