The COVID-19 pandemic brought about unprecedented social and economic challenges, and behind staggering data of contracting economies, people’s lives and livelihoods are on the line. According to the World Bank, in Sri Lanka over 500,000 people are expected to have fallen into poverty as a result of the crisis compounding existing inequalities, especially for those that belong to vulnerable and marginalised populations. The struggle induced by employment loss, travel restrictions, isolation, lack of protective equipment and insufficient access to health care services exposed cracks in our system. We must bring human rights front and centre to address these issues, as failure to do so can present a fundamental challenge to human dignity and sustainable development.
How businesses respond to a crisis can be a key factor in mitigating its impact on our society, and shape public attitudes towards the private sector for years to come. A strong commitment in times of crisis shows that businesses are willing to take concrete steps to uphold human rights, and prevent and address negative impacts of their operations on people and the environment. Businesses that are applying a smart strategy integrating a human rights focus can not only enhance their own resilience to adverse economic circumstances but raise the resilience of the country’s economy and society.
Resources and projects provide support for companies ready for the paradigm shift. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs)―a set of guidelines that define the key duties and responsibilities of States and Businesses with regard to business-related human rights abuses―, offer a blueprint for how business respect for human rights can support the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in line with international human rights standards. Human rights self-assessment tools are available to identify priority areas to address, and a growing number of trainings and workshops welcome business actors of any size to equip them with information and good practices to follow.
In Sri Lanka, the business and human rights landscape is evolving, with more businesses coming on board to uphold the UNGPs as well as ensure their business operations are not negatively impacting human rights. However, despite encouraging progress being made, human rights challenges in the context of business operations continue to exist and have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many workers in a range of sectors including apparel, agriculture, electronics, construction, and manufacturing suffer from unsafe working conditions and labour rights abuses. Workers in the informal economy are particularly vulnerable to such abuses. Moreover, civil society organizations (CSOs), human rights defenders and trade unions continue to see a shrinking space for advocacy. Other issues such as sexual and gender-based violence and the harmful impact of economic growth on the environment have become serious challenges that need urgent attention.
In order to address these diverse sets of challenges, a strong multi-stakeholder approach is required, where governments, businesses, civil society actors, national human rights institutions and academia come together to prevent, mitigate and remediate the adverse impacts of business on human rights.
Business and Human Rights in Asia: Enabling Sustainable Economic Development through the Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework (B+HR Asia), funded by the European Union, supports the implementation of the UNGPs in close partnership with governments, businesses, and civil society, through dialogue, training, research, small grant provision, and awareness raising activities. In Sri Lanka, the project is implemented under the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) flagship portfolio on SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
The project is spotlighting key business and human rights issues affecting Sri Lanka, including labour rights and the impact of COVID-19, women’s participation in the workforce, climate change and biodiversity loss. Working together and with businesses, UNDP B+HR Asia helps to understand human rights risks across supply chains, and the importance of conducting human rights due diligence.
The COVID-19 crisis is a test of business’ commitment to upholding human rights. A company’s response is an opportunity to build trust and showcase its values, resilience, and commitment to upholding the interests of all stakeholders.
The time to ‘build forward better’ is here, and businesses have a role to play: demonstrate their respect for human rights, and prevent and address any adverse impacts their operations may have on society and the environment to support Sri Lanka’s sustainable recovery, amidst these times of uncertainty and complexity.
Sri Lanka Development Update 2021, accessible at https://thedocs.worldbank.org/en/doc/15b8de0edd4f39cc7a82b7aff8430576-0310062021/original/SriLanka-DevUpd-Apr9.pdf, page 27