Business and Human Rights in the Extractive sector – Impressions from the 2018 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights


The UN Forum on Business and Human Rights

From 26-28thof November 2018, the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights was held in Geneva. The Forum is the world’s largest annual gathering on business and human rights with more than 2,000 participants from government, business, community groups and civil society, law firms, investor organizations, UN bodies, national human rights institutions, trade unions, academia and the media [1].

Established by the UN Human Rights Council and guided and chaired by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, the Forum was first held following the launch of the famous UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in 2011. For the seventh time now, it provided an annual platform for participants to explore and discuss initiatives concerning the role of business in respecting human rights as well as current business-related human rights issues.

Key messages from a panel discussion on the mining sector

The session ‘Driving human rights performance from the top in the mining sector – the role of the board and investors” revolved around the importance of and progresses on improving human rights performance in the mining sector and focused on the role of good governance and a strong board. Key messages of the discussion involved:

  • Setting the tone and pace from the top: In driving human rights performance from the top, the board should make use of its power for channeling positive change through deciding on standards for human rights due diligence and subsequently following a top-down policy of holding managers accountable to follow such standards.
  • Seriousness of efforts: It is the responsibility of board members to make sure that human rights due diligence is part of the core activities of the company, and not just an ‘add-on’ or a ‘box ticking’ exercise.
  • Holistic board involvement: Board members should not stop at formulating policy, but be involved in due diligence themselves, e.g. through participating in sight visits and engage with communities and civil society in a culturally appropriate manner to know what is going on, to discuss issues and adjust company strategy.
  • Issues to focus on: Human rights due diligence and company responses should address the most significant and challenging risks, rather than focusing on issues that bring ‘easy wins’ and/or focusing on risks that are currently in the media spotlight.
  • Transparency and disclosure: Human rights due diligence activities should be disclosed to the public in a more transparent manner. Also, companies should be more transparent and share lessons learned within the industry (e.g. through industry bodies such as the International Council on Mining and Metals ICMM)

A press statement on new performance expectations: setting a new industry benchmark for ‘responsible mining’?

During the session, Tom Butler, the CEO of the International Council on Mining and Metals ICMM, announced new performance expectations that have been described to define what mining with principles looks like in practice by setting a benchmark for the industry’s environmental and social performance [2]. The new policy of ‘performance expectations’[3] on ICMM member companies is expected to be completed in 2019. Laying out requirements aligned with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, human rights issues play a big part in them. In line with key points discussed in the session, the program was described to be a guide for company boards to see how the corporation is doing and to adjust accordingly, if necessary.

“Human rights performance is a long-term project, so you got to get it right.” 

(Tom Butler, CEO International Council on Mining and Metals)

The potential impact of such performance expectations seems rather impressive at first sight, as the ICMM has a geographically diverse membership with 27 global mining companies headquartered on five continents. Butler said that the performance expectations were to target over 50 companies and touch over 650 sights.

“ICMM’s Council of 27 CEOs have shown real leadership in being the first industry body to commit to implementing the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

 (Tom Butler, CEO International Council on Mining and Metals)

Following the press statement, a few news stories were published. For example, the Ethical corporation titled “It’s time for the mining industry to step up on the environment and human rights”[4]. The Supply Chain Management Review wrote that the “ICMM takes lead in supply chain human rights issues”[5]. The Canadian Mining Journal titled “ICMM first industry body to insist members commit to UN Guiding Principles”[6] and specified on the impact of the new rules that the 650 sights the rules will apply to account for almost 50% the world’s iron ore and copper production and over 25% of all mined commodities by value. This certainly builds a basis for considerable impact through the mining industry.

“Mankind has been mining for the last 50’000 years, and as I see it, we will continue to do so for the next.”

(John Howchin, Secretary-General Council on Ethics)

Another panelist, John Howchin, Secretary-General from the Council on Ethics, further stressed the importance of the ICMM as a ‘leadership group’ and a “key driver in the field”. He also noted that the Council on Ethics, who has a history of being engaged with mining, has itself made use of ICMM content, asking companies to implement ICMM material.

However, he also pointed out that there is a very long way to go and that the ICMM only has 27 members, whereas the Council on Ethics has several hundred members. This added to a general impression that was often repeated at the Forum, namely that some things do change for the better but still too little, too late.

While grappling with the status quo, new challenging trends are evolving

While the mining industry is still grappling with all kinds of issues in efforts to improve human rights performance, one topic briefly mentioned during the session showed that even more issues are already building up. A huge challenge that was described revolved around the automatization of mines. The discussion focused mainly on the issue of benefit sharing that comes with automatization: how will people see a positive impact from a mine if there are no jobs anymore? Given the fact that royalties and taxes are paid directly to the government, the degree to which value comes back to communities and to which local communities have a say in what is done with such money are important issues and were discussed as becoming even more relevant with automatization.

Just as the general impression from the Forum, after the session we were left with a rather mixed set of feelings. A lot seems to be done and a lot of commitments and developments are already there. However, when it comes to measuring the actual impact of such efforts for affected communities on the ground, many puzzles remain.

Written by Kirsten König and Yolinka Vossen









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