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An Interview with Business and Human Rights Expert, Veronica Rubio

An Interview with Business and Human Rights Expert, Veronica Rubio

slavefreetrade had the opportunity to virtually sit down with Veronica Rubio, Senior Advisor at Vectra International and a lawyer specialized in international trade and human rights. Rubio has 19 years of experience in promoting sustainable supply chains, social corporate responsibility, and small farmers’ access to international fair-trade markets. She shares with us insights on what the respective roles of the private sector and states should be in protecting human rights and fostering social sustainability.

You have extensive experience on sustainability and human rights. What makes you passionate and what motivates you the most about being in this field of work?

My passion for sustainability and human rights started in the 90s when I became aware of the Rio summit, social injustice, global warming, and so many other topics. This answer, however, is incomplete because now after so many years I realized that my activism started at that time, but what made me interested in this field is my profound passion for life and humanity. My passion for studying law wasn’t just for the sake of the profession, but to promote justice. The combination of passion for humanity and the respect that I have for nature guides me to the path of sustainability and human rights.

Our world is becoming more globalized, and the way that businesses carry out their operations has changed. In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing social issues affecting businesses and their supply chains currently? 

Globalisation today is at full speed, and that changes the landscape incredibly. The nature of business has always been exploring new territories so that is not something that scares companies. However, the temptation of globalization is trying to harmonise things instead of respecting every culture and population as they are.

The usual suspect in social issues were always excessive working hours, forced labor, discrimination, and bad occupational health and safety conditions. There you need to be a bit nuanced because for example, [in terms of] excessive working hours, Europeans have sometimes made the mistake of judging the situation from their own eyes. They might think that there should be a rigid standard of working 8 hours per day, without understanding that [others have a different work culture]. 

Now what I see as a great threat for companies is COVID-19 and all the associated issues that are coming with it. It’s exacerbating many of the social issues we are already seeing. Companies are quite concerned about what the future will look like, because they are not being given the freedom to be resilient and innovative. Also, we tend to think that these social issues in the supply chain are isolated, but they are actually a reflection of what is happening in society. 

What are the difficulties faced by businesses when it comes to addressing these social issues? 

In general, companies are doing a great job in mapping and identifying the risks. Some have quite a good understanding of the remedy path, which is the [toughest] part, let’s say, of due diligence. It is in the DNA of companies to be innovative and in the area of sustainability, they are trying to cope and reinvent. In my view, what causes difficulties to companies is lack of clarity. Public sector legislation and policies are not clear, and there is not enough support on what is expected from [companies]. There is tension between what the government is supposed to do and what the companies are supposed to do. And I think companies have the perception that states are putting a lot on their shoulders, and [changing] the game all the time. So, clarity is crucial. 

Today, various sustainability certifications exist, covering a wide variety of industries and focus areas. These certifications provide a framework for assessing and mitigating specific environmental and/or social issues, and allow participating companies to clearly demonstrate their performance on these indicators. Based on your experience, what makes a sustainability certification scheme successful? What key elements must be present in the design of such programmes?

One of the first key elements any sustainability standard should have is to be credible and to always have legitimacy on what [the standard] is claiming. Refer it to something that exists already, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Same thing, if we’re talking about environmental certifications. The content that you write should have legitimacy, rigour and not be biased to benefit a [particular stakeholder].

Have qualified experts or auditors, and give them the time [and resources] to do the right assessment. In my experience, there are a lot of excellent social and environmental auditors that are not being engaged because [companies want to] operate in smaller margins, and they tend to engage professionals that don’t do the job properly in the end. 

Finally, provide helpdesk or expert support that can provide companies with specific advice to get the standard into practice. [Companies] need feedback on how the standard went in practice, so they can regularly update it. Continuous improvement of the standard, I think, is very important. Also, a good practice is to consult the people that are going to be facing the standard.   

The legal and regulatory landscape on business and human rights has become more and more dynamic in recent years. The UN is in the process of drafting a binding treaty on business and human rights, the EU plans to propose mandatory human rights due diligence laws by 2021. In your opinion, how would these different emerging legal frameworks interact with each other? What are some challenges which lie ahead in terms of ‘leveling the legal playing field’, and how can we address them? 

How companies are gonna navigate these frameworks is a difficult question, but there is still some time before they are up and running. I see with some concern the way these instruments have been developed. As a background, law is made up of different rules with different weight, for international law, this goes from jus cogens to soft law and resolutions, which have the lowest level of authority. With the binding treaty on business and human rights, what I see in the preamble of the draft that is currently available, is that both binding documents and soft law are treated equally. That is already a very misleading and worrisome perversion of the law, if you wish, and I’m not aware of many people pointing out this issue. 

For companies or associations of companies, they should be very vigilant and make sure that the discussion around this treaty is not whether or not it should be binding, but rather [to focus on] the content itself. Be very thorough, starting from the preamble. There are already issues there, but we don’t know yet what the next steps are.

In terms of the EU directive, I’m also concerned for different reasons. Because the promise or illusion there has been that it’s always good to have this harmonisation from the top. The promise towards companies is that if everyone has the same regulations, then it is easier to do business with different countries, because everyone is on a level playing field. In theory that might sound okay, but in practice, I think it will be a mistake. Right now, for instance we have France with its own [due diligence] law, the Netherlands with its own law, and so on. What we can imagine is that the reason why legislators in these countries have gone for different approaches is because they are respecting the business fabrics in their own countries. And I think that’s a good thing. Every state takes responsibility for what they are supposed to, what their companies are supposed to do, and based on that, designs the best law for their circumstances, instead of coming up with an EU directive which will have one fit for everybody. So I think this harmonisation is not necessarily the best approach. My advice for companies right now is to be vigilant about the negotiations and make sure that the voice of business is heard in the discussions. 

Also, it [may not be] the right timing. We should allow [national] laws to be implemented and learn from those to identify which approaches are working better, then maybe eventually we can go towards a directive that will level the playing field. Otherwise, it’s a missed opportunity because we are moving the bar all the time without allowing ourselves to learn from what we already have. 

Under international human rights law, states are the primary duty-bearers and hold the primary responsibility for the protection of human rights. Currently, we see that there is a growing push for businesses to directly uphold this legal obligation to protect human rights. Do you view this as a step in the right direction? 

That is one trend that we have observed for the last 10 years or more. The funny thing is that everybody, including companies themselves, is commonly accepting it! I remember working with companies that identified, for instance forced labour in Thailand, and believe that they should pay some indemnisation to the workers and that’s it. And I say, yes I understand that in the short term that is a cheaper and easier solution, but is that the right approach for allowing the country itself to evolve and to make sure that the rights of all workers are respected? And not only the rights of specific workers that we are targeting at that very moment? So I think that the temptation is there, but that undermines the sovereignty of countries because it is not allowing them to take ownership of what they are supposed to do, in protecting their own citizens. And that also perverts the legal system as such. So I really emphasise that everybody has to do their part in the best way they can. Governments have to put in place necessary measures to protect their citizens, through existing human rights laws. They need to enforce [those laws], to have good diplomatic relations with the countries from which they import or export, support their companies against unfair competition, and so on. Governments need to collaborate with businesses, but they shouldn’t expect businesses to do their work. 

What is the best way for governments, businesses and other stakeholders to work together to strengthen the corporate respect for human rights?

Public-Private Partnerships are a powerful tool, provided that stakeholders understand their roles. Collaboration is going to happen more successfully if the mindset and expectations are clear for every stakeholder. 

In your opinion, is there any one party which is leading developments in the social sustainability landscape? 

From what I have seen, the one party that has been leading is the private sector. They’ve been able to respond and react to whatever happens in their supply chains. And I think because they have been so successful, governments and stakeholders have been relying on [companies] to come up with the ultimate solution for human rights abuses. However, in my view, companies should do as much as they can in supporting due diligence laws, certification schemes and making sure that imminent risks are mediated, but ultimately [they] cannot or should not tackle the root cause of human rights violations. That is a philosophical and anthropological discussion that needs to happen at the political level. And unfortunately, my impression is that the majority of political parties are disregarding these discussions and it is a missed opportunity. Tackling the root cause is the way to really fight human rights violations.

Do you believe that companies have moved to the mentality of people over profit?

I wouldn’t say that is the only goal either. They have found ways of combining the two. However, there is something that we should look at more closely. The way that accounting standards are currently implemented in companies suggest that human capital is a cost whereas machinery and so on are investments. And just by doing that, you are pushing companies to view human capital as something less valuable than those other investments. So, there is a reflection that could be done about how to bring human capital back into the centre of investments that companies make. In this way, [companies] will not just reduce human capital or workers when they want to reduce costs. 

How can we empower workers and/or the communities most affected by corporate human rights abuses, to elevate their voices in this discussion?

Of course, in the short term there are always ways to involve workers, be it grievance mechanisms, trade unions or stakeholder roundtables with local NGOs that are gathering information. That works, but again it doesn’t solve the issue from the root cause. In my view, the first step that should happen to truly involve workers and communities is to make them understand that they have intrinsic dignity and inalienable human rights. In many cases, especially for workers that are most vulnerable, they don’t even have that perception. The state has a great role to play in promoting this type of education and also in ensuring that laws reflect justice, not only in the way that they are written but in the way that they are enforced. 

Because when you live in a country where you are convinced that you have an intrinsic dignity as a human being, where you have confidence in the legal system, and where you know that whatever happens to you, your rights and your freedoms will be protected, then you are automatically empowered. But the problem is that in many cases, people realise, first of all, that there are unfair laws which are issued in their own countries, where justice is dependent on who is the victim or who is the perpetrator. So since there is corruption, they become cynical about the system as such. This threatens their human rights and freedoms which are supposed to be inalienable. So I believe that these long term investments, which are at the hands of states, are the truly meaningful and bravest steps to be taken. Human rights are crucial for peace and for prosperity, so stakeholders, states in particular, must take them seriously and stop asking magic from companies. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.