US: Despite progress significant challenges to address adverse business impacts on human rights
US, business and human rights
02 May 2013
WASHINGTON D.C. / GENEVA (2 May 2013) – The United States still faces significant challenges to address the adverse impacts of business activities on human rights, despite progress and innovation in key sectors of the economy, a United Nations expert group said at the end of a ten-day mission to the country.
“The US Government has committed to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and established a number of key initiatives in this regard,” said human rights expert Michael Addo, member of the UN Working Group on business and human rights delegation.
“It is now facing the challenge of putting them into practice, across all departments, ensuring that this is done in a coherent and effective way, and in a way that makes a real difference to people on the ground,” he stressed.
From the low wage industries in the services sector, the UN experts heard allegations of significant and widespread labor practices that, if correct, would be both illegal under US laws, as well as fall below international standards.
“Despite innovative initiatives to address this problem, these seemed insufficient, and the legal and regulatory framework provides weak deterrents to illegal behavior, too many loopholes to avoid compliance and little incentive for companies to behave responsibly, according to the allegations we heard,” warned rights expert Puvan Selvanathan, the other member of the Working Group delegation who visited the US.
In the extractives sector, the experts noted the allegations of significant human rights impacts of surface mining, particularly the rights to health and water, and the deep divisions between stakeholders on the most effective ways of assessing and addressing the impacts.
They also heard allegations of impacts from a range of business activities on the rights of Native Americans, particularly as regards the lack of free, prior and informed consent for projects affecting them and sites of cultural and religious significance to them, as well as issues of discrimination.
“With a few exceptions, most companies still struggle to understand the implications of the corporate responsibility to respect human rights. Those that do have policies in place, in turn face the challenge of turning such policies into effective practices,” Mr. Selvanathan said.
“Much more awareness-raising and education needs to take place,” Mr. Addo underscored. “Effective implementation of the Guiding Principles by companies requires first and foremost a good understanding of the processes involved, mobilization of significant buy-in and commitment from the top of a company.”
The UN expert group noted the extensive range of efforts by federal, state and local authorities, as well as by Congress, companies, trade unions, civil society, academia, professional organizations, and multi-stakeholder initiatives to prevent and address human rights impacts of business in the US and overseas.
Examples include Government efforts to promote better business practice through disclosure requirement, marshaling efforts against human trafficking, forced and child labor, and raising awareness of the Guiding Principles.
Other stakeholders also had innovative approaches to address some of the governance gaps that allow such abuses to happen – from collaboration between trade unions and companies in California to address US labor law violations, to buyers, growers and workers operating a market based and independently monitored mechanism to pay a living wage for tomato pickers in Florida, and enhance their working conditions, thereby addressing long standing endemic abuses.
During its visit, the Group’s delegation met stakeholders in Washington D.C. as well as in Florida, California, West Virginia, New York and Arizona. The Working Group will present detailed observations and recommendations from its visit in a report to be presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2014.
The Working Group was established by the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2011. The five members are Mr. Michael Addo, Ms. Alexandra Guáqueta, Ms. Margaret Jungk, Mr. Puvan Selvanathan and Mr. Pavel Sulyandziga (current Chairperson-Rapporteur). The Working Group is independent from any government or organization. It reports to the Human Rights Council and to the UN General Assembly. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Business/Pages/WGHRandtransnationalcorporationsandotherbusiness.aspx
Adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide the first authoritative global standard to prevent and address adverse impacts on human rights of business activities. Log on: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Business/Pages/Tools.aspx