Tuesday, July 21, 2020

GRI Standards: Human Rights - Quadrupled

It can’t help but strike you when you review GRI’s Exposure Draft of the new Universal Standards (See my first post on this topic: GRI Standards: Shape Up or Shape Out) that human rights is just everywhere. A quick PDF search shows that in the new proposed revised Standards 101, 102 and 103, the term human rights appears more than 90 times, whereas in the 2016 version of these standards, the term appears less than 25 times. That’s an almost quadrupled helping of human rights in these new Standards. Now, if anyone offers me quadruple ice cream, I say: Yes please! But a disclosure Standard that’s so totally human rights flavored, well, that might just give you a little bit of indigestion.

If you read the Explanatory Memorandum that GRI published to accompany the Exposure Draft, you will have noticed that it started out with the sentence: “The primary objective in reviewing the Universal Standards is to address the recommendations from the GRI Technical Committee on Human Rights Disclosure.” Human rights even snuck into the new definition of materiality: “a topic that reflects the organization’s most significant impacts on the economy, environment, and people, including impacts on human rights”.

A quick glance at the 2019 Corporate Human Rights Benchmark shows that “More than half of the 200 benchmarked companies score less than 20% and only 1 in 10 companies score more than 50%. These extremely low scores reveal poor levels of implementation of the UNGPs by the vast majority of companies assessed.” So there is clearly more work to be done.

I asked Bastian Buck, GRI Standards Guru-in-Chief and Laura Espinach, GRI Standards Technical Development Guru-ess-in-Chief, about the human rights changes in the Exposure Draft. 

ME: Why the need to explicitly add human rights in this definition? Does impacts on people not automatically assume human rights? 
BASTIAN: “Even ten years after the publication of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, we are seeing that is still deeply uncomfortable for companies to disclose in this area.” 
LAURA: “Impacts on people should automatically assume human rights, but this has often been underreported by organizations. One of the main challenges the Human Rights Technical Committee grappled with as they were making these revisions was how to drive more reporting on human rights. They discussed some of the reasons for lack of reporting, for example, many companies do not think of their activities as having human rights impacts either because they don’t know what a human rights impact is or because they only think of human rights impacts as gross violations or issues that are life threatening. There has also been a historic masking of human rights within the economic, environmental and social framing of disclosure, so human rights issues were often overlooked. In fact, this is the reason we have moved from referring to social impacts to referring to impacts on people.” 

ME: Does this all imply that human rights are more material than everything else? 
LAURA: “The normative expectation in the UN Guiding Principles is quite unique. Human rights is one of the few areas that has been elaborated in this high level of detail about companies’ expectations and responsibilities, so we thought it was important to highlight that in the definition of material topics. This doesn’t mean that human rights are more material than anything else. We are trying to signal, of the impacts companies can have on people, human rights are the most acute / important ones. While it should be automatically assumed that impacts on people include human rights, this is not generally understood. By signaling this we hope to drive more reporting against the normative expectation that exists.” 

The Glossary in the Exposure Draft includes a definition of internationally recognized human rights, which is an addition to the current glossary. “These rights are understood, at a minimum, to include the rights set out in the International Bill of Human Rights (consisting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the main instruments through which it has been codified: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), coupled with the principles concerning fundamental rights in the eight International Labour Organization (ILO) core conventions as set out in the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.”

I think many companies have become familiar with reporting labor rights (based on the ILO core conventions), although not necessarily doing so under the banner of human rights. The same, I think, applies to supply chain standards – companies report practices on Supplier Codes of Conduct, or ethical procurement etc., without necessarily referencing human rights. There are some areas of human rights that I believe have not benefited from broad disclosure, such as impacts on indigenous peoples, land rights etc. And of course, the International Convention on the Human Right to Ice Cream has been virtually ignored.

But by making everything about human rights, there’s a danger that we focus on the rights and not on the people – a bit like saying, the operation succeeded but the patient died. There just might be cases where the rights were upheld but the people were not. For example, non-discrimination. Companies declare they are non-discriminatory and list all the ways in which they are upholding equal opportunity for all. Then you look at their Board of Directors and Executive Teams, and they are predominantly white, male and middle aged. Somewhere in the system, therefore, discrimination is present, even though it might be tough to admit. In promoting human rights disclosures, we must be careful not to forget the people - which means that disclosures need to be underpinned with relevant practice.

I shared this concern with the GRI Standards experts, and Laura responded as follows:
LAURA: "Human rights is all about outcomes for people. I think the issue in the example may have more to do with how these issues are dealt with in practice, than with how this is framed in the Exposure Draft. The overall framing in the Exposure Draft is ‘impacts on people’ which include human rights-related impacts. And the changes to the definition of stakeholder also aim to focus reporting on individuals or groups that are or could be affected."

(Note here that the revised definition of stakeholder is: "individual or group that has an interest that is, or could be, affected by the organization’s activities and decisions". This is different from the previous definition which reflected a dual interaction - referring to stakeholders as being both affected by the organization and affecting the organization. The new definition aligns more closely with the focus on impacts of the organization on stakeholders, people, environment and society.) 

Nonetheless, the intention of GRI is clear and it’s helpful. I believe it will drive greater awareness, action and reporting. Now is the time to start assessing your organization’s impacts on human rights and the people who have them, if you haven’t already done so. If you think this is a great new direction, or excessive in emphasis, have your say before it gets locked down in the publication of the new Universal Standards sometime in the near future. 

The Exposure Draft is open for comments until 9th September 2020. The next post in this series will cover the new definition of materiality and what that means for the infamous materiality matrix.

Stay safe, stay well, stay optimistic!

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Owner/Manager of Beyond Business Ltdan inspired Sustainability Strategy and Reporting firm having supported 107 client reports to date; author of three books and several chapters on Sustainability Reporting and the Human Resources connection to CSR; frequent chair and speaker at sustainability events and judge in several sustainability awards programs each year. Contact me via Twitter , LinkedIn or via Beyond Business

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