On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the OECD National Contact Points for Responsible Business Contact (RBC) , Prof. Christine Kaufmann, Chair of the OECD Working Party on RBC, reflects on their achievements to date and their role into the future.
The plan was to celebrate 2020 as the 20th anniversary of National Contact Points for Responsible Business Conduct (NCPs) handling cases. But then COVID-19 hit and with it the question: What is the role of an NCP at a time like this?
NCPs are responsible business authorities, established by the governments that adhere to the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. While they come in many different shapes and sizes, the OECD Guidelines give all of them a unique, clear and binding mandate and set down criteria they have to meet. The main role of an NCP is “to further the effectiveness of the OECD Guidelines”. In plain language this means to contribute to a more responsible business environment by promoting the OECD Guidelines, contributing to policy coherence and offering a grievance mechanism.
- Promotion: Make the OECD Guidelines known!
The implementation of the OECD Guidelines depends on knowing them. Over the last 20 years we have seen an increasing uptake of the OECD Guidelines by business and in regulations at both the domestic and international levels. However, it still happens regularly that I meet with government officials or business representatives who are unaware of the OECD Guidelines and accordingly unable to benefit from the instruments that they come with, such as OECD’s sector-specific due diligence guidance. Similarly, if civil society organisations do not know how NCP procedures work, they will not know that they can file cases. This is a common experience: we do not trust what we do not know. It is therefore essential for NCPs to provide at the least an up-to-date, easily accessible website with information on: the OECD Guidelines in the language of the country, how the NCP functions and the rules of procedure for filing a case. Many NCPs are already very active in promoting the OECD Guidelines, offering seminars and even developing tools (e.g. the Norwegian RBC Compass). Still, we need more monitoring on the results of these activities. For example, recent experiences in the Netherlands or Germany where governments set a target for business awareness and commitment with responsible business conduct (RBC) or Business and Human Rights standards show that government action is key for improvement.
2. Policy coherence: Make RBC heard!
Bear in mind that the OECD Guidelines cover all areas where business interacts with society, ranging from employment relations, human rights, environment, taxes, consumer protection, competition to science and technology. RBC should therefore be present in a variety of government policies and instruments. This is what the abstract term “policy coherence” targets: to give RBC a voice across all government policies and ensure that policies in areas like trade, investment or environment support rather than contradict RBC objectives. In fact, there has been progress with references to the OECD Guidelines in regulations as well as trade and investment agreements. Still, more can be done. The current COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the importance of policy coherence even more. We know that an RBC approach in the response to COVID-19 will help to make the recovery more rapid, more inclusive and more sustainable, but how can we make sure that policy responses to COVID-19 include RBC standards?
I see a prominent role for NCPs to play. With their 20 years’ experience in handling cases related to the whole spectrum of RBC, NCPs can contribute unique expertise about relevant standards and risks, the functioning of supply chains and the expectations of stakeholders. In the current COVID-19 crisis for example, NCPs can identify potential risks for the health and safety of workers where governments decide to keep essential production lines open and advise on how to address these risks. NCPs can support governments in shaping policy responses that take RBC into account, for example in the criteria for business receiving financial support. However, as recent research by the OECD indicates, there is no comprehensive, systematic integration of responsible business conduct in COVID-19 policy responses.
3. Handling cases: Give those affected a voice!
For those affected by negative impacts of business activities, having access to an effective grievance mechanism is essential. It is also critical for the credibility of the NCP system as a whole that this mechanism is easily accessible, transparent and perceived as operating in an impartial manner. Every case accepted by an NCP offers the opportunity for constructive engagement between companies and stakeholders and for developing a future-oriented solution which will benefit the victims and the company. In a highly globalised and interconnected economy, so far NCPs have handled over 500 cases in more than 100 countries and territories. Some of these cases, which are described in the OECD database of specific instances, have raised highly complex questions, for instance, about: supply chains (e.g. French Natixis case), the notion of business (e.g. Swiss FIFA case), environmental issues (e.g. Italian ENI case; UK Soco case), land rights (Australia ANZ) or internet service companies (Polish Frank Bold case). At the same time, we also see some NCPs applying high thresholds on the substantiation of cases being filed. While this is standard procedure in courts, asking for proof of evidence as an entry requirement risks undermining the purpose of the NCP procedures as a non-judicial, forward-oriented mechanism. Particularly in times of crisis like the current pandemic when courts cannot address negative impacts in a timely manner, it is essential for ensuring stakeholders’ trust and the NCP system’s credibility that NCPs are accessible and provide a forum where allegations about business behaviour can be addressed in a non-adversarial, transparent and solution-oriented manner. One example in this regard is the recent statement issued by the French NCP explaining how it plans to proceed with the first COVID-19 related case.
Conclusion: A call on NCPs in times of crisis
NCPs have made a substantial contribution to a more responsible business environment. But more needs to be and more can be done. In particular, governments should ensure that NCPs have sufficient resources to effectively deliver on the above, as described in a recent OECD report.
While we have seen some successful governmental approaches for integrating RBC in government policies, a more systematic approach is necessary. This is particularly important now when the world is facing a pandemic with unprecedented economic, social and human rights impacts. My call is on governments to systematically include RBC in their COVID-19 policy responses and recovery programmes and to involve NCPs in these discussions.
Effective NCPs do not operate in clinical isolation from other parts of the government but interact and give responsible business conduct a voice in policy discussions. I call on NCPs to mainstream RBC in COVID-19 policy responses and to bring in their expertise in addressing grievances related to the crisis. NCPs have a strong mandate – use it and speak up to make the recovery sustainable and work for all.
Photo credit © Maya-Aska Yokoi-Arai