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Business and human rights

Respect for human rights within the business world has been on the agenda of various international fora since the 1970s.
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In 1976, the OECD adopted the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which contain recommendations on corporate responsibility in areas such as labour relations, human rights, the environment, taxation, the fight against corruption and consumer interests. In this context, it was also decided that each OECD country would establish a National Contact Point (NCP), which would promote the application of the guidelines and play a mediating role as an individual complaint’s mechanism. The Federal Public Service Economy, SMEs, Self-employed and Energy chairs and provides the secretariat of the Belgian NCP, which is made up of representatives of the federal and regional authorities, representatives of three representative employers' organisations and three interprofessional employees' organisations.

In 1977, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy.

Within the United Nations, the discussion gained momentum in the mid-2000s. This resulted in 31 guidelines on business and human rights, which the Human Rights Council adopted in 2011. For Belgium, these UN Guiding Principles (UNGP) form one of the fundamental pillars of human rights protection in the context of corporate social responsibility (CSR). In implementation of the UNGP, the Human Rights Council set up a working group on business and human rights. This working group monitors the application of the guidelines and launched the idea of National Action Plans (NAPs).

Belgium adopted its first National Action Plan (NAP) Business and Human Rights in July 2017. The NAP is the culmination of a process that started in 2013 and was led by the Working Group on Social Responsibility within the Interdepartmental Commission on Sustainable Development (ICSD), in which all relevant actors of the federal and federated entities are represented.

A mapping of existing measures at Belgian level was first carried out. Stakeholder consultation rounds were organised with civil society as well as consultations with the various advisory councils. This exercise resulted in a NAP with 33 actions. The implementation of these actions, which are the joint responsibility of the federal actors and the actors of the federated entities, is evaluated annually by the Working Group on Social Responsibility within the Interdepartmental Commission on Sustainable Development.

In the context of the NAP, various resources were developed to provide interested individuals and organisations with additional explanations on how human rights can be integrated into the functioning of businesses and organisations.

Those include:

There is a growing tendency to organise international corporate social responsibility through multi-stakeholder initiatives. These initiatives often take the form of so-called covenants in which businesses, governments, trade unions and civil society work together to prevent abuses, such as human rights violations, animal suffering or environmental pollution.

Examples of such covenants include:

  • Beyond Chocolate is a joint initiative in which the Belgian government, the Belgian chocolate and retail sector, civil society, social impact investors and universities have undertaken to tackle child labour, combat deforestation and give local cocoa producers a viable income.
  • Trustone is a joint initiative of the Flemish and Dutch natural stone sector with the Flemish and Dutch government, NGOs, and trade unions, in which agreements are made for more responsible production and purchases of natural stone.

For its part, the EU has adopted regulations to ensure that European companies do not contribute (indirectly) to human rights or environmental violations.

For example, Directive 2014/95 on non-financial reporting requires large companies to provide specific information on how they operate and address social and environmental challenges. This helps investors, consumers, policymakers, and other stakeholders to assess the non-financial performance of large companies and encourages corporate social responsibility.

The EU has also implemented new environmental and social criteria in its public procurement regulations.

The EU has also adopted a Regulation on conflict minerals, which ensures that EU companies only import certain minerals and metals from responsible sources that do not use their profits to finance armed conflict.

With the action plan on sustainable financing, the European Commission aims to adopt a package of measures to facilitate sustainable investments. This package will also introduce disclosure requirements on how investors and asset managers take environmental, social and governance factors into account.

In the meantime, at the initiative of Ecuador and South Africa, an intergovernmental working group (IGWG on TNCs) has been set up within the United Nations to consider the elaboration of a legally binding instrument, i.e. a treaty, on business and human rights.