Will the EU turn a blind eye to human rights impacts of business beyond the supply chain?
It is critical that businesses think not only about their suppliers when they think of their human rights impacts, but also how their products and services can impact on the enjoyment of rights. Regulation such as the EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive can provide much needed clarity for business if it covers the full value chain, writes Gabrielle Holly from the Danish Institute for Human Rights.
When we think of how businesses can impact on human rights in global value chains, severe labour abuses in the supply chain typically spring to mind, often several tiers deep.
However, business-related human rights impacts can take a range of forms and occur not only in the supply chain or in association with a business’ own operations, but also after a product or service has left a company, often referred to as the “downstream” part of the value chain. This can involve the provision of goods and services to end-users and consumers, how these goods and services are used by other companies or governments, as well as conditions for workers in distribution and logistics or impacts associated with end-of-life disposal of products.
Increasing and much-warranted attention is being paid to the human rights impacts of the use and misuse of technology products and services. Examples include the misuse of social media platforms to disseminate hate speech or incite violence, as we have seen concerning Facebook’s activities in Myanmar, or the provision of surveillance technologies facilitating human rights abuses by repressive regimes. Earlier this week, the Paris Court of Appeal confirmed the indictment of the company Amesys and of two of its executives for complicity in torture in Libya for having supplied surveillance technology to the Gaddafi regime.
Cases on downstream human rights impacts concerning a range of sectors and issues are increasingly receiving media attention and in some instances being brought to courts.
Downstream impacts, however, are not confined to particular sectors. Cases on downstream human rights impacts concerning a range of sectors and issues are increasingly receiving media attention and in some instances being brought to courts. These range from the design and construction services provided to projects where allegations of severe labour abuses are known, such as the construction of World Cup Stadia in Qatar; end of life disposal, such as litigation against UK company Maran for a death occurring as a result of unsafe conditions in a Bangladeshi shipbreaking yard; or litigation based on production and marketing practices in relation to opioid medication, targeting not only the manufacturers, but also retailers and consultancy firms.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises make clear that a business bears responsibility for respecting human rights not only in relation to its own activities but also through relationships with business partners across the full value chain. The European Commission’s proposal for a Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) applies a due diligence obligation to the full value chain, rather than being limited to the supply chain. However, recent reporting suggests this approach is under threat in the course of negotiations on the CSDDD among the EU Member States, with some states pushing back strongly against the law applying to the downstream.
As noted in a recent publication from OHCHR, regulation needs to cover the downstream part of the value chain. Despite the value chain emphasis in leading responsible business conduct standards, there is currently a lack of guidance on what responsibilities a company may have in relation to impacts which occur in the downstream, what due diligence looks like, or what action they should take. Businesses can benefit from clear regulation which sets out expectations on downstream due diligence.
Omitting the downstream part of the value chain can also lead to severe human rights impacts not being properly considered by a company. While the impact of the use of technology on the enjoyment of rights is a clear example, as the other examples above show, the pharmaceutical, retail, professional services, waste disposal, design and construction sectors are also prone to severe downstream impacts, as are finance, fashion, hospitality and tourism, and food and beverage.
By omitting the downstream, the EU’s flagship law on due diligence would immediately lag behind the efforts of leading companies who are already conducting human rights due diligence in this part of the value chain.
It should not be assumed that businesses are opposing regulation in this area. A number of statements on behalf of high profile companies have expressed support for any regulation in this area to take a full value chain approach. By omitting the downstream, the EU’s flagship law on due diligence would immediately lag behind the efforts of leading companies which are already conducting human rights due diligence in this part of the value chain.
To effectively avoid and address impacts on all people affected by business activities, what we need is a mainstreaming of human rights due diligence across the full value chain. Regulation can achieve this by levelling the playing field and recognising that human rights impacts will look different and occur at different stages of the value chain for different businesses. The EU should not miss a valuable opportunity to lead on this issue and provide this much-needed clarity.
Gabrielle Holly, Senior Adviser, Human Rights and Business, Danish Institute for Human Rights