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Commentary: UK's proposed law on deforestation needs to go further and stop companies abusing human rights

"Why the government’s proposed law on deforestation needs to go further, and stop companies abusing human rights", 22 September 2020

...As part of the Environment Bill, the government are proposing a new requirement on UK companies to carry out a ‘due diligence’ assessment, showing that they’ve taken steps to tackle illegal deforestation in their supply chains. Companies that fail to take action can be fined...

It’s not all good news, however. The proposed law is narrow and inadequate, focusing only on stopping some forms of deforestation by the largest companies.

This law should not only cover deforestation. It should be extended to include human rights abuses and environmental destruction...

...The UK government seems reluctant to broaden this law. They may argue that human rights and deforestation are separate and should be dealt with separately. But they’re not.

Deforestation frequently involves violating the land rights of indigenous peoples, from the right to tenure to the right to give or withhold consent for changes to how land is used. As well as being the moral thing to do, upholding human rights also will help to protect the world’s forests. And it’s not just us saying this. Last year, the government convened an independent group of experts called the Global Resources Initiative to look at how the UK’s supply chains could become greener and more sustainable. The group recommended a due diligence law, requiring companies to ‘analyse the presence of environmental and human rights risks and impacts within their supply chains, take action to prevent or mitigate those risks, and publicly report on actions taken and planned’.

The government is following this recommendation, but somewhere along the line the ‘human rights’ element has been stripped away...

The proposed law is also deficient in other ways. It aims to prevent only ‘illegal deforestation’, while recognising that almost half of deforestation is actually legal in the country where it occurs. Deforestation is an existential threat to the planet, and needs to be dealt with urgently. It would be more effective, as well as clearer for businesses, to use this law to stop all deforestation linked to UK supply chains.

Another concern is that the government’s proposal would only apply to ‘a relatively small number of larger businesses’. There is no reason why this tentative approach should be the case. Small businesses, particularly if they operate in high-risk sectors, can have a massive impact on human rights and the planet. If the government is reluctant to burden businesses with regulation, it should remember that the idea of due diligence is that a company assesses its risks and then puts appropriate measures in place. A company with less risky supply chains will find it much simpler to comply with the law.

The government has taken a great first step by grasping that tackling bad practices in UK supply chains requires laws that hold companies to account for their sourcing decisions. The crucial next step is to apply this logic to more than deforestation. Ministers have set much store in Britain as a responsible global player. For ‘Global Britain’ to be elevated beyond empty rhetoric requires UK businesses to be held to high ethical and environmental standards – this law is an opportunity to do just that.

Part of the following stories

UK: Companies urge Govt. to tighten up proposed rules on due diligence requirements to address deforestation

UK civil society campaign for a new law on corporate human rights abuses