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16 Apr 2014

Annabel Short, Program Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Global Child Forum 2014 - a call for urgent action by governments and business

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At the Global Child Forum in Stockholm last Friday, a survey on “Children’s Rights and the Corporate Sector” provided a wake-up call.  Conducted for the Forum by Boston Consulting Group, the survey found that of the over 1000 companies assessed, a third do not yet have a policy on child labour.  And only 24% address other children’s rights issues.  Of those “other” issues, the most commonly referred to is product safety with regards to children (14% of the companies).  The least referred to were security in conflict areas (2%), and supporting children affected by community displacement (only 1%).

There is clearly a long way to go before a critical mass of companies take children’s rights seriously.  And some of the most serious and widespread corporate impacts on children - such as displacement for industrial projects - are being woefully ignored.  In her presentation at the Forum, the President of Oak Foundation, Kathleen Cravero-Kristoffersson quoted from a young child displaced by the Bujagali dam project in Uganda: "Why did you make us leave our good place?"

As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said at the Forum, “children’s rights need to be a priority for every state and every business”.  She outlined the many ways business activities can affect children’s rights, from environmental pollution that harms their health, to the marketing of products like cigarettes and unhealthy foods.  From poorly-paid miners working for months at a time separated from their children, to companies forcing employees to work long hours which means older children find themselves providing care for their younger siblings.  

Another major theme running through the Forum was the way that increased access to digital technology – while empowering children in many ways – also puts them at greater risk of sexual and other forms of exploitation.  To help address these risks, the International Telecomunications Union and UNICEF are currently developing "Guidelines for Industry on Child Online Protection."

Despite the scale of the challenges, the Forum was full of energy and commitments to act.  The emphasis was on partnerships for children’s rights.  Nigel Chapman, the CEO of Plan International, and Howard Taylor, the Managing Director of Nike Foundation, described how their chance meeting at the Forum last year led to the creation of The Girl Declaration, a “call to action to put girls at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda.”  Companies such as Ikea, Lego and Tele2 described how their companies are working to respect children’s rights.   And the Partnering Initiative announced a new project with the Forum to “advance and support cross-sector collaborations to have a positive impact on children’s rights.”

Welcome as all these initiatives are, they are not enough to prevent corporate harm to children’s rights.  Governments are an essential part of the picture.  They need to ensure that the right regulation is in place in areas as diverse as drug testing, curbing pollution, and controlling access to firearms, and to provide access to remedy when abuses do occur.  Yet governments were noticeably the least present, and least heard, stakeholder group at the Forum.

Governments now have now have little excuse to ignore business impacts on children’s rights.  In 2013 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted “UN General Comment no. 16” which clearly sets out their duties in this area.  Increasing expectations are coming from civil society as well.  For example, World Vision International is currently calling on all G20 governments to use their purchasing power to eliminate child labour in their procurement chains.

For companies, Save the Children, UNICEF and the UN Global Compact have developed the Children’s Rights and Business Principles.  As the benchmarking survey mentioned above shows, awareness of the Principles is still low (only 1% of the firms surveyed refer to them).  But with extensive outreach planned in many regions, including events coming up in Nairobi and Tokyo in the coming months, the uptake by business is likely to grow. UNICEF has released additional practical guidance for companies to implement the Principles through policies, codes of conduct, impact assessments, and reporting.

Children’s rights can be seen as an “easy” entry point to broader human rights discussions with business.  What corporate executive is going to say that it is not necessary to protect children from harm?  But some of the issues described above – child safety online, handling the displacement of communities for industrial projects – are among the most complex that companies face.

Here's hoping that the combined forces of the Global Child Forum, the UN General Comment no. 16 and the Children's Rights and Business Principles will galvanize greater action by governments and companies alike – and soon.  After all, the rights of a third of the world’s population depend on it. 

Find out more:

- The Global Child Forum website has presentations and videos from the event

- Our Business & Children Portal has updated news, case examples, tools & guidance - and links to our Bulletin on Business and Children

- Bank Information Center has conducted stakeholder consultations with children affected by World Bank projects, including the Bujagali dam in Uganda mentioned above.  See the video below about their consultations, and also their website.