Sustainability column:Rights and ResponsibilitiesCompanies have been given a bigger role in helping protect international human rights.Outside the rarefied world of the United Nations, few people have heard of JohnRuggie. But he‟s about to make a big difference to the way multinational companies dobusiness, and particularly how they look at the issue of human rights.Until last year, Ruggie – a Harvard professor – was the UN‟s Special Representative onBusiness and Human Rights. His Guiding Principles, published in mid-2011, givecompanies more specific responsibility, alongside governments, for respecting andprotecting international human rights.That‟s important – before Ruggie, human rights had effectively been the preserve of theworld‟s governments. The UN‟s Declaration of Human Rights, introduced in 1948, forexample, makes no mention of the role of business.Ruggie‟s Principles aren‟t law yet, but they‟re gaining in importance. The UN formallyadopted the principles a year ago. Since then, the Organization for EconomicCooperation and Development, the European Union and the International FinanceCorporation, part of the World Bank, have all endorsed Ruggie‟s proposals.Experts estimate that it will take at least five years for the Ruggie principles to be fullyaccepted. In the meantime, there are still questions about how enforceable theprinciples will be – and where precisely the responsibilities of business begin and end.In the Netherlands, the government has set up a working group to look at theimplications of Ruggie‟s principles for the financial sector. AEGON is one of those takingpart.Ruggie wants companies to do three things: firstly, implement a human rights policy;secondly, put in place a system to monitor potential risks to human rights; and thirdly,make sure any human rights abuses can be redressed as quickly and effectively aspossible. It won‟t be enough any more for companies simply to assert that they respecthuman rights. They will have to know that they do, and show that they do.Potentially, the new principles could reach into almost all aspects of a company‟sbusiness. Ruggie applies not only to a company‟s own activities, but also to its productsand services and to its business relationships – even if the company itself is not directlyinvolved in alleged abuses.What‟s more, at the heart of the principles stand the International Bill of Human Rightsand the core standards of the International Labor Organization, which between them
cover areas such as non-discrimination, equal pay and the use of forced or child labor. In other words, Ruggie could shape not only how companies choose their commercial partners, but also, in some cases, how they organize their own businesses.What is AEGON’s position? Building Ruggie into decision-making won‟t be easy. ManyMost of AEGON‟s businesses are companies already have human rights policies. But Ruggielocated in countries with good human is asking them to go much further. The Dutch brewerrights records. According to FreedomHouse – the Washington-based Heineken recently took two years to overhaul and re-writehuman rights group – only two its human rights policy to bring it into line with the new„AEGON‟ countries are not currently principles.listed as „free‟ – China („not free‟) andTurkey („partially free‟). AEGON‟s But Ruggie should bring benefits to companies, as well asHuman Rights Policy has been in more work. The principles will help companies identifyplace since 2007 – and covers all potential risks – and deal with them before they damagethose businesses where we havemajority or management control. corporate reputations. It will also provide companies with aUnder the policy, we are guided in our clearer idea of their responsibilities – particularly importantbusiness activities by the UN for those working in developing countries whereDeclaration of Human Rights, and government institutions are the weakest. And it will givestandards from the UN Global stakeholders a much better understanding of whatCompact and the ILO. Bigger riskscould come from suppliers or the companies are doing – or not doing – to protect humancompanies in which AEGON invests – rights.rather than our own businesses. Here,AEGON recently carried out an initial These are vital considerations – not only for the companiesrisk assessment of its leading involved, but for those that work with them, or invest insuppliers in the Netherlands, while the them. Ruggie himself has pointed to the world miningcompany‟s Responsible Investment industry as a good example of how much human rightsPolicy – introduced in 2011 – alreadycovers international human rights and concerns can end up costing. Disruptions and protests byareas such as child labor, local communities, he reckons, cost a “world-class” miningdiscrimination, safe working operation an average of between $20 million and $30environments and anti-corruption. million a week – approximately $1.5 billion a year. It‟s notFor more information on AEGON‟s just the mining industry – household brand names likeHuman Rights policy, please see: Apple, Nike and Gap have all recently been caught up inhttp://www.aegon.com/Documents/ae allegations of human rights abuses.gon-com/Sustainability/AEGON-Human-rights- Under external pressure, companies in recent years havepolicy.pdf?epslanguage=en been taking human rights more seriously. What Ruggie does is give them a much clearer framework for dealing with these outside concerns. But, as Ruggie himself has said, the principles are not a „one-size-fits-all‟ solution: “They‟re not a toolkit. You don‟t take it off the shelf and plug it in and get an answer.” In the months and years ahead, companies will have to work through the issues for themselves.
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