human rights & business (and a few other things)

Developing Business and Human Rights Indicators – Is It a Good Idea?


Today I am spending the day at the beautiful Cumberland Lodge in Windsor’s Great Park, where an expert meeting on business and human rights indicators is being held.  The meeting is convened by an Organizing Committee of four PhD students, all working in the business and human rights field. They, and a research team of junior and senior experts, drafted an initial working document on business and human rights indicators which forms the basis of our discussions for the day. I contributed to the process by providing some comments on an earlier draft a few weeks ago.

The very idea that one can translate human rights abuses into numbers, which can then be compared, is controversial and there are numerous challenges associated with the development of  meaningful indicators. Among many other difficulties, there’s fear that the human dimension can be lost if violations are expressed using numbers, as opposed to narratives. There’s also fear that companies would satisfy themselves with simply being better than their competitors, as opposed to strive for a 100% human rights compliant record. This last point is particularly contentious as the basic premise of human rights is that each violation (and each victim) matters. Thus for human rights defenders the fact that despite some violations a company could still get a relatively good score is hard to swallow. Another challenge has to do with who would make the evaluation and would come up with eventual figures: NGOs, “independent” experts, businesses themselves, consultants, a multi stakeholder group, etc. ?

Despite these challenges I am keen on the idea of developing indicators. I think indicators could be a useful complement to other ways to measure corporate responsibility to respect human rights, such as drafting NGO reports.

The reality is that some business and human rights indicators already exist and are being used, for example by institutional investors. Therefore, the question is not whether it can be done, but how to do it as well as possible. In a nutshell, the argument really is that we need to occupy that space, otherwise others will. Also, we don’t need a comprehensive framework that would measure compliance with all rights by all companies. In fact this is probably impossible to do, as today’s discussions have illustrated. Rather my view is that we need to initiate the process, perhaps by focusing on just a few rights in selected sectors, for example the right to health in the mining sector.

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