On 11 October 2023, Webber Wentzel in collaboration with the Business and Human Rights Lawyers Association (BHRLA) hosted a rich panel discussion on the need for businesses in Africa to heed the call behind BHR and the role that lawyers play in guiding corporates in this space.
Key take-aways include:
- Corporate, operational and profit stimulating imperatives are not incongruent with the responsibility to respect human rights. These two imperatives are inextricably intertwined with an overarching aim to create sustainable, successful and highly profitable business enterprises whilst improving the lives of those who are impacted by business operations.
- The context in which businesses operate is vital. Africa contains much of the raw materials, mineral resources and labour forces which are inputs into finished products manufactured in developed economies. But it is also a continent where repressive regimes and weak legal systems contribute to increased reports of human rights violations. Roles and responsibilities of Governments on the one hand and corporate citizens on the other must be understood and contextualised through this lens.
- Lawyers play an integral role in advising corporate clients on business and human rights principles, particularly where human rights issues are most relevant in their value chains and how to address them, within the context of emerging legislative developments and litigation trends.
- Understanding the severity of potential human rights impacts and the prioritisation of response and mitigation measures is critical. Insights from the extractive industry in Africa highlighted the high risk of human rights violations associated with environmental degradation and police brutality.
- Corporate duty of care obligations are evolving across the world.
- Tools and frameworks have been established (and are evolving rapidly) at the international and industry levels, including the UNGPs' Business Reference Guide, OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas. These tools and frameworks should become common parlance within business operations and lawyers once again play a central role in advising and guiding clients in this space.
- Where, traditionally, corporate risk assessments focus on risks to the business, BHR requires a focus on risk to people. Business have long been externalising the costs of human rights impacts, which is what BHR seeks to resolve by attempting to restore the balance of responsibilities between business and society. Consultation and engagement with rights-holders is crucial, and stakeholder engagement plans must be adequate and inclusive.
- Corruption and malfeasance in business is widespread on the continent in both the private and public sectors and leads to extensive violations of human rights. Challenging corruption and promoting ethical governance are key to protecting the rights of the public, although exposing corrupt structures remains a challenge.
- In practice, HRDD is an essential tool to assess human rights impacts and integrate an ongoing management process for human rights into business operations. Although there is no one size fits all approach to BHR practices, those businesses which conduct HRDD and not only adopt, but also implement and report on clear policies in respect of supply chains and stakeholder engagement, will be well placed to adapt to new legislative and policy developments in the BHR space."
Watch the below recording of the BHRLA launch