No matter where you live, the simple act of buying a product can affect the human rights of someone you have never met. It can also lead to the extinction of a plant or animal. Business activity – from producing to selling, to investing, and buying – impacts the lives of billions of people worldwide. Every day we engage in some sort of business activity. We pay for gasoline to get to work. We eat corn oR peanuts. We send text messages on a new phone.
Imagine that phone is made using mica produced by a company that uses child labor or forced labor. Imagine the corn and peanuts were planted in an area that was illegally deforested, replacing a forest once rich in biodiversity, including critically endangered animals, that previously sustained local people and helped moderate the climate. Imagine that workers mining mica or harvesting corn or peanuts were forced into dangerous conditions. That the workers might have labored for long hours for little or sometimes no pay. They may have been childlaborers who did not go to school or were victims of human trafficking or sexual abuse. When communities protest the labor conditions, they are often threatened and sometimes attacked.
Scenarios like this happen every day in Madagascar and around the world, across industries, and with almost every imaginable product. They show the effect businesses can have on human rights and the environment. Whether itis a multinational conglomerate with complex supply chains and business relationships spanning the globe or a small family-owned shop, every business has a responsibility to prevent and address human rights abuses and environmental degradation.
The good news is that, as U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, “Businesses can provide crucial support for democratic principles, including respect for human and labor rights. They have the capacity to help shape society and the environment – raising local wages, improving working conditions, building trust with communities, and operating sustainably. As a result, businesses have a key role in addressing human rights abuses, including throughout their value chains.” But who is responsible for making sure that human rights are not overlooked in the drive for profits?
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council ten years ago, say the responsibility is shared. The UNGPs created a common understanding of the positive role businesses can play in promotingrespect for human rights and remedying abuses in the context of business activities. The guidelines outline three pillars: 1) governments have a duty to protect human rights; 2) businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights; and 3) victims affected by business-related human rights issues should have access to remedy.
In response to the UNGPs, over the past decade many governments have created National Action Plans on business and human rights and adopted legislation to counter corporate abuses and enhance accountability, including the United States. Madagascar has developed a National Action Plan specifically to address the issue of child labor in mica mining. Many businesses are strengthening corporate policies and practices on human rights and conducting due diligence to avoid directly or inadvertently supporting human rights abuses through their operations, investments, contracts, or supply chains. Businesses that respect human rights have a competitive advantage by mitigating operational, legal, and reputational risks. These businesses know that respecting human rights is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do. Companies thrive and economies prosper when businesses and governments work together to ensure strong rule of law; respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; respect for national and international labor, environmental, and technical standards; good governance; and effective and accountable institutions.
The U.S. government supports and works to advance global standards to ensure that companies – and communities – benefit from conducting business responsibly and in a rights-respecting manner. U.S. companies are among the global leaders in responsible business conduct based on their commitment to promoting respect for human rights, respecting the rule of law, and strengthening local communities through long-term investments and human capital development. We endeavor for American businesses to live up to expectations that associate the American brand with respect for human rights and strong governance.
We are eager to do more to improve on this record. We look forward to working with partners inMadagascar as we begin to build back better from a global pandemic through equitable and sustainable development. Companies, including U.S. firms, should further strengthen their engagement on human rights issues and partner with governments, workers, and civil society on shared solutions. The UNGPs point us in the right direction but are not sufficient alone.
The United States is proud to support these efforts in Madagascar. For example, Madagascar is one of the world’s leading suppliers of mica, which is used in the semiconductor industry to make mobile phones and other electronics. But an estimated 10,000 children work in these mica mines. To help reduce child labor in Madagascar, the United States Department of Labor awarded a $4.5 million cooperative agreement to the United Nations Development Program(UNDP). The award will bolster the resiliency of vulnerable families in mica-producing communities; build the capacity of government officials to address child labor in the mica supply chain; and increase engagement of non-governmental stakeholders to combat the practice. The project will provide direct educational services to 3,380 children and livelihood services to 1,575 families.
Likewise, USAID is supporting peanut farmers to help them grow their crops sustainably without destroying any forests and is partnering with the private sector to establish traceability and certification mechanisms that will reward those businesses that grow maize, peanuts, and spices in ways that do not harm the environment.
These projects, and others like them in other sectors and countries, are important steps forward. And we can and should note the progress made over the last ten years under the framework set out in the UNGPs and in comparable provisions in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which were updated ten years ago as well. However, there is still much work to be done to foster a world in which businesses see that economic success includes respect for people and the planet. This outcome is only possible when governments are strong partners in ensuring businesses respect human rights and comply with host government laws.
In addition, promoting respect for human rights is best accomplished by working with allies and partners across the globe. The success of future efforts to advance respect for human rights by businesses, in line with the UNGPs, will depend upon the collaboration of government, business, and civil society. The U.S. government is ready to continue to support this effort. To demonstrate our commitment, on June 16, Secretary of State Blinken announced the U.S. government will soon begin the process of updating and revitalizing the United States’ National Action Plan (NAP) on Responsible Business Conduct. https://www.state.gov/10th-anniversary-of-the-un-guiding-principles-on-business-and-human-rights/
Let’s work together to advance respect for human rights and protect the natural resources we depend upon – because sending a text message shouldn’t contribute to the abuse of someone’s human rightsand eating peanuts shouldn’t destroy entire forests.