Children’s rights and business

Last week I attended an international seminar on child rights and the business sector, a topic that, until recently, has not received the attention it deserves. This is surprising given that children are hugely impacted upon by the actions of companies, and that the influence of business has grown significantly over the past few decades. It is now easier than ever for companies to reach younger global audiences.

The Seminar kicked off with an overview of how the international framework on business and human rights had evolved. An interesting session on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights reinforced the message that States must protect human rights, companies must respect human rights and both must work to remedy any rights violations that have occurred.

We spent three days developing recommendations for the Committee on the Rights of the Child as it drafts its General Comment on Child Rights and Business Sector, which Unicef has supported the development of.

Here are some of the key issues that were discussed:

The muddy waters of extra-territorial jurisdiction

This was, perhaps, the most discussed topic of the seminar, with more questions than answers generated… Who is responsible for children’s rights violations across borders? How can governments exercise authority when companies based in their countries or their subsidiaries violate human rights abroad? How should companies operate in countries with weaker protection of human rights?

This is one issue that the UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee picked up in a report it published last week, urging the government to do more to address human rights abuses resulting from the overseas activities of UK businesses.

It’ll be interesting to see how the UK Government responds to this, and the many other points raised, in its forthcoming strategy on Business and Human Rights.

The need for a new convention?

There was much debate about the need for a legally binding instrument to specifically address the impact of companies on human rights. Should there be a new optional protocol to an existing convention that would require mandatory reporting by companies on their human rights impacts? Or perhaps a new type of international convention that companies (rather than States) could sign?

Given that all attempts to develop “hard law” on this issue have failed since the 1970s, I think that this collective push is misplaced – at least in the short-term.  We need to look at what action would result in the least human rights abuses right now. It would take decades to achieve international consensus on the scope of a new convention, let alone the enormous task of getting States and companies to agree and then ratify. A more achievable goal would be to focus on getting States and companies to do what they should already be doing better.

The Children’s Rights and Business Principles (CRBP)

It was great to hear positive reactions to the CRBP launched earlier this year by Unicef, Save the Children and The UN Global Compact.

The discussion focussed on the challenge to engage the many companies that do not have an existing commitment to respect children’s rights, and furthermore, those companies who do not see the importance of human rights (let alone children’s rights) at all. This is a challenge that Unicef and its partners are already embracing.

Market leaders like Ikea, H&M and Marks & Spencer, whose global operations impact millions of children worldwide, have been forthcoming in beginning the CRBP journey. They will play an important role in setting examples to other companies.

Unicef is currently developing some exciting tools to assist companies on their journey towards adopting the CRBP, including a child rights checklist for companies and guidance for companies on how to consult with children and young people. Watch this space!

Samah Abbasi is an International Policy & Research Officer at Unicef UK

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