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Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals

The SDGs are closely linked with human rights and labour standards. For companies, this means human rights approaches can be linked with the SDG agenda – and that SDGs actions should build on a strong human rights foundation.
Lots of input at the 'Human Rights, Sustainable Development and the role of Business' conference held 16th September 2016 at Industriens Hus in Copenhagen. Photo: Sara Ballan.

Publiceret: 11.10.2016
Af Sara Ballan mail

“Which frameworks and guidelines do your company use?” This was one of the first questions at the recent Human Rights and SDG event jointly hosted by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and DI. A few minutes later, the walls of the meeting room were filled with a colourful mosaic of note cards reflecting the diverse landscape of frameworks companies try to navigate.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a new-comer to the list and have gained traction since their adoption by Governments in 2015. For companies, a key question is how to approach the goals – and how they relate to other frameworks, for example the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The road is as important as the goal
At face-value, the SDGs add yet another layer of complexity for companies, and NGOs worry that human rights will be given less priority. However, according to several speakers at the event, the SDGs should not be seen as something radically new but rather as a framework that ties issues and initiatives together and provides a strategic direction to companies.

Achieving the SDGs requires sustained respect for human rights. According to the Danish Institute for Human Rights, 156 of the SDGs – which amount to more than 90 % of the 169 indicators – are directly linked to human rights and labour standards. For instance, SDG number 8 on decent work, requires a strong focus on core human rights, including non-discrimination and safe and healthy working conditions. For companies, this means that working towards the SDGs goes hand in hand with respect for human rights.

In the Words of Dante Pesce, member of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, “do no harm” should still be the starting point for companies. He worries that companies “cherry-pick” SDGs and forget the broad range of human rights issues across their operations.

From SDG to business action

For DONG Energy, the SDGs express ”a formulation of what is important for the world”, including for companies. As such, the SDGs create shared goals which DONG Energy can benchmark their work against. Translating the general language of the SDGs into business goals has been an important step towards SDG action. As a contribution to goal number 7, DONG Energy strives to provide “16 million people with access to off-shore wind energy” by 2020.

The link between the SDGs and responsible business resonates with DONG Energy. Defining SDG goals has not reduced DONG’s core focus on human rights. On the contrary, the goals need to be based on responsible business conduct to create the desired impact, according to Rasmus Skov, Head of Sustainability performance in DONG Energy.

Due diligence is never static   
To understand the positive and negative impact of SDG activities and general business operations, many companies have introduced human rights due diligence processes alongside core business activities. According to Mads Øvlisen, chairman of the Danish Mediation and Complaints-Handling Institution, a stronghold among Danish companies is their willingness to seek dialogue with external stakeholders whose rights they may infringe. This is especially important in situations where local governments do not uphold their responsibility to protect citizens from human rights violations. Instead of withdrawing due to the increased risk, responsible companies are encouraged to stay and use their leverage to seek improved standards and keep up the dialogue with local stakeholders.

Arla Foods works in several challenging markets.  Due diligence is recognized as a strong tool for engagement, but Arla is also aware that information is never static. Despite efforts in Arla to develop solid due diligence methodologies, it is not always possible to keep up with rapidly changing situations locally. For Ivana Tsvetkova, CSR Project Manager Middle East and Africa, the solution is transparency on how and when due diligence processes have been performed, and internal flexibility to ensure that Arla can adapt to a changing reality.

Where to find help
Luckily, companies have many places to turn to for inspiration and support on how to work with human rights and the SDGs. The SDG Compass explains how companies can integrate SDG goals in business operations, and explains the high-level link to human rights. The Danish Institute for Human Rights has also developed a guide where companies can see exactly which human rights link with each SDG target. This means companies can link their human rights approach to the SDG agenda and in a practical way integrate human rights in their SDG work.

Companies can also look towards platforms for collective action to work with human rights and SDG impact. One example is the ILO, who among other things brings companies together in a Child Labor platform. Linda Kromjong, Secretary General of the International Employers Organisation, encourages companies to reach out to the ILO and join forces.

Collaboration is needed

A key conclusion from the event is the need to link the SDG agenda with a human rights approach. This means that companies need to work seriously with due diligence processes and ideally also try to leverage their influence where possible. However, it was also stressed that it is not realistic to expect that companies single-handedly can change everything. A closer partnership between government, the private sector and civil society organizations is needed – the SDG and Human Rights event was a tangible illustration of this and set the scene for future collaboration.


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Human Rights, Sustainable Development and the role of Business, 16th September 2016.
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About the Events
The Global Goals present new business opportunities for companies. As a follow-up to the conference “The Business of Development” on 18 March 2016, DI and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs co-hosted a series of workshops to inspire companies to contribute with business-led solutions and on-board the Global Goals.
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PUBLISHED: 10/11/2016 LAST MODIFIED: 4/8/2017