Guest post: Benchmarking the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles by large firms operating in Ireland

I am very pleased to share this guest post from Benn F. Hogan, Visiting Researcher at the Centre for Social Innovation at the Trinity Business School in Dublin. You can follow him @bennhogan

On 25 November, the Centre for Social Innovation in Trinity Business School held a webinar to launch our 2020 benchmark report, Irish Business and Human Rights: A snapshot of large firms operating in Ireland. The report utilises the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB) Core UNGP Indicator Assessment methodology to review firms’ disclosure on their approach to human rights.

The report benchmarks the 50 largest publicly-listed companies operating in Ireland, through a review of publicly available documentation, including human rights policies, non-financial reports and other relevant documents.

Uniquely among assessments using this methodology, we have also reviewed 10 of the largest state-owned enterprises. Doing so recognises the position of semi-states as ‘role models’ for the broader economy, as envisioned by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

Consisting of thirteen indicators, the methodology assesses public documentation across three indicator themes: Governance and policy commitments, Embedding respect and human rights due diligence, and Remedies and grievance mechanisms. These three themes align to the three key ‘asks’ of business articulated in the UNGPs: setting a policy, conducting human rights due diligence and, where harm occurs, providing victims with access to effective remedy.

In considering publicly available documents, the benchmark seeks to provide a transparent measure of a firm’s disclosure of their approach to human rights. Investors, consumers and policymakers are increasingly focused on this issue. A low score – indicating a lack of relevant information – means that these audiences cannot make informed decisions and society at large remains in the dark about a company’s intentions and impact.

Results: Top 50 publicly-listed companies

Companies performed poorly across all three indicator themes, with 74% of companies in our sample of the 50 largest publicly-listed companies scoring below 30% of the available marks. While there were a number of outliers scoring higher marks, Figure 1 demonstrates shows that 88% of companies scored below half of the marks available.

The most common score for 9 of the 13 indicators was zero, with all six indicators in the second theme falling into this bracket. Average scores for each theme can be seen in Figure 2. Human Rights due diligence (indicators B.2.1–B.2.5) and remediation (indicators A.1.5, C.7) were notably low scoring. For instance, just one company scored a point on B.2.4, which considers the tracking component of human rights due diligence.

Results: State-owned enterprises

State owned enterprises scored even lower than their corporate counterparts, with none scoring above 15.4% of the available points (4/26). The UNGPs place a specific responsibility on states to advance corporate respect for human rights through semi-state companies. As the UNGPs approach their tenth anniversary in 2021, the report suggests this has yet to occur in Ireland.

Launch

Speaking at the launch event, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, Simon Coveney TD, welcomed what he termed a “valuable baseline for many Irish companies”. Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, offered introductory remarks underscoring the importance of the corporate responsibility to respect human rights. Simon McKeever, CEO of the Irish Exporters Association, spoke of the growing importance of sustainability issues to industry.

Following a presentation of the results, a panel discussion included remarks from Siobhan Curran (Chair, Irish Coalition for Business and Human Rights), Sarah Kavanagh (Deputy Director, Human Rights Unit, Department of Foreign Affairs),  Mark Kennedy (Managing Partner, Mazars Ireland), Martha O’Hagan-Luff (Assistant Professor of Finance, TCD) and Catie Shavin (Director, Global Business Initiative on Human Rights).

Conclusion

The report’s findings demonstrate that much work remains for all companies. The findings suggest many have yet to engage with the UNGPs in practice, or at least have yet to report that they are engaging with them.

We have, however, found evidence that inclusion in such research can drive disclosure. Kerry Group – which was included in our pilot of the methodology in 2019, and is also a constituent of the CHRB’s international sample – saw a marked increase in its score through the publication of an 8-page Human Rights Statement.

While increased disclosure does not necessarily imply increased action on the ground, we nevertheless believe that driving greater transparency can help to better identify issues and challenges. It can also allow for the design of effective policy responses that advance the corporate responsibility to respect human rights in an evidence-based manner.

The report concludes by offering a set of recommendations to companies and to the Irish Government. The recommendations recognise that sound policy action – including support for mandatory human rights due diligence measures – is necessary to ensure that, ten years after their adoption by the Human Rights Council, the UNGPs are translated into action by more than just a few leading businesses.

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