Human rights impact assessments: 7 things to keep on the radar

By Bill Hinchberger 06 May 2015

Pak Norani is a boat-maker who lives in Desun Gembira, Indonesia, where harmful business practices are threatening the local environment and livelihoods. What should global development professionals keep in mind when conducting human rights impact assessments? Photo by: Rainforest Action Network / CC BY-NC

Following in the footsteps of environmental and social impact statements, human rights due diligence reports have been around for a couple of decades. Since the 2011 release of the “U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” the human rights impact assessment seems to be coming into its own.

The HRIA takes a “more holistic approach” than its environmental and social equivalents, said Farid Baddache, managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at the Business for Social Responsibility, a global nonprofit that helps its member companies develop sustainable business strategies and solutions.

“An environmental impact assessment can look at how much water will be needed by a factory,” he said. “But it will not necessarily connect the dots with how others in the region use water, for instance, in agriculture.”

HRIA, Baddache explained, looks at a gamut of what practitioners label “rights holders” — including everyone from local communities to potential subcontractors and suppliers.

Increasingly, bilateral lenders are requiring an HRIA as a condition for project funding, Baddache noted. In addition, a French law passed this year requires companies with over 5,000 employees to establish oversight plans to analyze their direct and indirect impact on human rights and the environment.

Since the U.N. principles were formalized, a cottage industry of reports and seminars has emerged to explain what an HRIA is and how to do one. In large part, they have been aimed at the private sector.

Devex recently sat down with Baddache, who is based in Paris, to talk about HRIAs and what global development professionals might want to keep on their radar when conducting one. Here are seven takeaways from that conversation:

1. HRIAs should analyze both positive and negative effects.

“The guiding principles focused on the risks as they relate to a business or duty bearer and how these risks can be mitigated,” BSR’s managing director said. “But a duty bearer can also bring positive effects in terms of development — things such as new jobs, better wages and improved education.”

2. Local governments sometimes need a little convincing.

Local agencies charged with attracting foreign investment can offer a “key challenge,” Baddache said. Sometimes they are not aware of HRIAs, and other times they might lack the capacity to make a contribution.

The trick might be to focus less on the issue of human rights per se and more on how to create “an environment that is conducive to good business, where there are no surprises,” the BSR executive added. “You change the conversation.”

3. The more the merrier.

On the company side, it is important to engage as many people from as many departments as possible, Baddache said.

In addition, “you need to find a way to consult the affected population,” he noted. “It all depends on the local environment. That will determine the kinds of engagement you need.”

4. An HRIA is always a work in progress.

“After the first few years the local environment can change,” Baddache said. The findings need to be reviewed periodically “in case something significant” comes up.

5. Transparency needs to be balanced with the need to protect sensitive information.

A report might hint at suspect behavior by potential contractors or suppliers. Such information might be used as part of a mitigation strategy, but if made public it could be perceived as an unsubstantiated allegation. Companies will want to discuss their HRIAs with community leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, but they won’t want to make the reports themselves public.

6. All human rights are, and aren’t, created equal.

“All human rights are equal in principle — one is not more important than another,” Baddache noted. “But in a given context some rights might be more relevant than others.”

7. Local context is no excuse for bad behavior.

While doing a report about an industrial project in a country in Latin America, Baddache wanted to flag a potential problem for local residents. He was told that in that country nobody bothered with how the neighbors might be affected.

“Just because something is normal, it doesn’t mean that it cannot change,” he said.

What are your experiences in conducting human rights impact assessments? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

Bill hinchberger
Bill Hinchberger@hinchberger

Bill Hinchberger is Devex's Paris correspondent. In his spare time, he's a freelance writer, communications consultant and educator. A native of California, he lived in Latin America for over two decades, reporting for media such as The Financial Times and Business Week. He also served as president of the São Paulo Foreign Press Club and founded the online travel guide BrazilMax.com. Assignments have taken him to over 30 countries, from Cuba to Egypt, India, Kenya, Turkey, and beyond.


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