Caroline Rees is President of the non-profit organization Shift – the leading center of expertise on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Shift works with companies, governments, international and civil society organizations to put the Guiding Principles into practice. Caroline was a lead advisor to Professor John Ruggie, author of the Guiding Principles, during his UN mandate. From 2009 to 2011 she directed the Governance and Accountability Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative. Caroline previously spent 14 years as a British diplomat, latterly representing the UK in the UN Human Rights Council, where she chaired its first negotiations on business and human rights.
Christopher Skroupa: What are salient human rights issues?
Caroline Rees: Something that is salient is prominent or important. It stands out. A company’s salient human rights issues are those human rights that stand out because they are at risk of the most severe negative impact in connection with the company’s operations or value chain. They are the human rights priorities for the company: they need the most urgent attention to prevent actual harm from happening, and they should form the focus of the company’s public reporting on human rights.
Skroupa: Companies typically focus on risk to their business, not risks to people. How does ‘salience’ relate to traditional business risk analyses?
Rees: Human rights impacts are the most acute social, environmental and economic impacts a company can have on people. Salient human rights issues are in turn the most severe human rights impacts. In practice, impacts that rise to this level of severity converge strongly with risk to the business, as seen in the many instances where they lead to reputation-damaging campaigns, disruption and delays to operations, increased costs of managing conflict, litigation and other costs or loss in value to the business. This is particularly evident over the medium to long term.
Skroupa: Can a company decide for itself what its most severe risks to people are? Is there a listing that ranks the risks? Or can it use its usual materiality processes?
Rees: To identify a company’s salient human rights issues, a company needs to map out the various impacts it could be involved with across its operations and value chain. The most severe impacts are then identified by assessing which impacts would be gravest, most widespread or most difficult to remedy. This assessment should be informed by an understanding of the perspectives of those who could be impacted. Conclusions should be checked with stakeholders inside and outside the company. So there is no set list, although certain issues will be typical within certain sectors – for example, security and human rights in the mining industry or freedom of expression in the ICT sector. But there is a clear method for getting this right.