By Roel Nieuwenkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct (@nieuwenkamp_csr)
This article was originally published on OECD Insights on 11 November 2016.
Compensation for indigenous people for adverse impacts of business activities, companies agreeing to carry out human rights due diligence concerning products in their value chain, authoritative statements that set the standard for the garment industry worldwide in the aftermath of Rana plaza – these are just some examples of achievements by the National Contact Points (NCPs) for responsible business in recent months.
In the run up to the 2016 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights it is good to highlight the importance of the NCP mechanism for business and human rights. Five years ago the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises were revised and the UN Guiding Principles were embedded in its human rights chapter. This way the OECD’s globally active grievance mechanism for responsible business became a de facto grievance mechanism for the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
The complaints mechanism is globally active as it covers global value chains with a link to companies from the 46 adherent territories. Over 360 cases have been brought to the NCP mechanism since 2000 addressing impacts from business operations in over 100 countries and territories.
What has been the experience thus far?
Since the 2011 addition of a human rights chapter 54% of all complaints brought to the NCP mechanism concern human rights and business.
From 2011 to 2015 about half of all complaints brought which were accepted for mediation, resulted in a mediated agreement between the parties.
Concrete results were for example ending forced and child labour in supply chains, improved health and safety for agricultural workers and better human rights due diligence for mega sport events. I would like to highlight a couple of landmark business and human rights cases that are worth looking at.
Value chain responsibility concerning the death penalty
Most attention has been paid to supply chain responsibility of business. Yet it is largely unknown that with the 2011 revision, the scope of the OECD Guidelines was extended to cover the entire value chain, meaning that they apply to the supply and distribution chains, or in simple words: it matters from whom you buy and to whom you sell taking into account the potential end use. The far reach of the Guidelines has been illustrated in a number of instances.
Last year a case was brought to the Dutch NCP involving Mylan, a pharmaceutical company, for possible human rights abuses associated with the production and sales of rocuronium bromide to prisons in the United States for use in lethal injections. The Dutch NCP concluded that the Guidelines are applicable to the value chain and in particular to the distribution chain. The case is also noteworthy as it demonstrated the force of finance used by the shareholders to exert their influence to hold the company accountable for responsible business conduct. In parallel to the specific instance proceeding, several investors entered into dialogue with Mylan to persuade the company to ensure that its products are not used to carry out lethal injection executions. One pension fund even decided to sell its shares in the company, whereas others continued the dialogue. The parties in the case concluded a mediated agreement and Mylan has taken active steps to prevent rocuronium bromide from being used in US prisons for executions.
Value chain responsibility concerning sales of teargas
In another case the French NCP also considered the distribution chain. The complaint concerned the sale of tear gas by Alsetex to the government of Bahrain allegedly used by security forces in the pro-democracy protests in 2011 and thereafter to violate human rights. The consideration of the case demonstrated that the Guidelines go beyond enterprise compliance with the export control regulations for strategic goods and require companies to take risk-based due diligence measures. With due consideration to the State duty to protect human rights, the French NCP concluded that Alsetex complied with the Guidelines, however recommending the company to formalise in-house due diligence procedures particularly in order to increase the traceability of its exports. The parties agreed with the conclusions of the NCP.
Indigenous people’s rights
Indigenous people’s rights have also been addressed by the NCP mechanism in the context of a complaint by the Saami village alleging that Statkraft AS, a Norwegian multinational enterprise, had breached human rights chapter of the Guidelines by planning to build a wind power plant on reindeer herding ground in Sweden. The case reveals the possible tensions between environmental concerns for sustainable energy production and the indigenous peoples’ rights for their community’s economic and cultural survival. The Swedish and Norwegian NCPs applied the principle that enterprises are expected to carry out consultations with a view to obtaining from the parties Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC consultations) based on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While the NCPs found that the company had not failed to comply with the OECD Guidelines, some areas for improvement were identified. Following the conclusion of the NCP case, the parties have subsequently themselves reached an agreement last August on compensation for the impact and negative effects of the windmills.
Supply chain responsibility regarding the Rana Plaza tragedy
In practice a lot of human rights cases under the NCP system concern labour rights issues. The collapse of the Rana plaza factory has symbolised poor working conditions in global textile supply chains. The responsibility of global brands has also been brought to the attention of the NCPs. The Danish NCP for example recently concluded its consideration of a case involving PWT Group, a Danish retailer, for failing to carry out due diligence in relation to its textile manufacturer which was located in the Rana Plaza building. The case confirms the importance of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety which includes inspection of building structures as part of occupational safety and health. Under the OECD Guidelines, companies cannot hide behind the industry practice that risk-based analyses did not include the inspection of building safety. Following the Rana Plaza tragedy, the OECD has convened governments, business, civil society and trade unions to develop a Due Diligence Guidance on Responsible Garment and Footwear Supply Chains, which provides specific recommendations to support a common understanding of due diligence and responsible supply chain management in the sector. This Guidance is expected to be finalised soon. Both the Guidance and the conclusions of the Danish NCP in this case are significant for the future of human rights due diligence in the textile sector globally.
Delivering important results
This year marks the 40 years anniversary of the OECD Guidelines. Five years ago the Guidelines were dramatically revised, increasing the scope to global value chains and embedding the UN Guiding Principles into the human rights chapter. Five years down the road the OECD’s globally active grievance mechanism for responsible business has proven its potential added value for reinforcing the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights, delivering important results.