How can potential effects on human rights or deteriorations in the human rights situation resulting from corporate activities be identified and prevented at an early stage? The answer to that question depends on the context and the question must therefore be asked and answered anew for each context. The question arises not only for ongoing business activities, but also when new activities are initiated.
When examining possible risks, a distinction must be made between effects:
- which are directly caused by the company,
- which the company contributes to, for example, through direct contractual relationships with suppliers, and
- which the company is indirectly associated with by virtue of its business relationships, its business activities, its products or services despite a lack of direct contractual relationships, e.g. when there is a large number of intermediary companies.
This systematic approach to determining the key aspects and risks is not new and is already part of established management systems and processes (for example, in Annex I of the European EMAS Regulation 1221/2009 on voluntary corporate environmental action, which sets out a company's internal environmental audit/assessment).
The size of a company, its industry affiliation and the nature of its business activities influence the risk of contributing to human rights violations. These factors are therefore also decisive for the depth and breadth of risk assessment. It makes sense to conduct a multi-stage analysis that first identifies potential risks and then examines them in depth. The starting point for risk assessment can be an overview of the company's most important activities, existing supply chains and value chains, as well as business relationships. An initial risk analysis of the company could be carried out according to business fields, products or locations. This overview can be used to identify possible risk areas by comparing the results with international human rights standards, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN covenants on human rights (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) and the ILO's core labour standards. For example, if work in a sector is done predominantly by women, particular attention should be paid to regulations for anti-discrimination, prohibition and prevention of sexual harassment and to maternity protection. The context-dependent factors of a location such as the political framework conditions, like legal uncertainty or the absence of freedom of expression in a country and the situation of vulnerable groups such as the indigenous population, should be taken into account. Identifying and evaluating possible risks can be promoted through document research and discussions within the company itself, in subsidiaries, with business partners as well as the involvement of external experts. An in-depth analysis is particularly necessary if there are many potentially affected persons or if the possible consequences are serious, unpredictable or irreversible. This should also include discussions with potentially affected people where they live. It may also be useful to involve both internal and external experts in the field of human rights, for example, through cooperation with local and international NGOs or trade unions.