New laws, growing social pressure and increasing shareholder and investor interest are requiring businesses worldwide to focus on human rights concerns such as child labor, slavery and coercive workplaces.
We need a globalization that works for all—one in which we recognize our roles and responsibilities in the countries where we operate.
Hugh Verrier, Chairman, White & Case at Thomson Reuters Foundation event on forced labor at the World Economic Forum 2017
Although adherence to them is voluntary, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights have had a major effect. They state that corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights and remedy violations should they occur.
At the same time, new laws are being enacted in this area. Landmark legislation like the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act and the UK’s Modern Slavery Act are designed to improve transparency and accountability on human rights. Disclosure requirements on compliance with human rights grow more stringent, and some stock exchanges and market regulators are requiring companies to either report on their material human rights impacts or explain why they have not.
Companies also risk lawsuits for alleged breaches of human rights, such as the presence of forced labor or child labor in their supply chains. And corporate boards are concerned about the reputational damage that can result from failing to meet human rights standards—which can be much more damaging than financial penalties.
“Given the power of international business to shape lives and the environment, how businesses operate is emerging as a serious area of legal risk that companies can’t ignore,” says partner Clare Connellan, who spearheads the Firm’s work in this area.
In response, businesses need to take steps to address human rights concerns through the adoption of human rights and environmental sustainability policies and training, governance changes, supply chain audits and public reporting. Best practice elements include creating a company-wide human rights policy or statement; assigning internal, top-level responsibility for human rights; and implementing due diligence procedures to identify, prevent and mitigate human rights risks.
Historic UN event focuses on private sector’s UN Goal 16 work
In September 2017, White & Case hosted an official side event of the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly—the first-ever UN side event hosted by the private sector. The event centered on the role of businesses, in partnership with the UN and civil society, in advancing UN Sustainable Development Goal 16, which is dedicated to the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, the provision of access to justice for all, and building effective accountable institutions.
Leaders from major corporations spoke about their businesses’ contributions to peace, justice and inclusion. Chairman Hugh Verrier and Jacquelyn MacLennan, partner and global pro bono practice lead, shared highlights of our pro bono work in these areas, including our collaboration with the Kingdom of Bhutan to open the Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law, the Kingdom’s first law school, and our efforts to help create Ghana’s first legal ethics training program for law students.
Businesses worldwide are undertaking similar projects, demonstrating that there is a will on the part of the private sector to play its role in ensuring that the Sustainable Development Goals achieve their promise.