A Report on the US National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct

Last week, I represented the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council in a Consultation on President Obama’s proposal to create a U.S. National Action Plan (NAP) on Responsible Business Conduct to promote responsible business conduct abroad. The NAP will be consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, with its stated goal being to “cement the brand of U.S. businesses as reliable and accountable partners internationally and promote respect for human rights.”

The Consultation was co-hosted by the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights (GBI), and the Harrison Institute for Public Law at Georgetown University Law Center, with a balanced representation from over 200 government, corporate, academic, and civil society organizations. This was the largest and most well-attended in a series of open dialogues, hosted by various independent organizations, during which stakeholders have been invited to exchange ideas on the National Action Plan process and content.

The meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule, so I may not share the identity or affiliation of any of the speakers or participants, but I can report that the all-day meetings were extremely productive, with high quality presentations from thought leaders, followed by genuine dialogue, inclusive of a diversity of perspectives. I provide below some reflections on the topics discussed and their relevance for sustainable purchasing.

Procurement was a central topic.

An entire session was dedicated to the ways in which the U.S. government protects human rights and creates an environment for responsible business conduct in the context of its public procurement. Topics covered by the expert presenters included: government risk assessment and priority setting; the expansion of requirements beyond core labor rights to all human rights; lessons from anti-trafficking regulations and rules; government capacity to monitor and enforce requirements; and incentives and/or punitive actions related to compliance or non-compliance. From an SPLC perspective, it was particularly interesting to see a strong interest–among government, corporate, academic, and civil society participants alike–to prioritize their initial focus by identifying those categories of purchasing and areas of human rights that could be most effectively addressed through procurement action.

Transparency in public procurement benefits tax-payers and society.

We also heard a call from civil society representatives for increased use of public procurement to increase transparency for public and market benefit. In particular, as described in more detail in a recent blog from Global Witness, procurement offices are in a position to reduce costs to taxpayers and increase market efficiency by demanding transparency about “beneficial ownership” of potential government contractors (i.e., information about which human beings financially benefit from the activities of government contractors) and making that information public through “open contracting.” These perspectives are clearly consistent with the fifth of SPLC’s five Principles for Leadership in Sustainable Purchasing: “Transparency. Soliciting and disclosing information that supports a marketplace of innovation.”

 The UN Guiding Principles and the OECD Guidelines should be required reading for purchasers.

A number of presenters and participants noted that less than 1% of purchasers have likely heard of the  UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights or the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, yet these documents are fundamental to the policy framework through which human rights protections are exercised internationally, including within global supply chains. Further, they provide excellent guidance that could be the starting point for fruitful conversations between purchasers and suppliers. For example, the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide clear expectations for various entity’s responsibilities for protecting human rights, and remedying and redressing abuses of human rights in supply chains. That includes conducting the kind of due diligence and accountability that was a central focal point of a webinar SPLC hosted last year on Protecting Human Rights in Supply Chains through Procurement (video and slides).

With the Obama Administration’s commitment to developing a National Action Plan, and with businesses increasingly expected to take responsibility for human rights abuses deep in their global supply chains, SPLC will be seeking to ensure alignment between our Guidance and these internationally accepted frameworks. While I can’t name names, per the Chatham House Rule, it was great to see that we have members involved in these conversations already who can help us do that.

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