UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights Provide Clarity

By Dan Bross, Senior Director, Microsoft Corporate Citizenship

On December 2, 2013, I spoke at the Business Stakeholder Meeting held during the pre-day of the UN Forum on Business and Human rights

 Senior Director of Microsoft Corporate Citizenship Dan Bross speaks at the Business Stakeholder Meeting held during the pre-day of the UN Forum on Business and Human rights.

The meeting was convened by the UN Global Compact, the International Organization of Employers, the International Chamber of Commerce, the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights, and Business for Social Responsibility. Designed to provide a safe space for business representatives to engage in peer learning, the meeting provided an opportunity to discuss challenges and opportunities in implementing the Guiding Principles on business and human rights.

I pointed out that before the introduction of the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights, Microsoft and other companies struggled mightily in trying to figure out how to “scope” or define a framework for managing their human rights related issues and responsibilities. Many companies (including Microsoft) lacked clarity on what exactly our individual and collective human rights responsibilities really were. Professor John Ruggie, the UN, and the Working Group deserve thanks for developing and continuing to advance the Guiding Principles. 

While the Guiding Principles state very clearly that it is a corporation’s responsibility to respect human rights, they call on businesses to do a few specific things that are particularly relevant. I focused on two in particular — the expectation that companies will adopt a human rights policy statement and the responsibility of companies to “know and show” their impact on human rights through an internal due diligence process — popularly known as human rights impact assessments. 

In July 2012 Microsoft took the first important step in implementing the Guiding Principles by issuing our first formal global human rights statement. The process of developing our global human rights statement gave us the opportunity to review and assess the wide range of policies we long had in place for protecting the privacy of our customers, for promoting free expression, for ensuring the security of our customers data, for managing our supply chain and for meeting our responsibilities as a responsible employer of our nearly 100,000 employees.

Four key beliefs make up our approach to human rights:

  1. The power of technology to promote human rights
  2. The importance of adherence to internationally recognized standards — including the Guiding Principles, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and others
  3. The effective role business can play in respecting human rights through presence in, rather than absence from, countries that present human rights risks
  4. The need for business to promote good governance and rule of law around the world

Our statement also addressed issues related to internal governance, due diligence, and remediation. The Regulatory and Public Policy Committee of the Microsoft Board is responsible for reviewing our human rights work while our General Counsel oversees the implementation of the policies working through members of our Legal and Corporate Affairs team.

Our statement also includes our commitment to assess the human rights impacts of all our operation on an ongoing basis. We regularly review and update our relevant policies, processes, and management systems to help ensure that we have the appropriate policies and practices in place to meet our responsibility to respect the human rights of our “rights holders.”

At the beginning of our last fiscal year, we committed to a series of human rights impact assessments of our commercial relationships. Those assessments focused on various products, services, business relationships, and markets. Our work began with a corporate-wide mapping to identify relevant human rights issues, followed by an assessment of how we were managing these issues, and finally prioritizing those commercial relationships presenting the greatest potential of human rights risks to rights holders. 

In addition to executing on the human rights impact assessment recommendations and findings to date, we have embarked on a new round of impact assessments — again — focused on those areas of our business with the likelihood of the greatest human rights impact.  

Finally, I think it is important to recognize (as other companies did during the session) that our duty to respect the human rights of our rights holders is an ongoing responsibility – requiring ongoing commitment, focus and work.  During the question and answer portion of the session someone referred to this work as a journey.  I could not agree more.  Corporations are dynamic organizations and as such must continue to respond to ever changing markets and associated responsibilities. We are commitment to that journey and to our responsibility to respect human rights.