By Juliet Hepker and Daniel Litvin – This article appeared in the Mining Journal publication, Mining Environmental Management.
Human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) are attracting high-level support. Do they add value to existing assessment processes?
Over-burdened mining CSR executives may be tempted to dismiss growing pressure for human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) as a paper-generating exercise for the sake of political correctness. Surely environmental and social impact assessments (ESIAs), now well-established and routine for many large-scale investments, already cover human rights-related issues?
It is true that there are areas of overlap between the two, but fundamental differences also exist; HRIAs provide a way of understanding certain sorts of risks which might otherwise fall through the cracks. When they are carefully and efficiently designed, in a way that avoids duplication of existing processes, HRIAs may actually prove to be valuable strategic tools.
While the concept of HRIAs is relatively new, it seems to be slowly gaining ground. The UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights John Ruggie stated in his interim report last year that “no single measure would yield more immediate results in the human rights performance of firms than conducting such assessments where appropriate”.
Professor Ruggie seems likely to push for more extensive use of HRIAs in his final report, which is expected this May [note: this article was published in April]. His conclusions are likely to shape the agenda for governments, regulators, international donors and many NGOs in the years ahead.
Very few companies have as yet completed a fullblown HRIA. However, recent work indicates that some mining firms are moving step-by-step in this direction, with positive results. One large US miner, for example, recently carried out detailed HRIAs at some of its operations, helping it better understand the risks associated with security and other issues. Other mining firms have developed simplified internal HRIA tools so as to identify the main areas of rights-related risk.
But what is the basic difference between HRIAs and existing processes, such as ESIAs, and how does this add value? The key distinction is that while an ESIA takes the current situation as the baseline and measures the direct impacts of the project concerned, an HRIA evaluates impacts against a framework of internationally agreed human rights standards. This means it will likely take into account a broader range of rights-related risks and the rights situation beyond the immediate operation, as well as the potential impacts of the business through its interplay with other actors. Rights issues such as discrimination – which might be embedded in a society but for which the company might nonetheless be blamed, fairly or not – are thus less likely to be missed.
The process of developing HRIAs may prove useful as a convening, consensus-building mechanism between the company, community and host government on otherwise difficult issues. For example, it may add legitimacy to company demands on the government for improved governance so as to protect human rights at the local level.
Companies clearly need to set limits on the boundaries of their own responsibilities on human rights and to avoid adopting an overtly political role. But, if designed carefully, rather than as a tool by which to bash the company, the HRIA process can help encourage reasonable external expectations and generate more consensus on these issues too. HRIAs, in short, have the potential to serve responsible companies’ long-term interests. They may also even help to protect human rights.
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