Thursday, May 1, 2014
Last week I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel on global human rights compliance and enterprise risk management with Mark Nordstrom of General Electric and John Sherman of Shift. The panel was part of a conference entitled New Challenges in Risk Management and Compliance at the UConn School of Law Insurance Law Center.
I spoke about the lack of direct human rights obligations under international law for multinationals, the various voluntary initiatives such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ILO Tripartite Declaration, the UN Global Compact, ISO 26000, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the Global Reporting Initiative, and accusations of bluewashing. I also discussed Dodd-Frank 1502 (conflict minerals), sustainable stock exchange indices, ESG reporting, SEC proxy disclosure on risk management oversight, socially responsible investors, and the roles of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board and the International Integrated Reporting Council in spurring transparency and integrated reporting.
Sherman focused on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 and which contain three pillars, namely the state duty to protect people from human rights abuses by third parties, including business; business’ responsibility to respect human rights, which means avoid infringing on the rights of others and addressing negative impacts with which a business is involved; and the need for greater access to effective remedy for victims of corporate-related abuse, both judicial and non-judicial.
He pointed out that American Bar Association endorsed the Guiding Principles in 2011 concluding that under Model Rule 2.1 of the ABA Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer’s obligation to provide independent and candid legal advice includes the responsibility to go beyond the black letter of the law, and to advise the client on moral, economic, and social and political standards that can affect the lawyer’s advice. This includes the impact of the Guiding Principles when relevant. An advisory group to the Law Society for England and Wales has made even stronger recommendations. Sherman is chairing a working group of the International Bar Association that is developing guidance for bar associations around the world on the Guiding Principles. He observed that Marty Lipton of Wachtel Lipton, has strongly endorsed the Guiding Principles as a “balanced and prudent process for corporations to manage their human rights risks.” Firms such GE, Total, and Coca Cola have met to discuss how their in house counsel can implement the Guiding Principles. Interestingly, Nordtsrom from GE relayed a troubling example of a human rights dilemma in which one of their medical devices was used in China for sex selection purposes rather than for the life saving purposes for which it was intended.
A number of businesses around the world have adopted these voluntary Guiding Principles, but in 2013 Halliburton, McDonalds and Caterpillar faced shareholder proposals based on them. The Guiding Principles have influenced the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals legislation; the US regulations requiring companies investing more than $500,000 of new money in Myanmar to report on their human rights policies and due diligence; the European Commission's 2011 recommendation that all EU countries develop their own National Action Plans to implement the Guiding Principles; the European Union’s Parliament recent directive in April 2014 requiring close to 6,000 companies in the EU to disclose their environmental, social and human rights policies including their due diligence processes, outcomes, and principles risks; the proposed Canadian conflicts minerals legislation; ISO 26000; and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
Although I now teach business associations and civil procedure, I used to teach a seminar in corporate governance, compliance and corporate social responsibility and found that my students really enjoyed the discussions on human rights and enterprise risk management. Some of the sessions I attended in Geneva on Business and Human Rights at the UN in Decemeber were led by lawyers from around the world who were already advising large and small businesses about the Guiding Principles and how to respond to the numerous comply or explain regimes around the world that are asking about environmental, social and governance factors.
Earlier this week, I sat in on a webinar on the role of the board in overseeing sustainability issues, including human rights, which I will write about next week. There isn’t enough time to address these kinds of issues in a traditional business associations course, but as the ABA and Marty Lipton pointed out, the time is coming for attorneys to counsel their clients on these risks. This means that we as business professors need to prepare our students for this new world.