COVID and Human Rights: Shifting Priorities also for Companies

April 29, 2020

Foley Hoag LLP - Corporate Social Responsibility

Isa Mirza for Foley Hoag LLP wrote an interesting overview piece with focus on how Corporate Social Responsibility fits in:

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most significant global public health crises since the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-20. The spread of the Coronavirus through every continent and major metropolis has led to unprecedented policy responses from governments both large and small. As a result, the human rights community is more closely scrutinizing the impact of these responses, while many company operations are more likely to overlap with the pandemic and evolving government policy in some way. The corollary of this dynamic could be considerable, not just in the near term, but for how rights are to be protected and respected in the future.

Governments Around the World Threaten Rights under Cover of COVID-19

………

Corporate Responses to COVID-19

Companies have also made changes to their operations and policies in response to the pandemic. Many businesses have waived fees and made it easier to obtain a refund, instituted emergency relief and exemptions for borrowers, revised their rules to make them more transparent and flexible, made multi-million dollar donations to support public health efforts, and redirected or repurposed some of their products to help boost the supply of medical equipment.

NGOs and watchdog groups, however, are increasingly concerned about possible situations where companies could be knowingly or inadvertently violating rights as they attempt to sharply attune their operations to COVID-19 and attendant government policies.

Some companies that provide teleconferencing services – a lifeline for families and business during the crisis – have been accused of instituting weak privacy protections and misleading users regarding the quality of their encryption technologies. Concern has also been raised that some social media platforms have been slow in removing hate speech and discriminatory content against groups stereotyped as vectors of the Coronavirus. Under certain conditions, the latter could lead to physical violence against members of populations most vulnerable during the crisis, such as ethnic and religious minorities, healthcare workers in close contact with COVID-19 patients, and individuals under quarantine order.

Corporate Responsibility and How Companies Can Respect Rights During COVID-19

Although companies cannot directly change government policies or be expected to contravene national laws, the current crisis does compel businesses to consider if their operations may be contributing to harmful impacts caused by states and how then they could be meaningfully addressed.

There are well-established international instruments, principles, and best practices that companies can follow when considering how best to respect human rights in the context of COVID-19.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (“UNGPs”) set global human rights expectations for companies in the 21st Century. The UNGPs are designed to encompass the full ecosystem in which business enterprises conduct commercial transactions and maintain supply chains. The UNGPs are premised upon three pillars. The first pillar is that governments have a duty to protect human rights. The second pillar is that companies have a responsibility to respect human rights. The third pillar is that both governments and companies must provide a remedy when human rights are violated.

The corporate responsibility to respect human rights is primarily a responsibility to do no harm. This responsibility can be met in two ways. First, a company should avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through its own commercial activities, and should address such impacts when they occur. Second, a company should seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts to which it is directly linked. A business is deemed to be directly linked to a human rights impact when it has ties through its value chain to an entity that has caused an adverse human rights impact.

Companies can largely meet their responsibility to do no harm by reviewing their operations and supply chains to identify human rights risks; conducting human rights due diligence to prevent adverse human rights impacts arising from commercial activities; and mitigating, remedying, or otherwise addressing adverse human rights impacts that nonetheless occur.

Social media platforms, internet providers, teleconference service companies, and other ICT-based enterprises should also consider the standards set forth in the Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy of the Global Network Initiative (“GNI Principles”). Premised on international human rights norms, the GNI Principles provide member companies with non-binding standards and guidance for implementing them. Importantly, the GNI Principles state that member companies bear an express responsibility to respect and promote the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users. In addition, GNI member companies should be able to demonstrate their efforts in this regard. ICT companies that are not GNI members would be best served by seeking to emulate these standards.

Companies can further fulfill their human rights responsibilities by publicly disclosing the steps they are taking to address challenges identified in their due diligence.

In addition to being integral aspects of the UNGPs, due diligence and public disclosure are salient precepts in other human rights standards. For example, The Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights – the only set of standards providing detailed guidance to natural resource companies regarding how to respect human rights in the provision of security at their operations – call on extractives companies to carry out regular due diligence on the potential human rights risks associated with the protection of natural resource assets. In addition, companies that implement the Voluntary Principles are encouraged, where possible, to publically disclose their efforts to address human rights issues that have been found through the due diligence process. Many governments are now also expecting companies to conduct some form of due diligence and commit to public transparency in order to enter into government contracts and partnerships.

In countries and regions where pandemic prevention policies have contributed to credible reports of human rights abuses, companies should be circumspect to ensure their local operations and supply chains are not contributing to those harms. When operational risks related to COVID-19 are determined to be likely, a company should be prepared to conduct targeted due diligence and a review of relevant policies. This could be complemented by public reporting on specific actions the company has taken to acknowledge and remediate COVID-related human rights challenges.

In addition, companies should consider taking the further step of discussing their due diligence efforts and findings with governments, human rights organizations, representatives of workers and vulnerable groups, and – where beneficial to public health planning – with the medical community.

The Coronavirus pandemic has stretched the resources of every institution across the globe. Governments bear primary responsibility for protecting human rights during the crisis, but their responses have also led to abuses. Although it may seem daunting for companies to factor their potential role in such abuses into their existing operations and policies, doing so will place them at the cutting-edge of best practice. It will also strengthen their capacity to adapt and respect rights in the face of future global crises.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/09/policy-response-from-human-rights-ngos-to-covid-19-the-business-and-human-rights-resource-centre/

https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/covid-19-and-global-human-rights-93783/

One Response to “COVID and Human Rights: Shifting Priorities also for Companies”


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