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Business enterprise, the key to the solution?

All the rights and duties proclaimed and guaranteed by international laws relating to human rights regularly ratified are an integral part of the Constitution, specifies article 19 of the Constitution of Burundi of June 7, 2018. Anyone physical and moral, operating on Burundian soil is de facto subject to respect for human rights, enshrined in this same Constitution and by international texts ratified by Burundi.

This article is the last in a series focusing on business and human rights. This series is set against the backdrop of the upcoming decade of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (“the Guiding Principles”) and COVID-19. In our first article, we recalled what the Guiding Principles are, before focusing in our second article on COVID-19 and its effects on business in Burundi. Today, we examine the application of the three pillars of the Guiding Principles, “Protect, Respect and Remedy“, by business enterprises.

 

WHAT IS THE ROLE PLAYED BY THE ENTERPRISE IN THE PROTECTION OF HUMAN RIGHTS?

Despite the undeniable certainty that the role of protecting internationally and nationally consecrated human rights falls mainly to the state, the increasingly greater responsibility of businesses in this domain has continued to establish itself.

It should be noted that this is just as valid in a small structure such as an entrepreneur, a one-person company, as a large-scale business. The role and obligations of businesses continue to develop and solidify when it comes to the protection of human rights.

It is the responsibility at the highest point of the management team to initiate the development of internal policies, procedure manuals, and various trainings, etc. on the possible impact of their day-to-day actions related to human rights. These developments in company policies do not only concern labor standards and employee rights but also awareness of aspects related to the environment, respect of personal data of all business partners, and many others.

Business partners are multiple and of several types: employees, subcontractors, suppliers, investors, parent companies, and so forth. This could be summed up by any third parties who regularly interact with the company.

Nowadays, the company is no longer only responsible for its own actions, but it can also be called upon to answer for the negligence and/or shortcomings of those of its partners in the broad sense.

For example, individuals who have been subjected to human rights violations by branches located in Kenya or Uganda have brought lawsuits against parent companies abroad. This kind of trial is based on what is known as “a social conscience”. This social conscience is based on the simple fact that the parent company could not have ignored the commission of human rights violations by its branch.

This duty of information and raising awareness also extends to professional associations for their broad access to the general public in their field of action. These associations of professionals including accountants, businesswomen, pharmacists, doctors, economists, architects, and many others, have a wide influence. This access to the general public can and must be used for the development and sharing of in-depth knowledge on human rights.

 

HOW IS THE PILLAR OF RESPECT CHARACTERIZED WITHIN THE BUSINESS ENTERPRISE?

In our previous articles, we have already discussed the importance of due diligence. Due diligence is a recurring process by which a company identifies and understands the impact on human rights that its actions, its staff, and/or its partners may have. The company then prioritizes the risks of its actions, regularly analyzes the effectiveness of its efforts, and communicates periodically with stakeholders.

The social conscience is exacerbated by the ubiquity of social networks and popular apps. This presence allows for the sharing of any corporate involvement in human rights violations in an instant. The brand, the reputation, the turnover are elements that can be seriously tarnished, hence intensifying the need to implement preventive and regular actions.

Due diligence is not just about the actions of any single company, it is also about the actions of all companies in its supply chain.

In a country like Burundi, the coffee sector, for example, holds a place of predilection. Production is mainly export-oriented and is a real example of a supply chain in this country. A washing station (company 1) regularly interacts with farmers for the purchase of cherry coffee. The coffee is then washed and processed at the washing station and the milling company (company 2), to be finally exported (company 3) to an importer (company 4). Throughout this entire supply chain, the risks of human rights violations occurring are enormous. That is, company 4 can be sued for actions carried out by company 1, 2 and/or 3, for example.

Due diligence will allow the company to ensure respect for human rights at all stages. The company will be able to use, among other things, its commercial influence through the various contracts it signs, ensuring that the entire supply chain complies with respect for human rights and makes statements of the latter in its internal policies and in partner contracts.

 

CAN REMEDY BE AN OFFER OPERATED FROM THE CORPORATE ANGLE?

In accordance with the Guiding Principles, compensation for the victim of human rights violations is owed by the company when the company has failed to prevent the commission of violations of the rights of the victim. The reparation will be made either spontaneously, by the company, or through court decisions or other available institutional bodies.

What happens when the justice system is not equipped to address human rights violations?

The development of technology has led to the creation of several services such as sending and receiving money online, ordering and delivering items online, etc. The need for personal data protection and the search for solutions to the problems linked to cybercrime are subjects which are increasingly occupying the legal profession. All these areas are not yet necessarily regulated by specific laws.

With COVID-19, in Bujumbura, companies are increasingly using digital technology: products are marketed via social networks, Facebook, or popular applications such as WhatsApp, Instagram, etc. Accompanying this trend, some of our often vital information is shared online such as our telephone number (means of contact), our address (home delivery of products), our personal information (first and last name and sometimes our date of birth), and our financial data (online payment). What do companies do when they find themselves in possession of all this information? Are they automatically erased after use? Are they shared, sold to other entrepreneurs?

The telecommunications sector, for example, is a rather specific sector requiring a certain mastery. No other actor would have better understanding of these issues than the same telecommunications businesses.

This new situation (the development of online financial services, online purchase and reservation, and everything related to digitalization) underlines, once again, the importance of the development of internal policies by the business enterprise. The latter is not only the first concerned but has every interest in being the leader in its area of expertise. Implementing an internal policy leading to the rapid and effective treatment of any potential and/or actual commission of human rights violations is to its advantage.

For all these questions, it is imperative that business enterprises take the lead and be at the forefront of solutions for alternative methods of resolving possible conflicts. These conflicts are imminent. Remedy is vital and the wait may be causing even more harm.

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