The increasing power and influence of corporations in the last few decades has brought human rights debate in the forefront of business. From corporate encroachment upon indigenous lands to the persistent breach of labour standards in factories, business activities across the globe continue to violate human rights norms with relative impunity. Examples are abundant where corporations have joined hands with the repressive regimes to advance their business interests. In addition to that, some giant transnational corporations in today’s world continuously challenge State’s authority to tackle human rights violations resulting from their activities.
In 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council responded to these concerns by unanimously endorsing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). These guiding principles are widely hailed as a significant landmark in the evolution of norms and standards on the duties and responsibilities of business enterprises including the transnational corporations to prevent and redress business-related human rights harms. To translate the guiding principles into actions, the UN Human Rights Council in 2014 urged all member states to formulate National Action Plans (NAPs). The plan, as advised by the UN Working Group on business and human rights, should seek to strengthen the prevention and protection against adverse human rights impacts of business activities at the national level. To date, 23 States have developed and launched NAPs while many States are in the process of developing the same.
Bangladesh’s progress towards making the action plan is extremely slow. Except some NGO led initiatives, government level effort is highly inadequate. Recent developments in this area indicate that there is a considerable gap in understanding the process and scope to create an action plan and its contents. Moreover, many of our traditional business entities as well as government authorities lack clear understanding to distinguish the newly emerging discourse of business and human rights from the earlier concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR). The NAP is thus considered as an opportunity to remove such confusion and educate responsible entities and mass people on business duty to respect human rights.
To facilitate the process of formulation of the NAP and its content various organisations have developed a good number of toolkits in the form of general guidance which the government may consult for a better understanding of the process. It must, however, be kept in mind that an action plan should be tailored to our own social and economic contexts. Contemporary State practice suggests that a dedicated entity within the government should lead the process in cooperation with other concerned government stakeholders. In other words, the responsibility can be assigned to broad-based inter-ministerial working groups as they will ultimately be placed in charge of overseeing the implementation of the action plan. It will help them develop a common language, employ substantial technical knowledge, and address regulatory and policy shortcomings.
The process should adopt a multi-stakeholder approach integrating a wide range of actors. National human rights commission and non-governmental organisations should come forward to provide active support and advice. Representatives from the business community including significant industry sectors, business associations, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) labour unions, media outlets and marginalised groups should take active part in the process. Judiciary has be made adequately aware of the implications of the UN Guiding Principles and the relevance of the NAP in changing corporate behaviour to respect human rights. Above all, the entire process should be informed and guided by a national baseline assessment undertaken at the beginning that considers the existing practices and gaps in State actions on adverse human rights impacts of business activities.
The making of action plan should take into consideration the extra-territorial complexities associated in dealing with complaints of human rights abuse against the multinational corporations operating in various jurisdictions. To enable victims of corporate human rights abuse to access effective remedies the action plan should devise mechanisms for cross-border cooperation. The plan may be designed in sector-specific human rights themes including for example women’s rights, children’s rights, indigenous rights, minority right and labour rights. The plan should be aligned with the other relevant policies and programs linked to, among others, CSR, sustainable development goals (SDGs) or human rights more broadly. Such an approach will ensure policy coherence and reduce duplication of efforts. To conclude, an NAP as an evolving policy strategy possesses the transformative potential to advance State’s duty to protect human rights from business induced human rights infringements. Therefore, the action plan should be made subject to a periodic assessment through strong monitoring and reporting mechanism with a view to making it impactful and responsive to changing circumstances.
The writer is Lecturer in Law, Jagannath University.