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Our Insights 14 Nov 2014

On Our Radar: Human Rights Accountability Remains Elusive

By Aiste Brackley

Flickr image by andres musta

This piece was originally published in the autumn issue of Radar Magazine – Issue 05: Unusual Activists.

Global human rights violations have risen in the last decade and unless governments act to introduce stronger binding mechanisms and companies start viewing human rights compliance as an essential part of corporate accountability, progress on human rights will remain slow.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch and Maplecroft estimated that in the last six years global human rights violations have risen by 70 percent. A large share of this increase can be attributed to workers’ rights infringements, land grabs and supply chain violations in emerging markets. A survey of UK supply chain professionals showed that 1 in 10 businesses believe that slavery exists in their supply chain. Recent revelations of child labour in Samsung’s Asian supplier factories once again underscored that full visibility of the supply chain remains out of reach for many corporations.

While many companies have made progress in recent years, most human rights compliance mechanisms remain voluntary. The UN Guiding Principles have achieved significant buy-in from corporations, but they have no binding power. Several laws have also come under fire. In September, seventy academics, politicians and activists signed a petition arguing that the US Dodd-Frank Act, requiring firms to trace the minerals sourced in the Congo, has fuelled the conflict in the country.

New legislative initiatives are currently in the works. The UK Parliament is set to pass the Modern Slavery Bill, one of the first laws of its kind in the world. The EU is also debating new rules to regulate the sourcing of conflict minerals. While these measures may lead to some improvements, the real change will come when governments show stronger resolve to enact enforcement mechanisms and companies start viewing human rights compliance as an obligation – not a choice.

What to look for: The pressure on corporations to address human rights issues will grow while NGOs and the media will continue to closely monitor and expose violations. Companies should remain sensitive to compliance issues and take a proactive stance by implementing innovative measures and spearheading new partnerships or joining existing collaboration initiatives.

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