For a long time human rights were mainly considered to be the responsibility of governments. But now the duty of companies is clearly recognised, and several recent international and national standards have been developed. They help us in our analysis but we still face dilemmas.

Human rights are defined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and more than 80 international conventions and declarations. They are universal and applicable to all human beings. The respect of human rights is now more than ever a clear responsibility of companies, and several initiatives are helping companies to manage their responsibility.

International guiding principles

In 2011 a practical framework for companies known as the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights was finalized by the United Nations. Originally developed by Professor John Ruggie, a United Nations special representative, the principles provide guidance on how companies should implement human rights, and the framework is based on three pillars – protect, respect, and remedy. For companies this means protecting human rights through appropriate policies, regulation, and adjudication; acting with due diligence to avoid infringing the rights of others and to address adverse impacts; and providing greater access for employees to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial.

Dutch action plan

Countries are also developing their own standards at a national level. The Dutch Government for example, has recently developed a national action plan based on the United Nation’s Guiding Principles. Triodos provided input for the plan. We also attended an in-depth multi-stakeholder workshop organised by Shift, an independent, non-profit center for business and human rights practice, and the Social and Economic Council.

Triodos requirements

We expect companies to respect and promote human rights in their own operations, and to use their influence to do the same in their supply chains. We expect them to use international best practice standards and to include communities and governments in their business decisions. They should not be limited by law but rather extend into moral obligation. The extent of policies and programmes we require depends largely on the type of activities the company performs. For example, manufacturers of products using minerals that are mainly found in conflict areas must express a commitment to source conflict free minerals. International institutions and standards such as the Guiding Principles help us to assess the quality and effectiveness of a company’s human rights policies and programmes. Companies that insufficiently demonstrate their commitment to minimising their exposure to human rights violations and companies that repeatedly and severely violate human rights are excluded from investments. 

Dilemmas we face

When applying our requirements for human rights we often face dilemmas. For example, mobile phone technology can foster communication, entrepreneurship and democracy. However it can also be used by repressive regimes for the illegitimate monitoring of citizens. As an example, we are currently in dialogue with Telenor, to determine if we can maintain the Norwegian telecommunication company in our sustainable investment universe. The company has recently won a bid for the license of mobile telecom services in Myanmar (Burma), an internationally recognised repressive regime. The company is approaching this business opportunity very carefully by conducting a comprehensive and multi-stakeholder human rights impact assessment in Myanmar. The assessment is based on Telenor’s own robust human rights policies and recommendations of the international Guiding Principles, but at the same time the company will have to abide the license of Myanmar’s government. Triodos Bank is carefully assessing whether the activities of Telenor will ultimately be beneficial to the local population or if they will contribute to the restriction of their human rights.  

Note: The issues explored in this article are relevant for sustainable investments on the stock market. Triodos Bank believes that our socially responsible investments are a powerful means of promoting our values and working for greater sustainability, while enabling us to offer a complete range of attractive investment options to customers who choose to invest on the stock market.