Global Diligence LLP’s partners participated at the inaugural Forum on Responsible Business Conduct, held at the OECD conference centre in Paris last week on the 26-27 June.
Over 500 delegates from the private and public sector came to debate the emerging principles and standards relating to the social risks of commercial operations. The parameters of the discussion were set by the OECD’s Guidelines For Multinational Enterprises, updated in 2011 to take account of the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Acknowledging the numerous human rights initiatives across various sectors of industry and commerce, the OECD hoped that the Forum would ‘strengthen international dialogue on responsible business conduct and to enhance the synergies between corporate responsibility instruments on all levels.’
However, recent events such as the Rana Plaza tragedy serve to re-emphasise that the principles under discussion can have very real human consequences. Bangladesh’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dipu Moni, spoke of the huge shock to their nation at the loss of life in the Dhaka garment factory disaster. Acknowledging the challenges of regulation, the Minister spoke of her desire for the support of multinational businesses to work together to ensure responsibility is shared for the health, safety and wellbeing of workers.
A diverse array of speakers from industry, government, civil society and the human rights community discussed issues ranging from privacy in the ICT sector, the problem with the proliferation of different non-financial reporting standards, developing site-specific stakeholder engagement programmes in rural Colombia and the importance of the rights of indigenous peoples. However, it is an unfortunate tendency of many large conferences on corporate responsibility that the level of debate is too theoretical, too general or too guarded. Day one at the Forum suffered at times from all three deficiencies. A long and impressive list of panellists for most sessions resulted in very short individual presentations being delivered, with little time to develop a more in-depth assessment of the issues. Day two was markedly more productive and penetrative. In particular, the sessions on stakeholder engagement and due diligence in the extractive sector and responsible business conduct in the ICT sector saw a lively exchange of views from participants and observers alike.
In the final analysis, the consistent messages seemed to be that more needed to be done to implement the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises; that National Contact Points should be more pro-active in promoting compliance with the Guidelines; that integrated reporting is required to guarantee the interests of those communities affected by investment; and that meaningful stakeholder communication necessitates early and context-specific engagement.
It’s clear to us at Global Diligence LLP that there is a long way to go before responsible business conduct becomes standard practice rather than simply common aspiration – but that the trend is towards accepting that businesses must and can do more to shoulder their burden of responsibility towards the human rights of others.
[Photo: OECD/Herve Cortinat]