The UN Guiding Principles for Business & Human Rights

The UN Guiding Principles for Business & Human Rights

An Interview with Edwin Koster, Lead Trainer

Multimedia from this Release

Friday, December 6, 2013 - 9:30am

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June, 2011. Since this time, the Guiding Principles have served as a global framework for States and business enterprises in preventing and addressing adverse human rights violations linked to business activity. The UNGP are built on three pillars: Protect, Respect, and Remedy. These three pillars refer to:  the states' responsibility to protect against human rights abuses within their territory, the need of business enterprises to respect human rights of others and act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others, and the duty of the state to provide effective remedy for those affected by these human rights abuses.[1]

Since 2011, the UNGP have enjoyed widespread uptake and support from both the public & private sector. For example, the Principles have been endorsed and/or employed by Governments from the European Union, Australia, Canada, Norway, and Sweden.  Furthermore, large corporations including BP, Coca-Cola, and General Electric have endorsed and incorporated their principles into their own Codes of Conduct and human rights policise.  In November 2011, SAI partnered with the  Interchurch Organisation for Development Cooperation (ICCO)  to develop a Handbook and Training Course to help companies operationalize Pillar 2: the Corporate Responsibility to Protect. The Handbook and two-day training course address questions concerning scope and the practical integration of a company's responsibility to respect human rights in their supply chain. SAI has already trained representatives from over 100 companies and NGO's, including:  Hewlett Packard, H & M, Amnesty International, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Oxfam, Fairtrade International, The Walt Disney Company, TATA Steel, Hugo Boss, The Body Shop, Nestle UK. SAI Training Manager Stephanie Wilson and Training Assistant Emily Crain spoke with lead trainer Edwin Koster to discuss his perspective on the trainings and implementation of the UNGP in general. 

Wilson and Crain:Can you share with us how and why SAI decided to write a Handbook and design a training course on the UNGP's.

Koster: Just before the UNGP were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, ICCO invited me to join a seminar they organized on the UNGP. I was immediately intrigued by it. The scope and impact of the UNGP struck me. Later I visited similar seminars on the UNGP and what I noticed was the number of questions stakeholders had on the implementation of the UNGP in their supply chain. "To what extent am I responsible for human rights issues in my supply chain?" "I already joined initiative X. Is this sufficient to meet the corporate responsibility to respect?" "How do I translate the technical, high level guidance of the UNGP into practical supply chain management procedures which fit my company?" These questions combined with SAI´s long term expertise on human rights and supply chain management fuelled our interest to develop a Handbook and Training Course. Fortunately ICCO shared and enabled our vision.   

Wilson and Crain: There is a vibrant mix of stakeholders attending the course.  How does this mix affect the group dynamic?

Koster: It has a very positive effect on group dynamics. We have had human rights lawyers, NGOs, consultants, government officials, buyers and CSR managers in our courses. They bring in diverse case studies and examples. During the group exercises we try to mix people up so they can learn about the different perspectives you can have on an issue. Of course they also ask different sorts of questions which creates a good balance in the topics we discuss. Attendees also start to see how each type of stakeholder can "use" the UNGP. A company might use it to improve or align its current set of policies and procedures with the UNGP. A representative of an NGO learns about what it can or should expect of a company. NGO´s and consultants learn about the specific areas in which companies need. Governments get a better understanding on how they can encourage companies to live up to their responsibilities and how the three pillars are interrelated and can have impact on government policy. 

Wilson and Crain: Are there any common themes with regards to challenges in the interpretation and/or implementation of the Guiding Principles?

Koster: Yes, attendees tend to struggle with determining the extent of their responsibility for human right abuses taking place at suppliers. The UNGP offer an analysis framework which helps stakeholders in determining the extent of a company´s responsibility. Responsibility is based on the type and level of involvement a company has with its supplier. The UNGP distinguish between three types of involvement: cause, contribute, link. We help attendees understand the theory and determine the extent of their responsibility in real cases they face in their supply chain. Other challenges include how to prioritize human rights risks, integration of findings of a human rights risk assessment in internal policies and the set-up of effective operational grievance mechanisms.

Wilson and Crain: In the training you introduce the idea of a mutual buyer-supplier commitment. Can you share with us the reasoning behind this concept?

Koster: Sure! We noticed that most existing codes of conduct have a top down approach. The buyer tells the supplier what to do and what not to do. Buyers  however may inadvertentlycontribute to human rights abuses at their suppliers. Buyers need to be aware of this and make sure that their policies enable a supplier to respect human rights. Buyers and suppliers are in this together. They need to share responsibility. We train attendees on how they can do this and how they can turn their traditional supply chain relationship into a mutual buyer-supplier commitment.

Wilson and Crain: SAI's work with implementing the UNGP goes beyond this particular training course and Handbook. Can you share with us some other projects SAI is involved in which incorporates these Principles?

Koster: Through the Handbook and Training Course we have built a greater awareness of the UNGP throughout the world, which in turn has allowed us to develop other projects based on the UNGP. For instance, we advise standard setters and NGOs on the content and possible implications the UNGP can have on their standards and policies. We also help companies identify and bridge the gap between their current policies and the UNGP. With Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) Denmark we work on guidance on how to address human rights in indirect procurement processes (e.g. via distributors and agents).

And finally, last year SAI was given a fantastic opportunity to develop the Pillars in Practice Project. The project is financed by the US Department of State and it allows us to educate stakeholders in three different countries and sectors on the UNGP. Together with the Danish Institute of Human Rights and local partners we work in the garment sector in Bangladesh, the agricultural sector of Nicaragua and the mining sector in Zimbabwe. Complex yet rewarding work! 




Michelle Bhattachryya
Social Accountability International