Leveraging synergies 

Ina Sandler is a Policy Advisor at Business at OECD A growing interest in the interlinkages 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). The UNGPs constitute an, if not the most, important globally recognised framework for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity. The UNGPs implement the ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework, according to which states have the duty to protect human rights, whereas companies have the responsibility to respect human rights. Closely aligned with the UNGPs is the human rights chapter of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (OECD MNE Guidelines), constituting the most comprehensive, government-backed instrument for promoting responsible business conduct, covering all major areas of business ethics. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises are recommendations addressed by governments to multinational enterprises operating in or from adhering countries. Adhering governments within and beyond the OECD have committed to promote Guidelines globally. Over the last decade, when the UNGPs came into being, there has been substantive progress on the human rights front. Businesses around the world have gained considerable experience in the implementation of human rights due diligence, and Responsible Business Conduct (RBC)/Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) practices more broadly, as expectations with regards to business are rising, not least in the context of the current COVID-19 crisis. Even more so, there is a growing interest in understanding how human rights relate to anti-corruption efforts. Research on this issue is expanding, as demonstrated most recently by a new report of the UN Working Group on business and human rights. The interest in the interlinkages between the two agendas is not surprising. The anti-corruption and human rights agendas have much in common. Corruption can generate economic damage, hamper the provision of essential public services, undermine the rule of law and erode peoples’ trust in institutions. It thereby affects people’s standard of living and their equal opportunities, while having a disproportionate impact on the poor and most vulnerable. Importantly, corruption can also create an environment that is permissive of human rights abuses. Unsafe working conditions, for instance, are often linked to bribery and other corrupt practices. Another example is illegal logging for the extraction of palm-oil facilitated by corruption, causing significant damage to local communities in addition to reinforcing environmental degradation, deforestation and threatening endangered species. Corrupt practices and human rights abuses further share many of the same root causes and frequently occur in areas in which there is poor governance and a weak rule of law. A stronger coordination of the two agendas may hence be warranted in order to advance on both fronts. Yet, a closer examination of the two fields also reveals a number of important difference between the human rights and anti-corruption agendas, which need to be taken into account when considering potential approaches for coordination. A corporate approach to corruption and human rights Looking at this issue from a corporate perspective, looking for synergies between human rights and anti-corruption efforts may also bring tangible benefits. Corruption and human rights pose similar reputational, financial, legal and operational risks to companies. Yet, the two agendas tend to exist in parallel, involving different actors, laws, regulatory considerations, business standards and practices and driving different (and often siloed) corporate approaches. Breaking down these policy silos allows companies to leverage existing synergies by building on existing structures and addressing corporate risk in a more holistic manner. A more coordinated approach can enable constructive information sharing that prevents duplication of efforts and can support the development of a broader notion of business integrity and ethics that goes mere legal compliance. The BIAC-IOE guide We developed, jointly with the International Organization of Employers (IOE), and in close cooperation with business experts from around the world, a first practical BIAC-IOE guide on connecting the human rights and anti-corruption agendas at the enterprise level. The guide aims to provide companies with a tool to better understand the overlaps and differences between the fields of anti-corruption and human rights. It also provides an overview of the resources that exist in the two fields and, most importantly, supports respective experts with practical tips and strategies on how to implement a more coordinated approach, where desirable and appropriate, across a number of areas (including initial risk assessments, corporate culture, compliance programs, due diligence assessments, training, internal and external reporting, and multi-stakeholder cooperation and collective action). This is supplemented with a number of practical case studies showcasing examples of companies, which have already implemented a more coordinated approach in their operations. The intention is thereby neither to prescribe certain actions or create an extensive checklist for companies, nor to provide a basis for any legislative initiative or binding legislation. On the contrary, recognising that there is no one size fits all as companies of different sizes, sectors and organisational structure may be facing distinct challenges, the guide intends to equip businesses with a flexible approach by offering a set of questions for self-assessment. The guide also respects the distinct nature of anti-corruption and human rights processes. While anti-corruption programs focus on criminalisation, putting an emphasis on the perpetrators, human rights efforts are taking a more victim-centred perspective. Relatedly, the anti-corruption agenda is based on clear laws and standards that are being processed and managed in companies by legal compliance departments, whereas the corporate human rights agenda is anchored in the ‘responsibility to respect’ (see UNGPs) overseen by sustainability, corporate responsibility, supply chains and/or labour teams. Another critical distinction lies in the scope of the concepts. While corruption can be limited to a number of clearly defined acts, such as bribery, extortion, nepotism, embezzlement and fraud, human rights impacts may be related to a vast number of corporate practices and business relationships. It is for this reason that companies are encouraged to coordinate but not to consolidate their anti-corruption and human rights efforts. Such coordinated approach furthermore also acknowledges that dedicated formation programs and follow-up by human rights and anti-corruption experts in case of transgressions remain critical and necessary. The guide, ever since its publication in September, has received considerable attention as it underlines the progress business is making on the human rights and anti-corruption front. While we consider the guide as a living document, which has scope to grow through the incorporation of novel ideas and case studies, complementary action by governments is needed to sustain the current momentum. The fundamental role of government efforts The public sector, too, could consider strengthening integrity and implementing holistic approaches in its state-owned enterprises. Going beyond individual conduct, reaching the macro-level, governments can work to address the two interlinked challenges of corruption and human rights abuses by improving regulatory environments, strengthening the rule of law and fostering the implementation of human rights instruments as well as globally agreed standards such as the UNGPs and the OECD MNE Guidelines, which address both human rights and corruption. In effect, while business action can be powerful, it can only complement but never replace government efforts to establish and implement a sound policy framework for the protection of human rights. Even more so, the efficiency of business actions depends also on the degree to which states live up to their obligation to protect human rights. Governments, individually and jointly, should also work to address the root causes of corruption and human rights violations by fostering education and reducing poverty. This will not only help to prevent abuse but also support the overall business environment, attracting additional trade and investment, which in turn can help to further raise income levels and promote innovative business practices including RBC/CSR, thus inducing a virtuous circle of development.
... looking for synergies between human rights and anti-corruption efforts may also bring tangible benefits. Corruption and human rights pose similar reputational, financial, legal and operational risks to companies