Human rights: the next big purpose?

Written by: Alexa Robertson Posted: 21/02/2022

BL76_HumanRights mainAs ‘purpose’ continues to gain momentum, with businesses across the world increasingly committing to ESG, equality and doing wider good, the issue of human rights is also being incorporated into far-reaching investment strategies

“There is a realisation now that ESG is not just about the E,’’ says Mirek Gruna, Chief Commercial Officer for IQ-EQ in Jersey. “The social and governance areas are hugely important too.”

Gruna, like many others in the field, says environmental initiatives often take precedence when businesses are focusing on ESG. But while it’s difficult to argue against decisive action on climate change, awareness is growing across the finance sector that all areas of ESG can also be linked to human rights.

“The key thing is understanding that human rights can be connected to sustainability, it can be connected to social issues around diversity, and it can also be clearly connected to governments,” says Gruna.

“The chances are that, at a country level, governments that are facing issues with corruption or bribery will also be facing human rights issues with the people of their nation.”

Matt Crossman, Stewardship Director at Rathbones, agrees that human rights is increasingly on clients’ agendas as they develop their investment strategies.

“At Rathbones, we list human rights as one of the social issues that can affect the long-term valuation of companies – whether it be in their own operations or in their supply chains,” he says. 

“Fundamental to this shift has been the establishment of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which the investment community helped to shape. 

“Lots of people understand human rights at a personal level, and nation states that have signed up to international treaties have a duty to protect the rights of their citizens,” Crossman adds. “But what about businesses that operate across many countries? Should they have similar duties to uphold that protection?”

He cites the work of Professor John Ruggie, who developed the Protect, Respect, Remedy framework adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011.

“Essentially, it said that states have a duty to protect human rights – suggesting an active stance – whereas companies have a duty to ‘respect’ human rights in their operations, all within the context of both states and companies offering remedy for breaches of human rights.”

With ‘purpose’ becoming something of a buzzword in recent years, companies must ensure they are authentic and long-sighted in their approach to human rights issues, according to Philippa White, founder of The International Exchange (TIE), which connects businesses with ESG-linked causes and projects.

Walking the walk 

“From our point of view, there’s a lot of interest from companies recognising the importance of enabling staff to realise their own purpose, and understanding that people are really yearning for these types of opportunities to support ESG projects, including those around human rights,” she says. 

“It’s about standing for something; walking the walk, not just talking to talk; being transparent; being authentic. 

“It’s good business, because employees will want to work for you, customers will want to buy your products, and the world is going in a direction whereby it needs to become more humane.

"It needs to be more purpose-driven, because the future of our planet and our existence relies on it.” 

Making connections

TIE works to support businesses in developing purpose by connecting them with projects that are making a difference on the ground.

“We want seasoned professionals and companies to be able to unearth their purpose, break out of silos, be able to broaden their horizons,” White says. 

“The way we do that is by taking them out of their silos and partnering them with social initiatives in other parts of the world, and they use their knowledge to impact social challenges.”

One of TIE’s most recent initiatives has been a partnership between BBH London and the Jiyan Foundation, an organisation that supports survivors of war, terror and human rights violations in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq and Syria.

“The way they do that is through providing mental health centres,” says White. “There is no mental health support in that region. Hospitals don’t provide it, and there’s no training for psychoanalysts in the region. Treatment for mental health just doesn’t exist. The Jiyan Foundation is the only one providing this.”

BL76_HumanRights 2The impact opportunity

While partnerships between business and social causes are growing in number, there has also been an increase in family offices focusing on impact philanthropy.

“There are often situations where family wealth has been acquired through activities that could potentially infringe on sustainability or the environment, and these families might decide to give away assets to a philanthropic cause,” says Gruna. 

“This is quite counter-intuitive, but what we’re looking at now is a situation in which more families – particularly the younger generations – are focusing on impact rather than doing no harm. 

“Many investors are now asking: ‘Rather than giving away the money, why not invest the money but in a way that will have a positive impact within the area we’ve chosen?’”

Purpose, says Gruna – particularly among family firms – should be a clearly defined goal, including both what it should look like and how it can be targeted for the greater good. 

“It could be anything – social justice; preventing forced labour; the environment – but you have to be able to define what makes you get up in the morning and feel passionate,” he says. 

“You also have to dig deeper with families around issues such as human rights, because these kinds of issues can be highly nuanced. 

“People might have different views on what a human rights infringement looks like in different areas of life, different countries or different sectors of business. 

“It’s important for firms to have workshop-type sessions with clients to understand their past experiences better and consider how they can best make a difference.”

Globalised wealth

In a world where wealth is increasingly global, where do firms – and wealth holders – stand on holding their wealth in and dealing with countries with human rights issues against them? 

The challenges, says Crossman, are multiple and complex. “The globalised world we live in creates additional complexities for investors trying to understand how their investments are exposed to human rights risks,” he says. 

“The human rights debate is not a simple one at an international level, and we shouldn’t expect the issue to suddenly become easier at a corporate level. 

“Companies are often hampered in their efforts to maintain high standards of human rights risk management by difficult localised circumstances. Conversely, companies and their processes can be problematic.”

Crossman continues: “What’s important for the biggest brands with the best resources is to insist on high standards of human rights due diligence and ethical sourcing, avoiding a ‘race to the bottom’. 

“Each project and potential investment needs to be assessed on its own merits.” 

#FAOCEO: MESSAGE TO THE WORLD

In December 2021, the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights launched #FAOCEO, a mobile billboard campaign aimed at the world’s top CEOs and the leaders of companies that provide health services. 

The campaign, created by BBH London, called for global businesses to invest in the mental wellbeing of survivors of terrorism, domestic violence, war and genocide living in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq and Syria.

As part of the initiative, an interactive mobile billboard with QR codes sent direct messages to top business leaders – including Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Bill Gates. 

It also aimed to garner public support in asking the corporate leadership of these companies to expand their ESG programmes to include mental health support for people living in this part of the world.


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