National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights: Strong support for OECD’s Responsible Business Grievance Mechanism

By Roel Nieuwenkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct and Froukje Boele, Policy Analyst Responsible Business Conduct, OECD

The year 2017 got off to a good start for business and human rights with a number of prominent National Action Plans (NAPs) finalised last December right in time for Christmas. The fresh German, Italian, Swiss and US NAPs resemble each other by placing the OECD Guidelines and the attached grievance mechanism at the forefront of efforts to promote responsible business conduct for enterprises operating at home and abroad. They also acknowledge the alignment between its Human Rights Chapter and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Moreover the NAPs uphold and strengthen the National Contact Point (NCP) system of the OECD Guidelines as a means for effective problem solving, thereby supporting the OECD’s globally active grievance mechanism for responsible business as a de facto complaints mechanism for the UN Guiding Principles.

Some highlights:

Responsible Supply Chains and Due Diligence

The concept of adequate due diligence – to identify, prevent and mitigate actual and potential adverse impacts of business operations – centres at the heart of the NAPs with action-oriented language on the different OECD sectoral guidelines. Yet Governments emphasize different aspects, for example the German NAP on Business and Human Rights and the Swiss NAP on Business and Human Rights include a particular focus on helping small and medium-sized enterprises.

The US Government’s National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct recognises the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Minerals Supply Chains from Conflict and High Risk Areas as a key tool for businesses to help them “respect human rights and avoiding contributing to conflict through their mineral sourcing practices.” In this regard, the German and the Italian NAP on Business and Human Rights also point to their involvement in the process of the elaboration of an EU Regulation for supply chain due diligence in this field. If adopted, the Swiss Government also commits to consider the formulation of similar legislative proposals adapted to the Swiss context.

For agriculture, both Switzerland and Italy commit to active implementation of the OECD-FAO Guidance for Responsible Agricultural Supply Chains.

Moreover, in line with Italy’s active involvement to improve standards in the textile sector, its NAP emphasizes the OECD’s work on the Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector, which will be launched next 8 February.

Sensible to the risks involved in the banking industry, Switzerland has included its support for the OECD work on a guide for due diligence in the financial sector in the NAP.

Not only do the NAPs on the whole indicate a high level of support for implementing the outcomes of the proactive sector projects, they also signal a political commitment to engage in their multi-stakeholder advisory groups going forward.

National Contact Points

The role of the NCPs to promote corporate responsibility and deal with issues relating to business and human rights is prevalent throughout the recent NAPs. Delivering on the G 7 Leaders’ Summit Declaration of June 2016, Italy, Germany and the United States recall their commitments to undergo an NCP peer review in 2017.* The plan for Germany also announces the repositioning and further strengthening of its NCP. Interestingly, the US announces it will implement procedures to ensure that stakeholders outside the US and using other languages than English can engage in the NCP process. The NAPs for Germany and Switzerland also make an operational link between the work of the NCPs and national export credits and guarantees. As such, the German NCP is upgraded as a central complaint mechanism for projects for foreign trade promotion and the Swiss Export Risk Insurance Agency is reported to have to take account of the results and evaluations by the NCP.

Policy coherence on responsible business conduct

At the same time, the national action plans send a clear message on policy coherence on corporate responsibility issues and set an example for other countries in the process of developing a NAP. They are comprehensive efforts to ensure alignment between all policies relevant to responsible business with Governments leading by example on issues such as procurement, exports credits but also responsible retirement plans (US NAP). Beyond the national level, the NAPs make a point about international policy coherence by including corporate responsibility commitments in trade and investment agreements, as well as development finance. These are complemented on an operational level with measures to train German and US diplomats abroad.

Conclusion

The high level of commitment to the OECD Guidelines, the NCP system and the OECD sector due diligence instruments will greatly contribute to their visibility and implementation worldwide. They also present promising building blocks for the 2017 German G20 efforts to address RBC and sustainable global supply chains and the Italian G7 Initiative on sustainable global supply chain management. Finally, these 2016 Christmas gifts are full of inspiration for Governments that are in the process of developing a national action plan, for example in Latin America.

*               The peer review of the Swiss NCP is ongoing.

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Responsible Algorithms in Business: Robots, fake news, spyware, self-driving cars and corporate responsibility

By Roel Nieuwenkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct (@nieuwenkamp_csr)

This article was originally published on OECD Insights on 13 January 2017.

algorithmsWhy is the topic of robots frequently being raised at recent conferences on responsible business conduct? For example, October last year the Polish Deputy Prime Minister noted the connection between robotisation and corporate responsibility during the opening of the Conference in Warsaw celebrating the 40 years anniversary of the OECD Guidelines for Responsible Business.

The potential negative impacts of robots or automated systems have proved cause for concern. In May 2010 there was a trillion dollar stock market crash, a ‘Flash crash’, attributed to algorithm trading or in other words: robot investors. And let’s not forget the mathematical models that contributed to the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. Recent events surrounding fakenews, with Pizzagate as the most extreme example, are also contributing to these concerns.

What is the common denominator of these automated systems? Algorithms! These rule-based processes for solving mathematical problems are being applied to more and more areas of our daily lives. Likely, we are only at the beginning of the era of algorithms and their widespread application is raising many ethical questions for society and businesses in particular.

For example ‘Killer robots’, weapons systems that select and attack targets without meaningful human control raise questions about dehumanisation of killing and who is responsible? In December the United Nations decided to set up an expert group, in order to look into this issue following a campaign ‘Stop Killer Robots’ by Human Rights Watch and other NGOs. While self-driving cars will never be at risk of driving while intoxicated they can make decisions that might pose moral dilemmas for humans. Online face recognition technology raises concerns around privacy.  These are just a few examples.

The pervasiveness of the use of algorithms may result in many unintended consequences. In her book ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ Cathy O’Neil describes how algorithms in combination with big data increase inequality and threaten democracy. She provides examples of the financial crisis and the housing market, but also of a college student who does not get a minimum wage job in a grocery store due to answers provided on a personality test, people whose credit card spending limits are lowered because they shopped at certain stores, etc. She also discussed predictive policing models such as those that predict recidivism and algorithms that send police to patrol areas on the basis of crime data, which can have a racist effect because of harmful or self-fulfilling prophecy feedback loops.

Scholars and practitioners in this field are beginning to consider the ethical implications of application of algorithms. Julia Bossmann of the Foresight institute described her top 9 ethical issues in artificial intelligence. Prof Susan Leigh Anderson of the University of Connecticut stated: “If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that robots need ethics.” Cathy O’Neil proposes a ‘Hippocratic oath’ for data scientists. Recently a group of scholars developed Principles for Accountable Algorithms. In the private sector Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and other business leaders have founded OpenAI, an R&D company created to address ethical issues related to artificial intelligence. Amazon, Facebook, DeepMind, IBM and Microsoft founded a new organisation called the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People & Society. The partnership seeks to facilitate a dialogue on the nature, purpose of artificial intelligence and its impacts on people and society at large. It is encouraging that certain industry efforts are being undertaken in this area. Additionally one thing should be clear for businesses that create and use these technologies: when things go wrong, using algorithms as a scapegoat won’t do the trick.

What guidance on these issues can be found in the most important instrument on business ethics, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (MNE), a multilateral agreement of 46 states on corporate responsibility. Cases brought to National Contact Points, the globally active complaints mechanism of the Guidelines, provide a good illustration of what the Guidelines recommend with respect to these issues. For example, in February of 2013 a consortium of NGOs led by Privacy International (PI) submitted a complaint to the UK National Contact Point (NCP) alleging that Gamma International had supplied a spyware product – Finfisher – to agencies of the Bahrain government which then used it to target pro-democracy activists.

The NCP concluded that Gamma had not acted consistently with the provisions of the OECD Guidelines requiring enterprises to do appropriate due diligence, to undertake a policy commitment to respect human rights and to remediate human rights impacts. Furthermore the company’s approach did not meet with the OECD Guidelines’ standards to respect human rights and the engagement of the company with the NCP process was unsatisfactory, particularly in view of the serious nature of the issues. The NCP recommended that the company engage in human rights due diligence.

What is human rights due diligence and what does it mean for companies developing algorithms? Under the Guidelines due diligence is a process that should be carried out by corporations as part of a broader range of actions to respect human rights. The right to privacy, freedom of speech, freedom from torture and arbitrary detention are examples of the many potential human rights that could be impacted. Due diligence is the process of identifying, preventing and mitigating actual and potential adverse human rights impacts, and accounting for how these impacts are addressed. If there is a risk of severe human rights impacts a heightened form of due diligence is recommended. For example, significant caution should be taken with regard to the sale and distribution of surveillance technology when the buyer is a government with a poor track record of human rights. Due diligence should be applied not only to a company’s activities but across its business relationships. In the context of a company producing algorithms therefore it is not sufficient that they behave responsibly in the context of their own operations but due diligence should also be applied to ensure buyers of the technology are not using it irresponsibly. In instances where this is the case, the company that created and sold the technology is expected to use its leverage in the value chain to prevent or mitigate the impact.

A number of valuable tools to respect human rights and implement the ’know your client’ principle have been developed in the context of ICT business operations. For example, the European Commission has developed a useful guide for companies on respecting human rights in the ICT sector. TechUK, an industry association of ICT companies in the UK, in partnership with the UK government has published a guide on how to design and implement appropriate due diligence processes for assessing cyber security export risks. Additionally the Electronic Frontier Foundation has developed a guide on How Corporations Can Avoid Assisting Repressive Regimes and the Global Network Initiative has developed Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy.

Beyond the human rights related recommendations, the OECD Guidelines make other relevant recommendations for companies developing algorithms. For example the Environment Chapter recommends environmental, health and safety impact assessments.[1] The Consumer Chapter advises companies to provide accurate, verifiable and clear information to consumers.[2] In addition companies should respect consumer privacy and take reasonable measures to ensure the security of personal data that they collect, store process or disseminate.[3]

Businesses that create algorithms should do their due diligence on potential human rights impacts. Companies should also carry out due diligence on labour, environmental and health and safety impacts. They should provide accurate verifiable and clear information about their algorithms and take measures to protect personal data. Collaborative industry efforts on responsible algorithms are highly needed to shape these expectations in concrete terms. Responsible algorithms will not only generate profit, but protect the rights of individuals worldwide while doing so.

 

[1]               OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, Chapter VI.3

[2]               OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, Chapter VIII.2

[3]               OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, Chapter VIII.6