This month, I edited a special issue of Lacuna Magazine on business and human rights. As I finalized the edition, I was reading about the world’s global business elite gathering in Davos for their annual get-together. They were being chastised by everyone from Theresa May and the Financial Times to Oxfam for their “to share the gains of globalisation with its losers”. It seemed very fitting in this context that we were examining what companies are doing about their human rights responsibilities.
If you read one article from the special issue, read my interview with Kendyl Salcito. She talks about her work as a pioneer in the field of human rights and business, researching the human rights impacts of business operations in 12 countries on 4 continents. She gives us an insight into what it means to properly examine the human rights impacts of corporate activity, and the challenges in seeking to change company behavior. She also voices her concerns that her work is the exception rather than the rule in the ‘human rights and business’ world. Kendyl fears that the United Nation’s flagship human rights initiative, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, is not helping here. She argues that “human rights due diligence [which the UN prescribes], has been so weakly defined that companies are using the term to mean whatever they want it to, diluting its value”.
Putting the edition together has made me reflect again on whether there is sufficient critical engagement with the deficiencies and limitations of initiatives like the UNGPs. And it also makes me more certain than ever that the human rights and business world should be paying more attention to the actions of inspirational individuals like Kendyl who are making change happen.
It never looks good for anyone involved when a senior civil servant’s critical resignation letter becomes public. When that man is the lead ambassador in the most toxic political negotiations in most of our life times, the reaction is bound to be polarized. Accusations and counter-accusations are currently flying around the newsrooms. Is this just sour grapes from an anti-Brexit civil servant with an axe to grind or do his views reflect genuine concern about the incoherence and naiveté of the British negotiating position?
There were two sections of the letter that caught my eye, as they reinforced existing concerns about the lack of knowledge and expertise about issues vital to the negotiating process in the British government. First there is a passage on the importance of the trade deals we make:
“Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities: increasing market access to other markets and consumer choice in our own, depends on the deals, multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral that we strike, and the terms that we agree.”
This seems to imply that some senior government officials/ministers are seriously underestimating the complexity of negotiating trade deals. As my post from yesterday discussed (watch the video), trade deals are not just about agreeing to reduce taxes on imports and exports (not itself easy). They are about rules of origin, quotas, subsidies, investment protection, intellectual property, sanitary standards and much, much more. And our relationship with the EU dictates the terms of trade we can then negotiate with other countries. Minsters must start to understand this complexity if they are to have any hope of having a coherent and competent negotiating position.
Sir Ivan goes on to say that “serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall.” The worry is that very complex issues are being discussed by people without a full understanding of that complexity, and they are not listening to advice from outside. Whatever the motivations of the messenger, the message needs to be taken very seriously.
I spoke on a panel at the end of last year about post-Brexit trade policy and I told the audience I would try to tackle three really tough challenges. The first challenge was to make them feel sorry for the UK’s Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox.
OK, so it was a silly challenge, aimed partly at waking the audience up and giving them something to laugh about. But I was also trying to make a more serious point about the massive problems facing those in charge of developing UK trade policy. Below is a video of my talk, so you can see if it makes you feel compassionate. You can also judge for yourself whether I managed to tackle my other two challenges (saying something intelligible about the UK’s post-Brexit trade policy, and inspiring the audience to become involved in the debate about what that trade policy should look like).
Crucially, I end by arguing that we need to start thinking now about how the UK’s trade policy can work to effectively protect a broader social and environmental agenda. Working on that is my biggest New year’s resolution!