Human Rights: Challenges and Solutions for ICT Companies

The UN Guiding Principles (GPs) on Business and Human Rights have emerged as the global framework for preventing and addressing human rights risks resulting from business activities. Endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011, the Guiding Principles establish clarity in three main areas:

  • The state duty to protect human rights, through appropriate policies, regulation and adjudication.

  • The corporate responsibility to respect human rights, by acting with due diligence to avoid infringing on human rights and addressing adverse impacts.

  • The need for access to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial, for public and private sector related abuse.

For many global ICT companies, a major corporate responsibility priority at present focusses on how to apply the second of these (“the corporate responsibility to respect”) through a proactive approach to human rights due diligence.

However, ICT companies are faced with challenges when determining how to undertake human rights due diligence in ways that effectively and accurately identify risks to rights holders. Principle 18 of the GPs is important in this context, providing high-level direction for how companies should engage with human rights stakeholders.

It is notable that Principle 18 starts from the assumption that businesses should understand stakeholder perspectives by “consulting them directly”, and that alternatives such as “independent expert sources” and “others from civil society” are referenced for situations where direct consultation with stakeholders is not possible.

Engaging with rights holders directly is a highly feasible activity for many companies in many scenarios—a manufacturing company engaging with employees on labor rights in the workplace for example, or a mining company engaging with local communities on sensitive issues such as land rights. While by no means simple, these scenarios benefit from tried and tested stakeholder engagement methodologies.

In the ICT industry however, some of the most important human rights impacts arise not from company operations or supply chains (though impacts do occur there, of course) but from the use of company products, services, technologies and applications by billions of individual users. This creates a somewhat unique human rights challenge for the industry: how can a single company consult directly with rights holders when they have hundreds of millions (or even billions) of them?

As part of Microsoft’s commitment to the Guiding Principles and in keeping with the mission of our Technology and Human Rights Center, we have embarked on a series of insightful discussions on the topic of “From Guiding Principles and Beyond”. During these, we focus on the important topic of stakeholders engagement in human rights due diligence by ICT companies.

I was honored to facilitate a terrific discussion on January 28th in Microsoft’s Executive Briefing Center in Brussels with representatives attending from the European Commission, the Council of Europe, Civil society groups like CDT (Center for Democracy for Technology), CSR Europe and Institute for Human rights, and industry representatives from Apple, Yahoo, NSN, Telenor and Telefonica.

Two similar discussions were held the following day in Microsoft’s Berlin Policy Center with a broad range of key stakeholder attending from over 50 organizations.

Another discussion will take place during the RightsCon Summit next week in San Francisco.

The value of these discussions is three-fold.

  • First, they provide insights into practical challenges and real-life solutions for stakeholder engagement on some of the most important human rights issues for the ICT industry.

  • Second, the conversations generate new perspectives to inform the future direction and implementation of the GPs that further enhance their applicability by business and impact on the realization of human rights.

  • Third, the themes and comments emerging help guide effective stakeholder engagement in the ICT industry.

The insights provided will be used in preparing a White Paper (to be finalized and issued later this spring) that hopefully ICT sector companies will find useful as they work to meet their responsibility to consult directly with rights holders when they have hundreds of millions (or even billions) of them.

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