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As head of the business and human rights team in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Lene Wendland has been at the heart of the global move to make companies more aware of their responsibilities. 

Tell us about your role?

My team at OHCHR focuses on efforts to support implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in government and key industry sectors through providing advice, tools and guidance on interpretation and implementation.

To what extent are companies engaged with the Principles today?

The picture is still mixed. On the one hand the Principles have generated tremendous attention and there has been significant uptake by large companies. But I deliberately use the word ‘uptake’ rather than implementation and this is a key point. Uptake can mean anything from simply being aware of the Principles, through to initiating serious policies. A lot of companies have not gone far enough yet, and some think that just by ‘signing up’ to the Principles and listing them on their website they are somehow addressing this. But the reality is that they need to go beyond just words to actions. However what the Principles have done is put human rights squarely on the agenda of responsible business.

Are smaller sized businesses aware of the Principles?

The vast majority are not and there is much work to be done in this area. There is also a strong regional element to this. Although this is a global business agenda there is still a very strong tilt towards awareness among northern and western companies. We mustn’t kid ourselves that everyone now knows about this agenda.

How do we make more companies and countries aware?

Slowly but surely companies and states are coming around, and one important driver of awareness has been regulatory change that we have seen in at least some countries. For instance the UK Modern Day Slavery Act is a very good example of how regulations are raising awareness among many companies and states of the Principles. And France has passed a new law requiring “vigilance plans” fashioned on the Principles.

But is this about more than just regulations?

Yes, absolutely. The Principles don’t just call for regulation. Instead they ask states to adopt a smart mix of measures. It is about having a mix of regulations that can enforce compliance, while at the same time putting in place policies and incentives to encourage companies to enact processes and policies themselves. So this is not about overburdening businesses with regulations. However, regulations tend to do a very good job at focusing minds around issues, and so they are a wonderful awareness-raising tool. But at the end of the day businesses can improve the human rights agenda as much as governments can. This is an agenda whose time has come.

Tell us about some of the ongoing work at OHCHR

One of the key pillars of the Principles is ‘accountability and remedy’, yet one of the challenges to implementing this pillar has been some lack of clarity around what states and companies should do to improve the current situation. In recent years we have been trying to provide more guidance to states and stakeholders on how to ensure that where there have been business related abuses, there is accountability and access to remedy for victims. We are now in the third phase of this work looking outside the state context to give guidance to companies, states and other stakeholders about how non-state mechanisms can contribute to providing access to remedy when there are business-related abuses. By non-state mechanisms we are referring to operational level company-led grievance mechanisms, mechanisms through trade union representation, multi-stakeholder initiatives, private arbitration, conciliation or mediation, or other.

I understand you are working with Alliance MBS on this project?

Yes, AMBS is providing us with key research that will map the plethora of non-state mechanisms, offer a couple of pilot case studies, and propose a research methodology that can guide us as we take on a longer study of the subject which is due to begin in the autumn.

What are the specific challenges in this area?

It is important to try and understand what works for business. What are the specific access mechanisms that can be used by either those at risk, or those who want to bring allegations of abuse to the attention of companies? There is not enough knowledge about what the remedies can be and we want to engage with people who understand business mechanisms and who can access companies. As such, working with a business school such as Manchester is perfect in terms of identifying the issues which can then be looked at in more detail in the longer study.

How long will the work with Alliance MBS take?

The mapping exercise will take six months, and AMBS will then also be involved in our expert meeting this autumn where we will grapple with defining the approach for the longer study.

Lene is collaborating with Alliance MBS’ Professor Ken McPhail and Dr Lara Bianchi at the Business and Human Rights Catalyst; and is part of the School’s new Business and Human Rights Executive Programme: Managing Risks, Pushing Innovation.