To mark Human Rights Day on the tenth of December, we will spend this month exploring business and human rights. The Centre for Business, Organisations and Society will also host the webinar "Business and Human Rights: A scholarly contribution to the ‘decade of action’" where academics will share lessons from their research, revealing how businesses can implement effective human rights practices and policies.
Here Annie Snelson-Powell shares lessons from her latest study looking at the effectiveness of human rights policies in oil and gas firms. Her findings show that human rights policies alone are not enough to prevent human rights abuses. What does make a difference however, is a long-term commitment to such policies, as well as a set of practical measures for tackling the issues.
Most of us would find it shocking that powerful firms can continue to operate in ways which do not respect human rights. Particularly in controversial sectors like oil and gas, individuals can be severely impacted by the firm’s operations and are often at risk or subject to a variety of harms. Firms are increasingly adopting human rights policies, apparently to protect human rights, yet human rights infringements are seemingly ever-increasing. Our study aimed to examine this puzzle, to understand when the human rights policies firms adopt actually bring about the expected change to protect human rights.
Human rights abuses can relate to many things – in our study we focus on the most severe forms of human rights abuse, relating to forced labour, death, illegal detention and torture, for example. Our research focused on the oil and gas industry - they have a global reach, operate in high-risk locations, have extensive supply chains and are associated with a range of negative outcomes. An example that has received widespread global attention is Shell’s complicity in abuses of the Ogoni people in Nigeria. Another, perhaps less well-known case, relates to serious and ongoing crimes against local communities in Brazil, impacted by large projects run by Petrobas. Such cases are unfortunately not rare events, but continue to be regularly reported.
When are human rights policies successful?
Our research studied 130 firms and used a unique dataset – we compared the firm’s policy efforts on human rights (from the Sustainalytics database which rates the firm’s policy quality) with Dr. Tricia Olsen’s Global Corporations Human Rights Database (GCHRD) of reports of human rights violations. We also included in our analysis a set of firm-specific variables that relate to three ‘preparedness practices’. We defined these as: systemic mindset (engaging more broadly with wider issues, e.g. with local communities), internalization (expertise in embedding goals internally that relate to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues) and global engagement (e.g. participation externally in multi-stakeholder initiatives).
We find that time is key. While we find some evidence that the very highest quality policies, implemented consistently over time, do have some preventative effect for the most serious forms of human rights violations, more broadly, human rights policies alone are not sufficient to prevent human rights abuses. Neither are any individual preparedness practices, alone, sufficient. What is important is the combination of consistent human rights policy efforts with preparedness practices and that these function to reduce human rights abuses over time.
We drew on means-ends decoupling theory to explain why firms’ policy efforts alone may not be working. Means-ends decoupling suggests that firms might work with policies in increasingly narrow ways, because selecting only policies that are easy to implement reduces the chance of bad press in the event of outside scrutiny. However, in narrowly defining the policies in the first instance, the stipulations in the policy have less scope to make a difference, once implemented. In other words, a weak human rights policy may well be implemented in practice, but by design its (perhaps modest) requirements were already decoupled from the challenging goal of human rights protection.
There is very little quantitative research to date in this space, so our paper is important as it provides evidence that the actions firms appear to be taking are insufficient. However, we do identify ways that firms can reduce this gap. Firms should take their human rights policies very seriously over time as well as attending to their local communities, emphasising the embedding of ESG more broadly and becoming involved in Multi Stakeholder Initiatives (MSIs). The adoption of any one of these activities alone however, may back-fire. For example our results showed that involvement in MSIs alone is prone to misuse and can lead to greater human rights violations in the absence of the other practices. In sum, the complex challenge to protect human rights requires time, where policies need to be complemented with more holisitic efforts.