Climate Change and Human Rights

Climate change could drive more than 120 million people into poverty in the next ten years. This was the ominous prediction contained in a report released last week, by Phillip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on poverty and human rights. This socioeconomic instability, Alston argues, will have disastrous consequences for a myriad of human rights, especially the rights to an adequate standard of living, life, and rule of law. The report critiques human rights bodies, which have largely identified climate change as a threat but not taken proactive measures to address it. Indeed, this critical intersection between human rights and climate change is too often unaddressed.

Although they are often discussed in silos, climate and change and human rights are tackled together at BSR. When I first arrived at BSR, I did not understand why the term “sustainability” was used as a shorthand to describe everything BSR did, especially human rights and women’s empowerment. For me sustainability conjured up images of the environment and climate change, areas in which BSR also works, but not social issues. Over the next few weeks, I gradually began to realize why sustainability is such an effective framing for combining the distinct yet related problems facing both our organization and the larger world.

Flooded Town
Photo by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash

A future where the average temperature rises by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius and environmental degradation is rampant is untenable not because of the loss of some pristine natural value that exists in a vacuum, but because this decay would hurt real people. Failures to respect human rights by governments and corporations create an unstable society prone to discord. Sustainability means recognizing that bold and immediate action is essential to ensure a just future.

One of BSR’s strongest offerings is our ability to synthesize expertise in a wide variety of fields and take a multifaceted approach to solving sustainability problems. By bringing together experts in climate, human rights, supply chains, futures thinking, and many other areas, BSR can position itself at the nexus of seemingly unrelated fields, like climate change and human rights. This focus on private sector action is essential and companies can do a great deal to reduce their environmental impacts, such as reducing their own carbon emissions and supporting environmentally-conscious public policy.

Private sector action is an essential component of addressing the climate crisis, but it is not enough on its own. Governments need to act quickly and decisively, and commit to making climate a priority for the long term. As Alston’s report so ominously puts it, “An over-reliance on the private sector could lead to a climate apartheid scenario in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”

Governmental action to address the climate crisis varies from country to country. The failure to appreciate that climate change is a human rights crisis, however, is near ubiquitous. There have been pushes to codify a healthy environment as a human rights, most ambitiously in Ecuador’s inclusion of the rights of nature in its constitution.

Perhaps governments do not need to use the language of human rights to reduce carbon emissions and pass stricter environmental regulations. But, it is easier and more effective to win hearts and minds when we realize that the victims of climate change are not just ice caps and polar bears, but ourselves.

Corporate Pride in a Fractured World

Everywhere I walked last month, I saw shops, stores, and buildings adorned with rainbow flags. During New York City’s Pride Parade, a seemingly endless procession of company-sponsored floats traversed the streets. The degree to which corporate support for LGBTQ equality has reached and the quickness with which this change has occurred are truly remarkable. Last week, 207 companies prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In the US, using one’s business as a platform to express support for LGBTQ rights is increasingly becoming the norm.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens

The necessity of this support for businesses to remain competitive is clear.  72% of LGBTI allies say they would rather work for a pro-LGBTI company, while 71% of LGBTI people and 82% of allies say they are more likely to buy from a pro-LGBTI company. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign rank businesses based on their LGBTI-friendliness, providing consumers with easy ways to judge companies’ performance.

In 2017, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights published the UN Standards of Conduct for Business on Tackling Discrimination against LGBTI people. Companies can sign onto these non-binding Standards to express their support for and commitment to five responsibilities:

  1. Respect the human rights of LGBTI people at all times.

  2. Eliminate discrimination in any part of their workplace or any stage of hiring, employment, or firing.

  3. Provide support and a welcoming environment for their employees. This support takes many forms, such as LBGTI employee resource groups, peer-mentoring programs, and bias training.

  4. Prevent other human rights violations in the marketplace. Companies should not be discriminatory in their business relationships and should use their leverage to prevent their suppliers and business partners from adopting discriminatory practices and facilitating human rights abuses.

  5. Act in the public sphere by working with local communities to affect change and support LGBTI rights.

The Standards outline the broad strokes of goals companies should seek to achieve, leaving the process of working out implementation to companies, civil society, and other stakeholders.

In January, six companies, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, founded the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality (PGLE), a collaborative initiative aimed at helping companies implement the Standards and support LGBTI rights across the world. BSR serves as the secretariat of this initiative. Much of my work this summer centers around supporting the Partnership as it creates a database of best practices. PGLE exists to help companies operationalize the Standards by learning from each other, local communities, and other stakeholders.

The challenges facing companies depend on where they are. The aforementioned support for equality is not felt around the world. 75 countries criminalize same-sex sexual conduct. 12 countries allow the death penalty for same-sex sexual conduct. Only 67 countries prohibit employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

Companies that operate in such vastly different political and cultural contexts need to be highly intentional in how they support their LGBTI employees and advocate for broader equality. A policy that helps the LGBTI community in one country could hurt them in another. The complexity of the challenge necessitate collaboration, which PGLE is well-positioned to facilitate.

Both domestically and internationally, LGBTI people still face profound discrimination and oppression. It is not enough for businesses to create basic corporate non-discrimination policies. Rather, they need to proactively support LGBTI rights both in the workplace and the larger community. As Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights put it, “If we are to achieve faster global progress towards equality for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and intersex people, businesses will not only have to meet their human rights responsibilities, they must become active agents of change.”

We affect people we will never meet every day

When you hear the phrase “human rights NGO,” what comes to mind?  If you asked me that six months ago, I would have imagined groups collecting donations for aid and relief or running poignant PR campaigns publicizing some atrocity and shaming the people responsible. I would not have imagined a nonprofit consultancy that works almost exclusively with multinational corporations.

Photo by Joël de Vriend on Unsplash

Four weeks ago, I began working in the New York office of BSR, a nonprofit membership organization and sustainability consultancy that helps companies integrate human rights and sustainability into their operations by providing consulting services and bringing together collaborative initiatives in which businesses can share best practices to solve common problems. Their unique model allows them to gain the trust of and affect the actions of some of the world’s most influential companies.

Even though I have taken classes on human rights before, BSR’s theory of change  was not one a to which I had been exposed. My experience with academia had focused on policy and advocacy, which are certainly important. I thought of affecting change as naming, shaming, boycotting, and lobbying. This work is important, but at BSR, the mindset is different. We believe that if we want to change a company’s behavior, we need to work with them. 

This summer, I am focusing on BSR’s human rights projects. My responsibilities include supporting multi-company collaborative initiatives on subject areas like promoting LGBTI equality worldwide and combatting human trafficking in supply chains. These opportunities allow me to both learn more about strategies to promote human rights and give me an appreciation for the difficulties of operating in a myriad of different legal and cultural environments.

BSR bases its human rights practice off the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Created in 2011, this document outlines the responsibilities of companies to respect human rights in all their operations and provide remedy if they violate these rights. The Guiding Principles in turn are based on international declarations and treaties like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Even if these documents lack enforcement mechanisms and are more of a voluntary framework than binding international law, having these internationally agreed-upon set of values is essential in order to work globally.

Perhaps the most important thing BSR does is its human rights impact assessments. When a company wants to expand into a new market or evaluate some of its existing operations, they will contract BSR to perform a holistic review of how their supply chain and their own operations could negatively impact human rights and what opportunities the company has to use its platform to support human rights. This complex process deserves its own blog post, which I am sure I will do soon.

A colleague recently told me that the first thing anyone needs to know about human rights is that they are numerous. In this interconnected world, we affect people we will never meet every day. My time at BSR has shown me just how ubiquitous