Annemieke Reijngoud

HUMAN round table participants ask for practical guidance for implementing the SDGs

Which Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) show biggest overlap with your company’s efforts on human rights? Which obstacles do you face and what are your next steps achieving the SDGs related to human rights? These questions were addressed during the second HUMAN Round Table of 29th of June 2016.


More than 25 stakeholders participated in the dialogue, representing Dutch (multinational) companies, investors, civil society organizations, government and research institutions.


SDGs should be translated into practical actions

Participants agreed that all seventeen sustainable development goals show overlap with human rights, and can be connected to business activities of companies or organizations.  Companies could focus on the most important goals related to their business. Nevertheless, contributing to each one of the goals should positively impact another.


The participating companies indicate that the main obstacle they face is the lack of in-depth understanding of what each SDG means and how the SDGs should be translated into practical actions and KPIs related to their business activities. Also political and economic instability will have its impact on reaching goals like job creation and inclusive economic growth.


The first step is to enhance understanding of the SDGs

Next steps therefore should be as practical as possible and therefore practical implementation guidance is needed, the participants concluded. A first step should be to enhance understanding and raising awareness amongst managers, employees and suppliers on human rights and SDGs. Next to that, the involvement of stakeholders is crucial in determining the right long-term focus and implementation approach. Investors ask for more mandatory disclosure of data on human rights and the SDGs. The tension between expectations of NGOs (action on all SDGs), business (specific focus), government and investors points to the importance of goal 17: forming partnerships.


The enthusiastic participation and focus on collaboration reflects the purpose of the HUMAN round tables; to stimulate the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights by sharing best practices, creating awareness, and facilitating cooperation between companies, investors, NGOs and government.


HUMAN partnership

HUMAN is a partnership between VBDO, PwC, CNV International and ICCO Cooperation to advance the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights (UNGPs) in the Netherlands. In the past four years, the HUMAN conferences successfully facilitated a dialogue between companies, investors, civil society organizations, research institutions and governments on human rights and business. In 2016, we continue this dialogue in the form of three round-tables. The next round-table will take place at the end of October on operational-grievance mechanisms in practice.

Successful round table about the role of government on HR and business

What role can the EU governments play to support companies in their efforts to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights? This was the main question of the HUMAN 2016 Round-table of Thursday 21 April. The outcomes of this round-table will be included in a Pan-European conference at May 11. 

HUMAN 2016 is a multi-stakeholder round-table on expectations on the role of governments in the implementation of human rights in business. More than twenty stakeholders are invited on 21 April, among which Dutch multinational companies, investors, civil society organizations, government representatives and research institutions. VBDO is co-organizing this event.

Topics such as effectiveness of actions of policymakers and need for hard law were discussed. Common ground was found in the request for more policy coherence and sustainable public procurement (“governments should practice what they preach”). As part of the Dutch presidency of the European Union, European civil society organizations and the Dutch government are jointly organizing this event on May 11 to progress the implementation of the human rights and business agenda of the EU and its member states. The anonymised outcomes of the HUMAN round-table will be discussed at this Pan-European conference.

The VBDO emphasizes the importance of these events. “Businesses still struggle with many aspects of implementing the UNGPs. For many companies it is complicated to assess which violations of human rights occur within their value chain and/or own direct business operations. This is also how ‘human rights’ are framed. It’s therefore important to give insights on how regulations can be made more useful and known to get companies more engaged.”

HUMAN is a partnership between ICCO Cooperation, PwC, CNV Internationaal, and The Dutch Association of Investors for Sustainable Development (VBDO) to advance the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights (UNGPs) in the Netherlands. In the past four years, the HUMAN conferences successfully facilitated a dialogue between companies, investors, civil society organisations, research institutions, and governments on human rights and business. This year we will continue this dialogue in the form of three round-tables.

Implementing human rights at Aviva Investors

Stephanie Maier (Head of Responsible Investment Strategy & Research at Aviva Investors):

“The importance of having a human rights perspective became apparent when Aviva had invested in Soco, a company that was seriously challenged when it started operating on a world heritage site and bribed government officials.

How can companies prepare themselves? Why do they find themselves in such situations? One key element is the lack of awareness of human rights, and what they could mean for them. There is a general lack of understanding. We’ve seen this many times in our engagement with other companies: what the impact is of a company in a particular region or country is often not comprehended. If you look at the example of Soco, why did they pay a corrupt officer at least 42,000 dollars? The company was just not aware, did not understand, how that would backlash at them.

I see an important role for investors in helping companies to truly understand human rights risks and issues. As long-term investors we see that for good returns on investment, we have to become aware of and deal with sustainability issues. It will frequently be the case that companies (and their shareholders) will benefit from not acting in a proper way in the short run, but in the long run they will not continue to do so. That is why a long-term perspective is so important.”

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Women’s rights are key

Selima Ahmad (Entrepreneur and Founder of the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce)

Selima Ahmad is a self-made business entrepreneur from Bangladesh. She has built her company starting with $500,- into a multi-million dollar international corporation. To enable Bangladeshi women to empower themselves economically, she has established the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce. For her, human rights and gender equality are closely aligned.

“We can strongly benefit from the implementation of human rights in business operations. We all make an impact both as individuals and corporations, the real question here is how we can deal with this impact.

The impact we can have is nowhere larger than on women. In Bangladesh, I have experienced in person how the unfair treatment of women versus men has hindered women in their attempts to get educated, to start a business and to become financially independent. Bangladesh is a country of microfinance. However, microfinance is too small to give women a ‘real income’, it is like charity. Also the repayment terms are often unrealistic. Women need real bank loans, real government support, real education.

Why are companies important to change this? We all know companies create jobs. But we also know that in countries such as Bangladesh, these companies are often corrupt. These companies comprise of people that come to developing countries to make profits. They want quick results. However, they should take the time to develop a human rights policy and to pressure governments to be more strict. As long as companies reward governments, and vice versa, for not upholding human rights, there are gaps in the protection of human and women’s rights. To close the gap, transparency is the first step. Paying taxes is part of this. If you don’t pay taxes and refuse to be transparent, then what is the difference between a company and a smuggler?

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Implementing human rights at Unilever

Marcela Manubens (Global VP for Social Impact at Unilever):

“I joined Unilever because I wanted to be part of a company that believes in working on human rights. Unilever has an incredibly big footprint, that is why we want to improve sustainable development while also striving to double the size of our business.

This is why we expanded our ambition and offered opportunities for women in particular, and worked on improving our human rights performance in particular. Unilever wants to have a positive social impact and is the first adopter of the UNGP Reporting Framework. For us, transparency is key. Because if we don’t report, we cannot prove that we are social engaged. Transparency is always the first step to improvement.

We need to take action when human rights are not respected. We need to think about the message to our employees. When we ask directors what human rights mean to them personally, stories of specific persons in dire conditions are told. When we talk about human rights, it is always about someone else, it is never about us. That is an attitude that needs to change: we want to make human rights personal. If you want change, you should start with yourself, you are the one who can make the change; but also remember: change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. Particularly in large companies – society often expect a big shift in only a short amount of time. We have to be ambitious but realistic at the same time.”

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Q: Are there issues with which Unilever deals to improve its human rights performance, that are actually hurting the business? In other words, does the response to the issue go against the business model?

A: Some may argue that the impact of our decision is disadvantageous for Unilever when looking at our financial Profit & Loss accounts, but that is looking only to short-term gains. For us, it does not pay to have people working in poor conditions. That goes against our sustainable business model.

Q: At the moment Unilever is praised by almost everyone. Are there still organisations that critise you? Who are your main critics?

A: Naming and Shaming is still okay, because is often has an impact: it starts the discussion, issues are recognized, business listens to civil society organisations. However, now we know we can do more, we need to work together instead of opposing each other. Where there is only criticism, there is no incentive for cooperation. We need the critical mass, but we also need people to ‘cross the streets’ and work with us in a constructive way.

Q: Do you promote human rights in difficult countries?

A: Yes, we do. And we will continue to do so. But it is difficult indeed, particularly concerning the role of business in an area of conflict. If we stay we have more leverage and impact to change the situation. If we divest we lose that possibility, but on the other hand we have a better security situation. It is a though question.

Human rights 1.0

Speaker: Liesbeth Unger (Human Rights@Work)

Human rights are standards for everybody. They are based on international standards and treaties between states. The UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights describe what is expected from states and businesses regarding human rights:

  • Protect. States: duty to protect
  • Respect. Corporations: responsibility to respect
  • Remedy. Victims: access to effective remedy

The UNGP states that corporations have the responsibility to ‘do no harm’, independent of what the state does. This is a proactive responsibility rather than a reactive one. Three tips to improve your human rights performance:

  1. Start small and prioritise based on impact: take one country, one supply chain and investigate (impact assessment – what happens locally)
  2. Start asking questions (to suppliers, to human resources, to management, to stakeholders) and initiate a joint risk assessment
  3. Start the internal and external conversation about what human rights mean for the company

Additional tools/frameworks: UNGP Reporting Framework, Social Hotspot Database, CSR Risk Check.

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When a company faces more than one human rights risks, how should it prioritise action?
“As a company, you need to have resources to deal with all human rights risks; there is no option of prioritising based on your own interests. However, what you can prioritise on is the severity of the impact and the leverage that you have. Sometimes, you see that you could have a great impact, but you simply don’t have the leverage to achieve this. It is then key to find other stakeholders and address the issues together.”