‘Business in the Community’ on business and human rights

In their submission to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the drafting of a national plan on business and human rights, Business in the Community place most of their emphasis on the role of standards, such as their ‘Business Working Responsibly Mark’.  The organisation describes itself as a national non-profit organisation, which comprises “Ireland’s only dedicated network for responsible business”. It “assists companies to measure, manage and report on their corporate social responsibility or sustainability strategies”, and offers membership to companies for prices between €10,000 and €25,000, “depending on where you are on your CSR journey”. Business in the Community approaches these issues more from the business side of things, with an emphasis on corporate social responsibility – their Board is comprised of CEOs from various large companies.

In the short submission, BITC express their support for the UN Guiding Principles and their recognition of “the complexity of drafting a plan which is both clear, practical and flexible and that will encourage companies to focus on addressing the impact of business on the human rights of individuals”. They recommend a “baseline assessment” to gather information from companies Ireland regarding their knowledge and understanding of human rights.

Under the State duty to protect, the submission briefly acknowledges the role of reporting, due diligence, procurement, and non-financial disclosures. The organisation would welcome training on human rights and the Guiding Principles, and believe it essential that the Government “brings companies together to discuss human rights”.

In relation to the corporate responsibility to respect, the submission calls for the recognition of proportionality given that the majority of Irish companies are small or medium sized – “it is essential that the appropriate reporting is requested and understood”. The organisation considers due diligence to be necessary by companies to ensure human rights are respected in the supply chain – the need for training again is highlighted.

Regarding remedies, the submission notes that there is “no international or transnational system which allows for appropriate remediation”, and calls on the Irish government through the EU “to establish a basis for European law to tackle human rights abuses across its borders” (the Irish Centre for Human Rights called on the Irish Government to support international initiatives for a binding treaty on business and human rights).

The BITC submission also states that:

Standards such as the Business Working Responsibly Mark or equivalent have a role to play in incentivising and assessing companies’ respect for human rights.

The bulk of the submission sets out how this standard is seen to support the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights. From what I can gather, companies who voluntarily seek such a mark are required to complete a questionnaire, which is then audited independently by the National Standards of Authority of Ireland. The International Organization for Standardization has a similar standard, ISO 26000, offering “guidance on social responsibility” (although you need to buy it to see its content).

If the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is to consider recommending the use of such standards in the national action plan on business and human rights, it would need to first ensure that they are acceptable from a human rights perspective. There are questions regarding self-assessment, the scope of rights covered, and whether appropriate human rights expertise is present within the awarding body. Amnesty International participated but then withdrew from the process leading to the creation of ISO 26000. These standards are a voluntary undertaking for companies, and although the State could effectively make them mandatory for companies seeking to do business with it, any move towards using such standards should not detract from introducing binding rules for business and human rights.

The full submission by Business in the Community is available here.

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