Our key takeaway: If you’re a corporate service provider, a strategic advisor, an investor or a business consultant of any kind (we’re raising our hands over here!), the Institute for Human Rights and Business has your name on its list. For 2023, IHRB’s annual top ten list of forward-looking issues in business and human rights focuses on “the enormous influence of commercial entities that provide the financial, legal, and technical infrastructure and advice necessary for all businesses to operate.” When we focus solely on the power of corporate giants, we may overlook or underestimate the role of service providers in harming human rights and the environment. IHRB asks, “What will it take to see these influential sectors embed human rights due diligence more fully into their own business models, and in the advice and support they provide to others?” Specific solutions will vary depending on sector and expertise, but you can probably guess where the ultimate answer lies: in strong human rights policies, robust human rights due diligence, and knowledge and capacity-building on human rights and environmental topics.
The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) published its annual list of Top Ten Business and Human Rights Issues for 2023 (December 2022), highlighting the influence of ten key actors that finance, facilitate and advise business:
- “Strategic Enablers”: Management consultants help companies to meet targets driven by business needs and growth, “increasing profit, efficiency, and market dominance, while complying with the law.” IHRB calls on consulting firms to consider risks to people and planet alongside risks to business, requiring “public profiles matching private conduct, and professed commitment to corporate responsibility not being undermined by more lucrative work offering strategic advice to business.”
- “Capital Providers”: Short-termism and other factors have kept investors “at early stages of the journey to integrate concern for human rights into their investment strategies.” According to IHRB, “[t]he year ahead will see continued efforts to move the responsible investment agenda to the mainstream, and to connect it to related issues, such as the roles of financial institutions in delivering just transitions to a net-zero world." In addition, there will be additional scrutiny on venture capital and private equity.
- “Legal Advisors”: The legal profession is at the centre of many business decisions that impact human rights. Lawyers may take “overly narrow legal approaches at the expense of advising steps to implement effective corporate human rights due diligence”, while others do not yet understand or pay “adequate attention” to the ways that their actions could lead to human rights harm. “In the year ahead, renewed attention should be given to mainstreaming leadership initiatives by legal associations, including those who engage constructively in government consultations relating to responsible business conduct, as well as to promoting the importance of business and human rights guidance and training opportunities for lawyers.”
- “Risk Evaluators”: The report cites ways in which our current system of sovereign debt reinforces systemic inequalities between developed and developing countries, while creating adverse conditions for governments to protect the human rights of their people and limiting the prospect of sustainable development. COVID-19 and climate change are already exacerbating this cycle. Per IHRB, COP27’s agreement to create a loss and damage fund is a step in the right direction, but “[r]eforming the international debt architecture can no longer be postponed.”
- “System Builders”: Technology will continue to provide significant benefits to society, while simultaneously causing or contributing to negative human rights impacts like government surveillance, civic repression, discrimination and more. IHRB believes that tech and software companies will need to “take more proactive steps to investigate potentially harmful impacts of their innovations, and develop ways to prevent harms at every stage of product life cycles.”
- “City Shapers”: The growing world population continues to strain existing housing and infrastructure systems in every country, creating inequality and impacting fundamental human rights: “With approximately 60% of global assets in real estate, there is less an issue with the quantity of finance available for urban areas than with how it is channeled.” 2023 will bring more scrutiny on investments in housing and green finance; in turn, “[r]esponsible action by financial actors and owners in turn creates greater incentives for actors further on in the built environment lifecycle – architects, engineers and builders – to ensure respect for human rights throughout their projects and operations.”
- “Public Persuaders”: Advertising and PR firms can “work at cross-purposes with international norms and standards, by reinforcing cultural or societal stereotypes, and perpetuating habits that adversely impact human rights” or by serving to influence policies and legislation that may cut against the common good. “The year ahead should see greater calls for public affairs companies to engage with experts and affected stakeholders to clarify their own responsibilities, including commitments to ending practices such as sponsoring dubious academic research, inappropriately influencing politicians and officials, and allowing climates to flourish where public interest makes way for private benefit.”
- “Corporate Givers”: Corporate foundations raise “difficult questions concerning motives, long-term sustainability, and potential human rights related impacts of such financial aid.” While corporate philanthropy can support and accelerate positive outcomes for people and planet, “companies should examine the potential impacts of their [giving] on the rights of individuals, communities and vulnerable groups in societies around the world.” In particular, IHRB expects more pressure on foundations to consult more meaningfully with the communities where they donate.
- “Business Educators”: Academia occupies a unique space in relation to the private sector; it “trains current and future business leaders, and shapes thinking on a range of topics, influencing wider discussions on the global economy and business roles in societies around the world.” This role brings with it a responsibility to integrate and mainstream human rights considerations into business and legal education programmes, and “[a]cademic experts must continually make the case for human rights due diligence in curricula.”
- “Information Disseminators”: In light of growing misinformation and reduced public trust in institutions, “online and traditional media will face increasing pressure from users, human rights defenders, and civil society groups to raise their game and uphold the rights they claim to champion.”