GE has asked the members of its Citizenship Advisory Panel to reflect on trends and key challenges for sustainable development in 2013. This post by Salil Tripathi the challenge of integrating human rights into business due diligence.
The framework for business and human rights the UN Human Rights Council adopted unanimously is relatively new. But its underlying expectation—that companies undertake due diligence to ensure that their conduct does not undermine human rights, and in fact respects rights—is an old one.
This challenge has grown in a world where the lines between business and government are blurring. For a company of GE’s size and scale, the processes the company develops to identify and address risks is critical to delivering on its responsibility to respect human rights. In some respects this is no different than establishing any other set of companywide processes; but in going through the process of human rights impact assessments, new challenges and dilemmas are likely to be uncovered.
One such challenge is understanding the responsibility of the users of products and services, and how this relates to the responsibility of the company that develops them. GE’s products include component systems that support the functioning of defense equipment that can be used in weapon systems, and it is critical that the company has in place systems, protocols and processes to ensure that its products or services do not contribute to human rights violations. This is not an easy task for a company that has contractual relationships with governments. Relations with governments can pose challenges in other areas too: Governments may choose to use technology to provide certain services to certain groups only, or may ask the company to modify products in a way that may undermine rights. These challenges simply raise the bar for due diligence.
Likewise, there are human rights challenges and implications with regard to the collection of healthcare data. Access to data can enable researchers to identify patterns and assist in the treatment of diseases. But the same data can be misused, and there are implications for individual privacy if too much data is collected or shared without adequate safeguards. Dealing with that is a delicate balancing act. Once again, it is not easy. And once again, it is necessary.